Monday, December 7, 2009

RTD: Problems persist in RRHA voucher program as agency’s role is debated.

By Michael Martz

Published in Richmond Times Dispatch November 16, 2009

When Anthony Scott took interim control of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority in 2006, departing Executive Director Sheila Hill-Christian had a word of warning about its housing-voucher program for needy families.

"She said, 'You've got to get in there and figure out what's going on with it,'" Scott recalled. Focused on the authority's strategic plan, Hill-Christian hadn't been able to address increasing concerns about management of the program.

More than three years and three federal audits later, the housing-voucher program remains the greatest vulnerability in an authority that is otherwise poised to play a pivotal role as partner to Mayor Dwight C. Jones as he enters his second year at City Hall.

RRHA has revamped the voucher program to serve more families, only to face a projected shortfall of $600,000 on Dec. 1 and an additional $600,000 in the coming year to pay rents for low-income families under increasing financial pressure. The program is still on the "troubled" list of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will reconsider the designation next month.

At the same time, the Jones administration is looking at new ways of using the housing authority -- or not -- in economicand community-development projects in Richmond, including the sale of the GRTC Transit System headquarters on prime property near the Fan District.

"No housing authority can be all things to all community development needs," said Peter H. Chapman, deputy chief administrative officer for economic and community development.

Chapman said in a recent interview that the Jones administration is still mulling its proposal to use RRHA to buy, hold and seek a developer for the GRTC property, valued at about $5.4 million, on West Cary Street.

"No decision has been made," Chapman said. "It is not a foregone conclusion that we are going to use the housing authority as the vehicle for acquiring and holding that property."

City and RRHA officials said they never considered developing low-income housing on the property, but could use the authority to shape the project for interested developers.

"Tell us what you want to see happen," said Scott, who became executive director on a permanent basis in early 2007. "We can turn that into a viable plan that can get built."

The authority will have a key role in the new Development Council that Jones plans to establish to guide economic and community development priorities. That role will include redeveloping the Dove Court public housing project and adjacent Carrington Gardens Section 8 apartments, which RRHA already has demolished, as well as the much bigger task of redeveloping Gilpin Court, the city's oldest public housing project.

"The housing authority is perfectly positioned and capable of doing what it's charged with doing," said Hill-Christian, who also served on the RRHA board after leaving as executive director.

. . .

RRHA, founded in 1940, is used to wearing many hats -- managing more than 4,000 public housing units around the city, issuing portable housing vouchers to an additional 2,900 families, and acting as the redevelopment arm of the city in blighted neighborhoods.

It is a tool for acquiring land in high-profile projects, such as the transformation of the Miller & Rhoads department store into a Hilton Gardens Hotel and the creation of Richmond CenterStage on the opposite side of Sixth Street. It runs downtown parking garages and owns, among other things, the Richmond Coliseum.

"Heck, we own the state library," said Elliott Harrigan, chairman of the RRHA Board of Commissioners, referring to the Library of Virginia at 800 E. Broad St.

Harrigan, a businessman and real estate developer who joined the board in 2004, said, "I didn't realize, prior to going on the board, the scope of RRHA's responsibilities."

The question has been whether RRHA is capable of carrying out such a wide range of duties. The authority has been criticized by HUD for its financial management of programs, particularly for vouchers, and by private developers who say the RRHA can be an unwieldy partner in real estate projects.

Toni D. Schmiegelow, a spokeswoman for HUD's Richmond office, said the government has "seen significant improvement" in financial reporting by RRHA, which recently hired its first chief financial officer, a former official at Genworth Financial.

However, HUD put the Section 8 voucher program on its troubled list three years ago, initially because of record-keeping problems. The Office of the Inspector General launched a series of three audits. One, released last year, found that 674 families weren't getting help they deserved and thousands more were stuck on waiting lists, while RRHA had more than $7 million in the bank for the program.

Scott said the voucher program had been managed poorly. It didn't even have a position for program director, which he re-established and filled by mid-2007. The authority spent money on a new software system and other ways to improve management of the program.

"We weren't just sitting there with our hands tied, pretending as if everything was OK," he said.

This year, the RRHA stepped up efforts to reduce the waiting list for vouchers and increase its utilization rate to more than 90 percent. In late spring, Scott said he learned that HUD was requiring the authority to spend $2.7 million more of its reserves on vouchers, with a corresponding reduction in federal aid.

Instead of a $1.6 million surplus at the end of the year, the authority now expects a deficit of more than $600,000 and twice that by the end of next year. It has pulled back vouchers from 163 families that need them. The total $1.2 million shortfall is double what Scott estimated late last month to the City Council, before RRHA tallied the costs from October.

RRHA is hoping for federal relief from emergency appropriations aimed at fixing what has become a problem with housing authorities around the country, but it also is asking for a backup loan from the city.

Chapman is working with RRHA to get a firm figure on how much money it would need and how the authority would pay it back. "We are expecting repayment of the loan, whatever the amount is," he said.

At the same time, he expects the authority to make major changes in how it administers the voucher program. "What is clear is that long-term reform of the Section 8 program are in order," he said.

Chapman also wants the RRHA to focus on its role in helping low-income families find housing and, ultimately, learning to be self-sufficient.

That's a job that RRHA says it already has set as a priority as it attempts to transform public housing and the communities around it.

'We're not interested in the same 4,000 families living here 10 years from now," Scott said.

Contact Michael Martz at (804) 649-6964 or