New director works to get Housing Authority off HUD’s trouble list

Since coming in as executive director of the St. Charles Parish Housing Authority after it was placed on HUD’s troubled agency list, Benjamin Bell has been a busy man.

Bell replaced Leala Jackson, who stepped down from the position in August after federal and state audits cited the agency for mismanagement and requested repayment of $674,000. Jackson, an agency employee for more than 20 years, stayed on in a decreased role as program manager and is still in the position. Tyrell Cornwell, chair of the authority’s board, served as interim director until a nationwide search resulted in hiring Bell in November.

“I think a lot of that had to do with experience with tough issues,” Bell said of why he believes he was chosen for the job. “They were troubled when an authority does not conform to HUD standards. There were a lot of systemic problems with Section 8 and the Housing Authority in general.”

With more than 30 years of experience in public housing that included managing 44,000 units in Chicago and the troubled New Orleans public housing, Bell understood what he had to do when he came to St. Charles Parish.

A plan was quickly executed to resolve the issues that put the authority on the troubled list, and measures were implemented to ensure operations remain accountable.

“I’m monitored by HUD, the parish and my board,” Bell said. “I’ve reformatted all board reports to clearly inform about the agency. I try to give people enough latitude to do the work, but still try to remain hands-on.”

Topping the list of priorities has been Bell addressing the missing or inadequate paperwork that led to HUD demanding nearly $700,000 be repaid. By April, he expects to report to the federal agency on the Housing Authority’s progress toward getting off the troubled list and anticipates completed paperwork will substantiate much of this money was handled correctly and isn’t owed, but that doesn’t guarantee HUD won’t penalize the agency.

“I know it will be positive,” he said. “To a great extent, I’ll be able to tell them whether it was done properly and by the rules–that’s the challenge I have to meet.”

Established local and HUD procedures and policies weren’t being “rigorously followed,” according to Bell. His work has focused on bringing it “back on track,” which he said is 80 percent of the job. Day-to-day monitoring has been implemented to ensure it stays on track. He also has been working on catching up on work orders to bring housing units back on line to lease and make money. He also confirmed rent money had not been collected on a timely basis, which is being corrected.

When he came on board, there were six vacancies, which Bell said is a high number for an authority of this size with 129 units on three sites (66 in Boutte, 51 in Hahnville and 12 in Des Allemands). While Bell has reduced Section 8 vacancies to two and set the goal of occupying them in 25 days or less, the need remains pressing. There are nearly 700 people on a waiting list for Section 8 housing in the area, which has remained so backlogged that the agency stopped taking names in 2007. There also are more than 200 people on a waiting list for low-income housing.

The authority has a capital budget of nearly $137,000 a year and encompasses two programs: Housing Choice Voucher Program Section 8, representing $1.4 million a year, and the low-income housing program, which represents $730,000 a year.

While the public had limited access to the authority in the past, Bell said it is now open every day to the public. Youth activities such as computer classes and tutoring will be resumed.

“It seems only logical that we spend some time and dollars to put these things back together,” he said. “We’re working on this now, having meetings with HUD and local officials, including the parish president and chief executive officer to deal with the physical problems and everyday problems.”Bell said all 129 units need substantial renovation or remediation to meet HUD standards, which has also kept him busy.

“What most people don’t understand is, while they talk about how the place looks, that it’s been there since 1969,” he said of an agency that has likely averaged $75,000 to $150,000 a year for renovations. This work was outlined in a five-year plan to HUD, but Bell said he “doesn’t think it was religiously adhered to over time.”

Last Thursday, he met with Section 8 landlords to address their concerns to get them more involved in the program to step up housing efforts and handle what he called “no brainers,” such as establishing direct deposits of monthly payments or subsidies for housing residents to them.Restoring employee morale has been another priority for Bell, as well as providing training and requiring they meet every Monday to report on work progress.

“People have to get used to that kind of process,” Bell said. “We have plans and follow them religiously … that will make sure people are on track – that things are going to be done.”

For Bell, the No. 1 challenge is prioritization.

“HUD believes it’s answering all these outstanding audits. Locally, the [county] commissioners see things that put the authority in a better light. As executive director, I need to do things that satisfy some of all this and still do the things I know that need to be done to create an environment in a lot more reasonable fashion without playing catch up every day.”

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