Local control returned to housing authority

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 19, 2002


LUTCHER – The times are changing at the St. James Parish Housing Authority, and it’s for the better. Recently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reassigned control of the housing authority back to the local government after years of mismanagement resulted in 1998 to HUD stepping in to take control.

St. James public housing was under the administration of the Memphis Troubled Agency Center since February 1998 and under administrative receivership since April 2001 when the housing authority board resigned and the agency was nearly bankrupt from overspending due to lack of financial management, said the present executive director Joseph Johnson.

When the agency first went under HUD administration, “there was a complete lack of management capacity at the housing authority,” according to a HUD memo in reference to the return to administrative duties to the local authority. However, with much work by the staff and local administration, local control was re-imposed, effective Dec. 6, along with appointment of a new board.

Johnson has been in public housing administration for 22 years, originally from Arizona. The U.S. Navy veteran was the 1996 executive director of the year in Arizona, where he worked from February 1994 to September 1997. Following more work in California, he came to St. James Parish in January 2002.

“I have a white-collar title but a blue-collar job,” he said.

By evicting drug users, banning undesirable visitors and initiating new programs, improved housing and opening lines of communication with clients, the St. James Housing Authority is back on its feet once more.

One program being launched is the establishment of individual deposit accounts for tenants wanting to save up for down payment of a house of their own. New roofs, landscaping, new amenities and an improved sense of community have all contributed to the change.

Said Johnson, “Long-time residents are really satisfied with the changes – we don’t have a junky place anymore.”

A recent visit to the Lutcher site showed workers rehabilitating apartments, inside and outside, and Johnson said there is now a waiting list to get in as each apartment is ready.

Another addition at the Lutcher and in Convent are learning centers, opened on May 12 and complete with six internet-access computers donated by Cox Cable, available to children after school and also classes for adults, ranging from GED classes to parenting skills, all under the watchful eyes of Jo Ann Martin, a part-time public school teacher and resident of the Lutcher public housing site.

There, everything from after-school tutoring to arts and crafts are taught and encouraged.

Also, a Back-to-School Family Day was held Aug.10, where more than 150 residents attended.

Assistant Director Dana Groover is coordinating activities with local human resource agencies, and commented they had not previously used such resources. Either they didn’t have information about them or weren’t motivated.

These agencies include Young Pilgrim Baptist Church, utility assistance, Dial-A-Ride, Teens Committed to Abstinance, Head Start, summer food-service program and more.

“A lot of families move into public housing and can only think of today,” Groover said. “We’re bringing a sense of community back – a good-neighbor mentality. They have to know they can rely on public housing.”

Groover is, herself, an admistrator with six years of service, having previously worked with Johnson in California, running Section 8 housing, personnel and residential initiatives. Starting as a secretary, she moved into administrative duties, once her skills, talents and abilities became apparent.

“I enjoy helping people,” she said.

Current members of the St. James Parish Housing Authority board of commissioiners include Michael Oubre of Vacherie, Denesia Batiste of Gramercy, Lois Jones-Moore of Paulina, Betty Love of Vacherie and Jo Ann Martin of Lutcher.