New boss of public housing in Indy promises ‘substantial changes’

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- During his second day on the job, the man Mayor Hogsett has hired to turn around the city’s troubled public housing operations promised, “I’m looking at the agency as a whole and I will be making substantial changes.”

Executive Director John E. Hall was brought from Wichita, Kansas, to take over the Indianapolis Housing Agency (IHA), which has been adrift amid scathing federal audit reports, resident complaints about maintenance, public safety and bad record keeping and slumping occupancy rates ever since the departure of longtime leader Rufus Bud Meyers last summer.

“I can’t speculate on what happen before I got here,” said Hall. “There is always something that has not been discovered or revealed or reported that will come to light.”

IHA provides housing for 22,000 low-income Marion County residents with a waiting list of more than 125,000 potential renters and a 2019 budget of $77 million, almost all of its federal funds.

In recent months, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found IHA in non-compliance on financial tracking and reporting, third-party investors have moved to seize management of three high profile Agency properties, while IHA’s own statistics show crime has continued to climb at some of public housing’s largest sites, the Agency admits its occupancy rates are dropping and residents have complained to CBS4 about maintenance and record keeping.

“The tenants deserve better,” said Hall. “They deserve to live in properties they can be proud of, where they love where they live, right.”

Not enough residents are living in IHA properties.

The Agency operates more than a dozen apartment complexes, accounting for a third of all IHA residential units, while the balance receives subsidized Section 8 vouchers to live in privately owned residences.

HUD guidelines, and IHA’s 2019 budget, require the Agency to operate at 97 percent occupancy, but recent reports have shown public housing struggling to reach even 90 percent and Hall says the actual number may be significantly less.

“The number I have as of yesterday is 80 percent,” he said, “but we should be no less than 97 percent so we clearly have our work cut out to do.

“Whether its 80 or 90 percent, that means there’s an opportunity to house Hoosiers,” said Hall. “My goal is to always be at 98-99, you can’t really achieve 100 percent because someone is always moving out due to turnovers, but we need to be at 97 at a minimum.”

Hall said IHA receives funding from HUD based on occupied apartments though some empty units may be carried on the books as full.

“If a unit is still occupied, if its in the eviction process, we can still count that as occupied because we legally have not taken possession of that unit so that may be the discrepancy.”

Hall said he wants IHA staff to rigorously apply policies and rules to make sure illegal recipients are not awarded housing assistance.

“Absolutely, that should be happening up front at the time of application,” said Hall. “We have what we call a tenant selection plan which outlines the criteria that if you are applying to live on one of the IHA properties, the manner in which you will be qualified…that outlines the house rules, the admission criteria and also the continued occupancy criteria so staff should be implementing and enforcing that.”

Hall said he will establish a new relationship with IMPD to safeguard IHA properties and residents.

“I expect to reach out to IMPD Chief Bryan Roach and I probably will work with his captains, but my expectation is to work collaboratively across the city’s departments to ensure that our properties are safe.

“We want to make sure that they’re safe so addressing the surveillance cameras that do not work, that is one of my top mandates to staff to have all of the 74 that have not been working for the last several months to be operational and complete functional by the end of this month,” said Hall.

Hall said he spent two hours today huddling with HUD stuff poring over various federal audits and reports and seeking solutions to the myriad of problems he inherited.

“I did ask for technical assistance, that was one of the first things that we discussed, ways that IHA can get better and the resources that HUD may be able to provide to us.

“I do have a pretty thick binder of just HUD program findings and audits that I’m working my way through and part of the meeting that I had with HUD officials today was to continue to work through my binder and to meet with them later this month to discuss action steps,” he said. “I have to read the reports to see exactly what is happening. My understanding so far is the agency has a lot of program findings. They have some monetary dollars that are unaccounted and some things that did not follow HUD rules.

“The Agency is plagued with program findings, our business partner, which is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development who provides us most of our funding, they have detected a lot of programmatic concerns that need to be addressed, anything from financial management to program and service delivery such as the family self-sufficiency program and in general our financials.

“By the end of the month I expect to have a plan going forward that I will go over with HUD on programmatic deficiencies.”

Along with Hall’s arrival comes a reconstituted IHA Board of Directors as Hogsett sought to remake oversight of the Agency.

“He expects good governance. We’re going to become a high performing agency,” said Hall. “As I launch the, ‘Love Where You Live’ campaign, it is really designed just for that. I want all of our Hoosiers IHA property housing residents to love where they live and that means keeping them safe, free from unsanitary conditions and so I will be having very frequent meetings at all sixteen of our locations. I’m expecting on average to visit two sites per week after my initial tour of each site.”

Hall said he is in the process of hiring a chief operations officer, a director of asset management and six maintenance workers to dig in to the backlog of overdue work orders.

Three high profile IHA properties, Barton Tower and Barton Annex and Concord Homes on the westside are slated to come under third-party management by lenders who have invested in building renovations as HUD moves from a landlord to facilitator and property owner role.

“The conversion will happen with improvements to the properties. We’re looking at mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades to most of the sites and then I think one of them has substantial rehab coming,” said Hall. “The tenants should really experience seamless service. The property management companies that come in will manage the properties just like they manage private sector properties. The upkeep will be top notch and the lease agreement will be the same. It will still bring federal subsidies into the properties so that rental assistance that they receive will not change.”

Hall said he realizes the key to turning around IHA is assessing the skills of his employees and maximizing their training to deliver quality service to the Agency’s residents.

“I’m starting management moments where I’m gonna have one-on-one conversations with about 138 staffers to assess exactly their role for the agency, their training needs and those type of things,” he said. “I need to make sure that staff is developed and are updated on the training of their regulations.”

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