HUD report criticizes foundering, divided housing authority

Westhaven, one of Charlottesville's public housing projects. Photo by Jack Looney. Westhaven, one of Charlottesville’s public housing projects. Photo by Jack Looney.

The Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) got a thrashing last week with the release of a highly critical report on its operations by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and since then, parties on all sides of the debate over how to fix public housing in the city have been leveraging the feds’ findings to support their own arguments. But there’s one thing CRHA Commissioners, staff, residents, and HUD officials can agree on: The system is thoroughly broken.

The 41-page report is a portrait of an agency in crisis. The CRHA has failed to change its policies to stay caught up with federal guidelines, it says, and has been reluctant to follow many of its own rules. The result, says HUD, is a housing authority that struggles with maintenance of its 376 units, charges many residents too little, fails to collect unpaid rent, doesn’t evict those who don’t pay, and is facing a shaky financial future in an era of shrinking federal support.

For Connie Dunn, who became the latest in a revolving door of CRHA executive directors last April, the report is something of a validation. Dunn has spent her first year at the helm pushing for some of the changes the report demands, including better documentation of residents’ income and stricter eviction policies. But she’s been met with resistance from CRHA’s divided Board of Commissioners.

“The executive director cannot change policy without board approval,” Dunn said. “When I’m trying to act according to HUD’s guidelines, I am not always supported by all Board members.”

HUD’s report backs her up, citing the Board’s lack of support for policy enforcement as one of the agency’s main failings. Some are pointing to one finding in particular as a cause for concern about the Board’s governance. The report notes that City Councilor and former CRHA Board Chair Dave Norris received $9,200 in HUD funds for contract work with the Public Housing Authority of Residents during his time on the Board, a relationship HUD flagged as a possible conflict of interest. The payments were for consulting work on a federal grant awarded to PHAR to help the group improve quality of life for residents, and the funds were never administered by the CRHA—which Dunn confirmed.

But Commissioner Bob Stevens called the finding disturbing. The Housing Authority was sued last year by PHAR and other parties claiming residents are being overcharged for utilities, and Norris sat in on litigation strategies, something Stevens said would never have been allowed had they known PHAR was paying Norris.

“I don’t think any of us knew he was an employee of theirs,” said Stevens. “That’s a huge conflict of interest.”

Norris disputes that claim. His fellow Board members were well aware of his close relationship with the residents’ group since its founding, he said, and all his payments were fully disclosed. He said he wished he’d been more clear about the connection, because it’s now being leveraged by people he says see public housing residents and those who support them as adversaries.

“Ultimately, this is not about me,” he said. “This is part of a bigger effort to undermine PHAR and its allies.”

Commissioner and public housing resident Joy Johnson agreed. She said she supports some policy changes, including the report’s recommendation to double the CRHA’s minimum rent from $25 to $50 a month. But she’s quick to defend Norris, and blame his detractors for targeting him.

“This feels like an attack on the residents and on PHAR,” she said.

The real question, said Johnson and Norris, is how to build a better model of governance for the foundering agency. They want to see it become a city department. Only then will it be able to tackle its other mission: redevelopment of the city’s public housing stock, a project that’s widely seen as too complicated, too expensive, and too contentious to touch.

“It’s hard to see how that happens in an atmosphere of such antagonism and distrust,” Norris said.

Norris left the CRHA Board earlier this year shortly before announcing he didn’t intend to run for another term on City Council. But he continues to push for reform, and a newcomer is angling to fill both his seat and his role as an elected ally of housing residents: Wes Bellamy, the 26-year-old teacher and mentoring group founder who announced his run for Council last week. He read the report, he said, and came away with a lot of the same concerns Norris had. And he pledged to fight “emphatically” to replace the longtime Councilor “and serve as a voice for low-income residents.”

Stevens said he agrees with a lot of the points made by Norris and others critical of the report. He’s also frustrated with HUD’s lack of communication since handing it down. In a year when federal funding is likely to be slashed nearly 20 percent, the least HUD could offer is some support for its findings and policy demands, he said. Regional officials had planned to meet with local staff last week, but cancelled at the last minute when they learned the CRHA intended to make the meeting public.

“This is not what I was looking for when we asked for this review,” Stevens said. “To me, they’re saying ‘Here’s our report. Do it, and we’re not explaining why.’”

But there’s no chance the city will absorb the CRHA completely, he said, especially not while it’s plagued by policy issues and fiscal troubles.

While the fractious local authority wrestles with the report, HUD officials remain firm: The CRHA has to get its house in order. In a time of major funding cutbacks, there’s no room for operational inefficiency.

“Times are getting tougher,” said regional HUD spokesman Jerry Brown. “There’s a 5 percent cut to every line item at HUD. We’re all going to be seeing less, so we need to be doing things right.”

Update: C-VILLE ran the following brief the week after the above story was published.

The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says that City Councilor Dave Norris’ work for the Public Housing Association of Residents while Norris was chair of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority did not pose a conflict of interest.

HUD had noted Norris’ close relationship with PHAR and the fact that the group had paid him nearly $10,000 out of a HUD grant for consulting work in a recently released report that was highly critical of the CRHA. Norris maintained that his long relationship with the residents’ association did not conflict with his work as an elected and appointed official. On Monday, a HUD official confirmed that after looking into the issue, it had deemed there was no financial conflict of interest.

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