HUD report finds problems at Housing Authority

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 4, 2010



LAPLACE – A recent audit by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on the St. John the Baptist Parish Housing Authority detailed an assortment of problems including mismanagement of funds, inconsistencies in rent collection and disorganized meetings.

The consolidated review of St. John housing, which began in June, examined files dating back to 2005. St. John Councilman Raydell Morris, a former housing authority board member, referenced the report in successfully passing a resolution calling for the dismissal of the board’s five commissioners. The council voted 5-3 in favor of removing the commissioners. The commissioners plan to appeal the council’s ruling.

The most glaring element of the HUD review showed that the housing authority may be on the hook for more than $1 million in grant funding that was spent by the housing authority but went undocumented. The housing authority must now either provide documentation of how the money was spent or refund the full amount.

The report also detailed a lax system for collecting rent, indicating that no one inside the agency followed the set policy dictated by the housing authority. The report showed that the staff is “nonchalant” in terms of collecting rent, and some tenants were allowed to be as much as a year behind with no consequence.

“This is one of the main reasons the agency is financially troubled,” the report said. “The agency failed to collect more than $98,000 in rent owed in 2009.”

Much of the problem stemmed from what was described in the report as a “useless” eviction policy. The audit showed that tenants were essentially allowed to do as they please with little, if any, respect for housing. The report cited a rash of fires throughout the developments, along with high levels of tenant loitering.

The weak eviction policy compounded a continuously growing tenant waiting list on which some applicants have been waiting more than four years. Authority officials were unable to determine the exact length of the waiting list, and a financial analysis showed that the agency is operating at about 88 percent of its capacity in the four housing complexes.

“The agency is losing about $20,000 per month in potential rent,” according to the report.

There was also evidence of mismanagement in agency perks, including invoices for agency credit cards being paid without question.

Unauthorized charges were not investigated and cards were not returned after use.

The report cited instances when former Housing Authority Director Lawand Johnson continued to make credit card purchases even after her termination. Johnson pleaded guilty to theft charges in 40th Judicial District Court in May, three months after admitting to making more than $2,000 in personal charges on an agency credit card.

There are also cited examples in which agency-issued vehicles were being used for personal transportation. The report showed that a housing authority employee using the vehicle on unofficial business in Metairie was involved in an accident with the vehicle. Prior to that, the same vehicle was used by at least one commissioner for personal transportation to Lafayette.

The report also detailed disorderly board meetings with no set schedule regarding time or date.

A review of board meeting minutes from October 2009 through May 2010 showed that regular meetings were being held at various times, even though regular meetings were to be held at 5:30 p.m. on the third Monday of each month, according to the bylaws.

“Board members do not receive information far enough in advance of meetings and in some cases, board members have been notified of a meeting less than 24 hours before the meeting is to take place,” stated the report.