This week brought the news that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson would resign effective April 18 to "attend more diligently to personal and family matters." Those personal matters probably include staying out of jail, since Jackson is currently under investigation for political favoritism and corruption in the awarding of contracts as well as for lying to Congress.

President Bush, a longtime friend and former neighbor of Jackson, accepted the resignation with regret. "I have known Alphonso Jackson for many years, and I have known him to be a strong leader and a good man," he said.

Jackson's legal troubles started two years ago with a remark made at a minority real estate forum in Dallas. He told the story of an African-American man who finally won a HUD contract after years of trying -- but when the man thanked Jackson, he also mentioned he didn't like President Bush. The secretary nixed the deal. "Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president?," he said. "Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."

Apparently, Jackson was unaware (or unconcerned) that awarding contracts based on partisan politics is a violation of federal law. His remarks led to an investigation by HUD's Inspector General, which found that Secretary Jackson personally intervened against prospective contractors with Democratic affiliations. The IG also examined the political contributions of 29 companies that got HUD contracts and found that officers and key staff members at the winning firms gave more than twice as much to Republican candidates as Democrats.

When hauled before a Senate panel, Jackson testified, "I don't touch contracts." From there the investigation broadened, with the IG's investigators joining forces with the FBI, Justice Department, and a federal grand jury to examine improprieties in a number of HUD contracting decisions -- including several involving the controversial redevelopment of public housing in New Orleans.

Long itching to tear down New Orleans' traditional public housing complexes and replace them with mixed-income developments with less space for the poor [PDF], HUD and the HUD-controlled Housing Authority of New Orleans used Hurricane Katrina to fast-track those plans. This was no quiet conspiracy, however: Soon after the storm, Jackson announced publicly that New Orleans was "not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again." His agency then championed a plan to reduce the number of public housing units in four complexes across the city from more than 5,000 before Katrina -- most of them occupied by African-American families -- to only 2,000.

Residents filed a class-action lawsuit to stop HUD's demolition plans, but a federal court denied all legal challenges. The lawyers have appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit, but a decision isn't expected for months. Officials from the United Nations have criticized the teardowns, saying they would force mostly black residents into homelessness. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, who has been blocking House-approved legislation to replace demolished public housing units, responded by denouncing the U.N. as a "wasteful international organization" hell-bent on "expanding the dependency of people on government." With Vitter's blessing as well as the New Orleans City Council's, HUD has already begun demolition at three of the complexes, with work at the fourth expected to begin soon.

HUD has also chosen the firms to carry out the redevelopment -- and one of them is now implicated in the scandal surrounding Jackson. As it turns out, the $127 million contract to rebuild the St. Bernard complex in New Orleans was awarded to Atlanta-based Columbia Residential, a company that owes Jackson somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000 for past work. Columbia has been one of the few private developers to land significant HUD contracts in recent years, including a major public housing redevelopment project in Atlanta. Investigators are now looking at Jackson's involvement in the Columbia deal in New Orleans, as well as whether he arranged high-paying contract work for two friends -- one of whom ended up with a $485,000 gig at HANO.

As the various probes of Jackson continue, there's still no word on who might replace him at HUD. The Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that filed a lawsuit against HUD on behalf of New Orleans public housing residents, said the secretary's resignation "should be a call to action for HUD to reverse decisions made in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. With the change in leadership, HUD now has the opportunity to fulfill its mission and provide affordable housing for families who are still in desperate need."

And the need is clearly desperate: A PolicyLink analysis [PDF] of HUD's progress in restoring subsidized housing in post-Katrina New Orleans found that the agency has approved resources to rebuild just over a third of those homes. Meanwhile, rents in many parts of the city have doubled, with affordable rentals that once were common now almost impossible to find. At the same time, federal recovery programs are projected to restore only 43 percent of the city's total rental losses, which includes everything from public housing for the poor to market-rate rentals. It's no wonder the city's homeless population has doubled since the storm.

But addressing the dire housing situation in New Orleans will take more than just a change in the top leadership at HUD -- it will also require deeper policy changes. For one thing, if HUD and other government agencies are going to continue to rely on private contractors, then they must strengthen oversight of contracting decisions to prevent improprieties and abuses, since the problem is much larger than Jackson. To date, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has identified at least 25 federal contracts related to Hurricane Katrina -- and 187 federal contracts in total, many relating to Iraq -- that involve significant waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement. And the problem is not limited to the federal government or one political party: Former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco is currently under investigation for secretly increasing payments to Road Home contractor ICF International shortly before she left office, while New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has come under fire because his family business landed a contract installing countertops for a new Home Depot at the same time it was negotiating tax breaks with the city.

Even more fundamentally, though, a solution to the housing crisis in New Orleans and elsewhere across the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast will demand a new approach at all levels of government that treats affordable housing as what it really is: a basic human right that must not be denied, come hell or high water.

(HUD photo of Secretary Alphonso Jackson and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin)