INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– Indianapolis Housing Agency (IHA) Executive Director John Hall has been on the job less than three months and this week he told his Board of Commissioners that if he had to issue a report card on the public housing entity’s performance in Marion County, it would be a failing grade across the board.
“Straight Fs unfortunately,” Hall said. “The agency is not in a good position with our program management, with our financial management, and now it’s with our vacancies, it’s just all the way across the board.”
Hall was brought to Indianapolis from Wichita, Kansas, to take over an agency that had languished under longtime Executive Director Rufus “Bud” Meyers as IHA was the target of stinging audits from the State Board of Accounts and findings of financial mismanagement, potential federal oversight, slumping occupancy rates, overdue maintenance work orders, rising crime and questionable spending.
“I knew that the agency had a lot of challenges but I was also aware that there is always more to the story but this level is a little bit mind blowing,” said Hall who regularly meets with staff from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to uncover problems and chart solutions to stave off receivership. “We meet monthly and in those meeting I am constantly saying, ‘Just give me a little more time.’ They understand the depth of the issues. This is not a one or two years in the making.”
In his first 90 days on the job, Hall learned that his staff had a 97 percent failure rate when it came to administering the Section 8 housing program, didn’t know that 100 of its apartments were vacant at a time of record low occupancy rates, had an untapped $23 million reserve which could have housed applicants who have waited years, even a decade or more, to receive assistance and had fallen months behind on simply cleaning apartments to be readied for new tenants.
And then the floodwaters came.
When IndyGo Red Line construction outside of IHA headquarters in the 1900 block of North Meridian Street cut off water last week it set off a flood of the agency’s offices, forcing Hall to offer his staff a chance to take a vacation day or volunteer to relocate to one of the IHA’s apartment complexes to help beleaguered managers straighten out their neglected file systems where tenants records often disappear in a maze of incomprehensible red tape.
“When our office shut down, staff were clearly given options to go to some of our other sites that could use the help,” said Hall, “and we had one person go to another site and that one person was a temporary staff person. And that was management and non-management employees who did that.
“It actually was indicative of the level of commitment that we have when we have straight Fs.”
Last month Hall told his Board that he was giving IHA’s Section 8 staff an opportunity to be retrained on procedures and tested for proficiency after its nearly 100 percent competency failure rate.
Hall said some of the agency’s employees will be fired as he remakes IHA.
“That’s a very good assumption and expectation,” he said. “If I look at the agency as a whole, I have been a bit appalled with some of the lack of commitment that I’ve seen.”
This week Hall signaled his opposition from IHA’s sister agency, Insight Development, to get into the home mortgage business and sent staff back to the drawing board to come up with a new plan for financing $265,000 in repairs to a faulty breaker box at Lugar Tower.
Hall determined that managers at 16 Park, Beechwood Garden and Hawthorne Place have received Unsatisfactory Management and Occupancy Reviews while system wide IHA is struggling to reach 90 percent occupancy while its federal guidelines and budget call for 97 percent occupancy.
“Last month we reported we had 225 vacant units, it’s down to 192 or so, and we’re working to turn those units around so we can go through our wait list and get people into housing,” he said. “We’re making a really big push this week to get units turned around and give people the keys to the units because June 1st is on Saturday and we report our numbers on the first of each month.
“Nothing is going in our favor,” Hall said, noting that every day he uncovers new examples of mismanagement or financial irregularities. “Nothing is giving us a break. So we were notified last month that we were having a HUD inspection two days before it happened. We were also advised that we were having a management occupancy review in July that we failed it last year so with that comes a lot of work to make sure that we pass it this year.”
Bud Meyer’s retirement last summer coincided with FOX59’s ongoing investigation into IHA operations and Mayor Hogsett’s commitment to go outside the agency and conduct a nationwide search for the new executive director.
Hall said he is regularly on the phone with Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett to advise the Hogsett Administration of the pitfalls he finds at the housing agency on a daily basis.
“I’m on the hot line as soon as I know something, they know it,” he said. “They’re hopeful that we’ll get to the bottom of everything. I’ve told people since I got here that every day I discover something new and I just want to get to the bottom of the discovery so I can start to move forward.”
While IMPD continued to comb the Hawthorne community today for clues in the killing of D’Angelo Settles Monday night during a shooting that began on agency property and officers are keeping an eye on the 2900 block of West Walnut Street where a baby was punched in the face and shots have been fired this week in an ongoing internal dispute that has followed one IHA family from the east side to the west side, Hall can point to an overall 16 percent drop in crime at agency properties when compared to a year ago.
“That’s really working in collaboration with IMPD and installing surveillance cameras that actually work. I think at one time we had 74 cameras that were just for show and weren’t operational and functional and now we have the ability to go back and help the police in their investigations,” he said while acknowledging, “we need to do a better job of screening our applicants. That starts with us.”