The controversial director of Los Angeles' 21 public Housing Authority projects, who has pledged to the City Council to "turn things around" in the long-neglected developments, has quietly been looking for a new job, The Times has learned.
Leila Gonzalez-Correa, hired 17 months ago to replace a director who resigned under pressure, applied in January for the job of running the Tampa, Fla., housing authority, but was turned down because her application was four days late, Tampa officials confirmed Friday.
In addition, a national housing official on the East Coast said Gonzalez-Correa had recently sought posts in other major U.S. cities.
The housing official, who asked not to be named, said it was "common knowledge among housing headhunters that she is fishing. You can't be out and around for two or three months like that and not expect the word to get out."
Denies Plans to Leave
Gonzalez-Correa denied Friday that she intends to leave her $95,000-a-year job before the end of her contract late next year, and expressed surprise that Tampa officials discussed her application for the $58,000-a-year job there.
"I really think that is very surprising and an invasion of my privacy," she said. "It is a personal matter. I am committed to the program here at the housing authority and I am not leaving."
She said she is not assured of a job with the city after 1989, when her contract ends, and that she had sent out her resume to ensure that she is not left without work.
"I think you will agree with me that all people have to look for stability in their lives," she said.
The news brought mixed reaction among city officials and tenant activists, who have recently criticized the Housing Authority for allowing slum-like conditions to persist in many of the 8,000 public units provided at low rent to the city's very poor.
'Best News We've Heard'
The chairwoman of the Housing Authority Residents Advisory Council, Claudia Moore, who has clashed with Gonzalez-Correa, said: "My reaction is this is the best news we've heard. Her credibility with so many residents and employees has been lost that she cannot rebuild it, and that's nothing personal, that's just a fact."
City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who recently accompanied Gonzalez-Correa on a walking tour of the dilapidated Jordan Downs project in Watts, said she "gave me every indication that she wanted to stick it out, and doesn't intend to take a walk. Now I don't know what to say."
However, Yaroslavsky said he understood that she is "not happy with the situation here, so I'm not that surprised." He refused to comment further.
"She's had enough of us already? asked Councilman Ernani Bernardi. "That's the first I've heard of that and it's sure interesting."
Gonzalez-Correa has been grappling with the disarray left behind by her predecessor, Homer Smith, who was widely criticized for mismanagement of the projects.
Several city officials said the Housing Authority Commission, which took over operation of the agency after Smith resigned, has never given Gonzalez-Correa the freedom she needs to make changes.
In addition, numerous city officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, said Gonzalez-Correa's strained relationship with tenants may have contributed to her decision to seek another job.
Those relations have been marked by angry exchanges during recent meetings and in debates on local television stations. At one meeting, Gonzalez-Correa read aloud the names of each housing activist who had sent a letter to Mayor Tom Bradley to complain about Gonzalez-Correa's failure to fix up the projects.
Gilda Haas, of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said some residents are so angry over unkept promises that their apartments would be improved "that at the last meeting with tenants, they just chewed her up and spit her out. Maybe she's thinking, 'Hey, they don't pay me enough for this kind of grief.' "
Gonzalez-Correa's confrontational style with tenants is unusual among large housing authorities in the nation.
In New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and other major cities, tenants are intimately involved in the running and renovating of their housing, and directors make it a point to ally themselves with tenant groups.
"The whole idea is to work for the tenants and make them happy, and that's the only way to do it," said the Rev. B. Herbert Martin, chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Chicago Housing Authority, in a telephone interview.
"Boy, if you're having trouble with the tenants, you are having trouble, period."
In Chicago, the tenant organization operates on a $1-million budget and has influence over how the authority selects contracts and projects for its numerous high-rises.
In Los Angeles, however, no tenant group controls a meaningful budget or is routinely given a say in the redesign or upkeep of buildings or the selection of contractors to manage and maintain the projects.
Tenants have their own advisory council that they elect, and they are represented on the mayorally appointed Housing Authority Commission by two tenants, who constitute a minority.
"Other cities have learned from their own tragedies in many terrible public housing projects, and what they've learned is that all other approaches fail and the tenants must be made partners," said Haas, of Legal Aid. "Los Angeles is learning this the hard way."
Haas, who is helping organize the tenants, said the Housing Authority does not even regularly provide a Latino interpreter at meetings between housing officials and tenants, many of whom do not speak English.
"It's not the worst thing going on, but it shows the kind of insensitivity going on," she said.