Two of the board's commissioners attended their first meeting ever Wednesday night of the board, which is charged with overseeing the city's federally-subsidized low-income housing projects. The Housing Authority has seen its share of controversial times in recent years, including the arrest of a commissioner three years ago and a federal designation of "troubled" status two years ago. Recent boards and housing administrators have worked to overcome the agency's rocky past.
Rather than spend time slapping each other on the back, the new board got right to work Wednesday. On the agenda was a proposal crafted by E. Troy Washington, the HHA's executive director, to institute a flat rent payment system which would give the HHA's low-income tenants a chance to either pay 30 percent of their monthly income in rent, or simply pay a fixed rent for their apartments.
"It's their choice," said Washington.
The proposal is expected to save a number of the HHA's upper-income tenants a significant amount of money. New rates range from $375 for a one-bedroom apartment a month to $575 for a five-bedroom. Some families are currently paying as much as $1,700 a month to live in a five-bedroom apartment, the executive director said. Thus, a person who elects for the flat fee may see his or her rent cut from $1,700 to $575. The U.S. Congress passed a law on October 1, 1999 mandating that all federally subsidized housing authorities give their tenants a flat rent option.
Although the commissioners seemed to like the idea of passing significant savings onto the tenants, they worried that the new policy might send the entire agency into bankruptcy since it depends on collecting rents from tenants for 50 percent of its budget.
"The bottom line is, if everyone took the flat rate, we'd be OK," said Washington. "The last thing I want to see is for us to go bankrupt. I used to be the comptroller here. Believe me, there is no chance of us going bankrupt."
Washington said that he had budgeted for the authority to collect $4 million in rents during the coming year and that if every tenant elected to pay using the flat rent system, the authority would collect $5 million. This is because some of the tenants with low-incomes would be paying more under the flat-rate system.
However, it is unlikely that people would choose a system that would cause them to pay more money.
Despite Washington's reassurances, the board only voted for the proposal after being re-assured that they could amend the rates if necessary in the future.
Washington trumpeted the fact that he had pushed to get the proposal to the board in time for the holidays - it will go into effect Dec. 1 - but some of the residents at the meeting were upset that a flat rate policy had not been instituted earlier.
"We want to know if this is going to be retroactive," said Lynda Walker, an outspoken HHA resident who has attended HUD sponsored workshops on flat rent policy.
Washington said that he had written to the regional HUD office for clarification on this point, but that he did not believe that the HHA would refund any residents rents that have already been paid.
"You can't just put these rules right in place in 12 hours," he said. "HUD understands this. There were over 40 different rules changes that were a part of that law. Think about a very large housing authority like those in Chicago or Jersey City. You can't just expect that those laws would be put in place by Oct. 7."
"It's been a year," said Walker, an evangelist who has been in her share of heated exchanges with the executive director over the last few months.
Board asks questions
Throughout the evening, the board took an active role in questioning the executive director about the details of the inch-thick binders he prepares for them before each meeting. In the past, board members tended not to raise pointed questions in public. But this board seems to have no such inhibitions.
Commissioner Nellie Moyeno, a board member who also serves as the City Council President, asked Washington why there were so many long distance phone calls on the HHA's phone bill.
"There were a lot of calls," she said. "I mean a lot of calls. We are going to review them. And I think I am going to call some myself. I hope they were all professional calls because I mean it was excessive."
Washington said that employees who had made personal calls using HHA phones in the past had been asked to refund the agency.
Later in the meeting, Moyeno said that she was frustrated by the "transfer sheet" the executive director gave the commissioners prior to the meeting. The sheet is meant to update board members on the status of families' requests to move from one apartment to another within the authority. "I know a lot of these people on these lists and they don't live here anymore," she said. Washington told her he would have a cleaner version for her in the future and that the present one was just supposed to act as "a worksheet."
Commissioners Arlette Braxton, Gene Rodriguez and Frank "Pupie" Raia all also raised concerns of their own. Braxton thought the print on a financial statement was unacceptably small. Rodriguez questioned a line item for the purchase of 400 backpacks, and Raia insisted that the authority had to work harder to solicit competitive bids from insurers and auditors.
The board's active stance won applause from the crowd and a few positive words during the public comment period that followed the session.
After the meeting, Washington said that he, too, was pleased with the new board.
"We have a real nice balance now," he said. "We have people who live in the authority. We have people who work in business and in security. They all bring their own expertise to the board. I think we will work well together."
"It's like a 180 degree turn from the last board," said Walker later. "To me it was one of the best meetings ever."
But Walker said that she thought that the reason things had changed had more to do with Mayor Anthony Russo's political motives than anything else. Russo stood in the back during the meeting making small talk with residents.
"It's six months before the next election," said Walker, "and look who comes riding into the Housing Authority meeting like a white knight. He is responsible for who sits up there. And he has not done anything for a long while until now. I like what is being done. However, the way it is being done and the motives sicken me."
Russo shrugged off criticism like Walker's. "I prefer to be constructive rather than destructive, " he said Thursday night. In the future, he said, he would still like to see the Authority hire an assistant executive director to assist Washington, whom some residents have said is inaccessible.
"I understand that a lot of tenants were annoyed at Troy, not for what he had done physically at the Housing Authority, but because of his personal demeanor," he said. "They felt that he spoke down to them. The commissioners have had some dialogue with Troy on this issue. Hiring an assistant should be on the front burner. If that happens it may help."