Doug Lingner's Tenure at the Housing Authority of Maricopa County Has Been Marked by Nepotism, Cronyism -- and Plenty of Turmoil

It started with the boss' brother.

Doug Lingner had been executive director of the Housing Authority of Maricopa County for just two months when he hired his brother to repair a carport at the agency's Seventh Street complex. Total cost: $2,000.

Now, that wasn't such a big deal. Yes, state law should have stopped Lingner from hiring a family member for anything. (The agency, which works to provide affordable housing, receives much of its funding from the government, so nepotism is strictly verboten.)

But Lingner, a former Phoenix city councilman, was new to the position. And his brother was paid only $2,000. Hard to get too worked up about that.

Then Lingner hired his teenage son and his nephew, paying them $1,000 each to clear the housing authority's parking lot after a storm.

And then he hired an old friend, this time for a full-time job. And a former colleague from the city council, as a lobbyist.

Then he hired a public relations firm that not so long ago had supported his council campaigns. And he hired his brother again — this time for more money.

It got to the point where employees at the Housing Authority started making nervous jokes. "Next year we won't have a Christmas party," they said. "Next year, it'll be a family reunion."

Then Lingner hired his son, for a full-time temp job. The kid is 17 years old. Seventeen!

Even as Lingner hired him, he fired a single mother of two, telling her there simply wasn't enough money to keep paying her salary.

That's when people stopped joking. That's when people got mad.

Eighteen months ago, the Housing Authority of Maricopa County, or HAMC, hired Doug Lingner to be its executive director. Soon after his hiring, New Times published a column suggesting he was woefully unqualified.

But no one could have predicted how quickly, or how badly, Lingner would screw things up.

Our investigation shows that, in Lingner's 18-month tenure at the HAMC, he's repeatedly flouted agency bylaws and, in some cases, may have violated the law.

It's not just that the housing authority has become a stomping ground for Lingner's friends and family, although that's certainly the case. And it's not just that much of the federal stimulus money administered by the agency is going to Lingner's friends and political supporters. That's true, too.

And it isn't even only that Lingner has wasted tax dollars on perks for himself. (A New Times review of housing authority credit card statements shows that, even as government agencies across the country tighten their belts, Lingner has treated himself to lunches, valet parking, and travel to Las Vegas.)

It's all of the above.

It's that he's hired cronies rather than qualified people. He's wasted money. When the Reverend Oscar Tillman, who runs the local NAACP, asked Lingner to explain why he fired a young black woman to make room for his son, Lingner spent more than a month ducking his calls. The agency is now almost certainly facing a lawsuit over the woman's firing.

Lingner takes it all in stride. He agreed to answer New Times' questions earlier this week and appeared to have a ready answer for almost everything. (One notable exception: who selected firms for construction and development work. Lingner refused to answer, saying the matter is part of an internal investigation.) For the most part, he was friendly, chatty, and befuddled as to why anyone would think there's a problem at his agency.

He chalked up the issues identified by New Times to growing pains. He's trying to change the way the HAMC does business, he says. Of course he's ruffled some feathers.

But Lingner's management has clearly led to big problems at the HAMC — problems that can't help but affect the agency's mission of providing affordable housing.

The agency has an annual budget of $20 million, although it's also picked up additional millions recently, thanks to federal stimulus money. Its 50 or so employees manage nine low-income apartment complexes and work to counsel families into housing, be it Section 8 apartments or the purchase of a home.

This is a critical time for any housing authority.

"So many people are losing their jobs, not only in the cities, but also in the country," says Luisa Stark, chair of the Phoenix Consortium to End Homelessness. "We need to find a way to make housing more affordable to more people." Records show the agency's waiting list has thousands of names on it — and that list is only growing.

Yet instead of focusing on those very real issues, the housing authority under Lingner has attempted to establish itself as a big-deal developer, pitching ambitious programs for stimulus funds. So far, those efforts have failed, even as the agency has become engulfed in drama — much of it apparently caused by Lingner's poor decision-making and subsequent clumsy attempts to deal with the fallout.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske