A housing authority is sometimes incorrectly thought to be the local office of the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or part of local government. The Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz is neither; it is an independent public agency.
Housing authorities are creatures of state statute, i.e., the state statute is the legal basis for the formation of housing authorities. The powers of a housing authority typically include the power to acquire, construct and operate property and expend and repay funds. A housing authority can also lease, rehabilitate and sell property.
Nearly all state statutes provide that housing authorities shall be distinct entities, not agents of the municipal government.
In those states in which the housing entity is a separate legal entity, the structure is generally set forth in a section entitled “General Powers and Duties of Authority.” A typical provision reads:
An authority shall constitute a public body and a body corporate and politic exercising public powers, and having all the powers necessary or convenient to carry out and effectuate the purposes and provisions of this article…
Though the housing agency is most commonly called an authority, and described as a municipal corporation and/or a body corporate and politic, states may use other terminology as well.
Terms are often used interchangeably, and may have meanings in one state that differ in another. One must “not become lost in a maze of definitions and lose the object of the pursuit.” What is important is the public rather than private nature of the entity and the extent of its legal autonomy.
Distinctions between a local housing authority, political subdivision, commission, body corporate and politic, public corporation, political corporation, municipal corporation and quasi-municipal corporation are less important than their fundamental common characteristic: a separate legal existence. Authorities derive their powers from the state. Although the states themselves through their police powers, could perform the health and welfare functions of clearing slums and providing affordable housing, they have delegated these functions to the authorities. The authorities are created by, and hence are “creatures of,” the state. They are creations and instrumentalities of the state — state “agencies” rather than local agents of municipalities. Courts emphasize the independence of authorities and municipalities when dealing with one another, basically rejecting the notion of an authority as an “agent” of a municipality.
Most authorities share other characteristics. Authorities do not have the broad general powers to run a government which are given to cities and counties. However, they are like municipal corporations in the broad sense of the term. Typically, each is a municipal organization which has a name and possesses certain governmental powers and capacities within its area of operation, derived from a source other than a specific charter. Each has a continuous existence, can sue and be sued. and can acquire and hold property.
In certain respects, housing authorities bear more of the attributes of a quasi-municipal than a municipal corporation. A quasi-municipal corporation is created or authorized by the legislature for a limited objective. In other words, a quasi-municipal corporation is a public agency created or authorized by the legislature for some public or state work, other than general community government. Housing authorities are created to perform a special function. Therefore, they have only a limited number of corporate powers “low down in the scale” of corporate existence.