AT THE HUD OF THE CLASS

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Rick Lazio missed two chances of a lifetime to mold federal housing policy, first losing his Senate seat and then, the possibility of serving as President George W. Bush’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development. But it turns out that the Long Island baby face is still not far from the action.

Joseph Ventrone and Sean Cassidy, former Lazio staffers who helped craft the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, were recently appointed to HUD’s senior staff. Ventrone, former staff director for the House subcommittee on housing, which Lazio chaired, is now senior advisor to the housing secretary, Mel Martinez. And Cassidy, last heard from as spokesman for Lazio’s failed bid for the U.S. Senate against Hillary Rodham Clinton, steps in as general deputy assistant secretary for housing.

With their backs still up about Lazio’s law–among other measures, it requires public housing residents to work–advocates plan to closely watch Ventrone and Cassidy. “They oversaw dramatic cutbacks in housing assistance and Section 8 vouchers,” says Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless, noting that Congress’ three-year moratorium on new vouchers has left a number of homeless families who received approval to move into permanent housing trapped in the shelter system.

President Bush may have paid New York little attention during his campaign, but his recent apple-picking in the Empire State may also bring Roy Bernardi, mayor of Syracuse, down to Washington, as HUD’s assistant secretary for community planning and development. If confirmed by the Senate this spring, Bernardi would control nearly $8 billion in economic development, affordable housing and homelessness programs, overseeing the distribution of block grants to states.

Housing advocates familiar with his record question his ability to do the job. “He really didn’t do much,” Sharon Sherman, executive director of the Greater Syracuse Tenants Network, says of Bernardi’s eight-year tenure as mayor. During that time, she notes, the number of vacant homes in Syracuse more than doubled, from 481 to 1,020.

Before becoming mayor, Bernardi served as Syracuse’s city auditor for 20 years, and Sherman hopes that his grasp of the urban bottom line will at least serve him well in Washington. “He has an understanding,” she said, “that cities need support from HUD.”