Anthony Scott, the new president and CEO of the Durham Housing Authority, took the job at an interesting time, to say the least.
He replaces Dallas Parks, who gave notice in December. That wasn't the only recent shake-up; Rhega Taylor, who ran the DHA's housing voucher (Section 8) program, left the housing authority in May, along with CFO Jeff Causey.
Those last two personnel changes coincided with a damning federal audit of the Durham Housing Authority by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of the Inspector General.
The report found that, out of seventy-five program units that were inspected, "69 failed to comply with HUD's minimum housing quality standards and the Authority's own requirements, and 40 of those were in material noncompliance with the standards."
Additionally, the report found, inspectors failed to observe or report 353 violations left unresolved in those 40 units since their last inspections.
As a result, the OIG recommended that the Greensboro HUD office oversee the reimbursement of more than $100,000 in housing-assistance payments from the DHA back to HUD. (The funding for vouchers comes in two different packages. A direct subsidy goes toward rents. The DHA gets paid a separate amount to administer the program. HUD wants that part back, too.)
Scott, who previously spent five years as deputy executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, identifies two sources for the problem.
First, federal government cutbacks, dating back to budget cuts in 2013, trimmed the inspections staff from five to three. In Durham, that may have resulted in some rushed inspections, Scott figures. Second, good old bureaucratic failure to keep up with technological advances has held back the inspections process.
Although Scott can't do anything about federal funding, he says the DHA can tackle both problems with the same approach. "We've missed the boat on a lot of the efficiencies we could create," he says.
Inspectors will begin using handheld tablets to do their inspections and then send results immediately back to the mainframe. That will replace an outdated system of writing on paper, inputting data back at the office, and writing a letter to landlords in violation of DHA codes. Results will be emailed from now on.
"It's a very paper-driven process that's going on right now," says Scott. "We're going to change that as soon as we can."
Thanks in part to this antiquated process, as well as to understaffing, scheduling and rescheduling inspections takes too long. That's a disincentive for landlords to participate in the voucher program, especially in a hot housing market like Durham, where the Section 8 inspection process typically takes four to six weeks.
"When you hear a lot of landlords across the country complaining about the voucher program, it has more to do with the loss of income that they have from the time that they decide to rent to a voucher holder to the time that they may actually move that voucher holder in," says Scott.
At the end of June, the issue of delayed inspections came up at Mayor Bill Bell's Landlord Roundtable, a public forum at the Self-Help Building on Main Street. Landlords—both inside and outside of the voucher system—had an opportunity to voice their concerns and ask questions, along with Bell, low-income tenants, and other members of the public.
Dan Hudgins, chairman of the DHA board of commissioners, says one problem is that there are three existing sets of inspection standards.
"There's the city's standards, there are HUD standards, and there are our standards," he explains. "Our standards should be exactly what HUD's are. And if theirs are legitimate standards, then the city ought to adopt them, too."
Hudgins and fellow commissioner Bo Glenn are looking at whether DHA standards that deviate from HUD guidelines are truly necessary.
"The example I've given is screens and windows," says Hudgins. "If the place is air conditioned, do you need a screen in every window?" he says, adding that he's identified around seven such items on the DHA inspections checklist. "When we adopt our next annual plan, which will be this fall, I'd like to see us change our standards."
Janet Xiao, Durham coordinator for the nonprofit Community Empowerment Fund, was a main organizer of the landlord roundtable. She says that units for "non-voucher holders and voucher holders are held to different standards" when it comes to inspections—and that those for Section 8 units are more rigorous. That presents another disincentive for landlords.
But Scott points out the advantages that landlords who accept vouchers have (there are about six hundred in Durham). Automatic direct deposit assures them that a significant portion of the rent gets paid like clockwork on the first of the month. And despite stereotypes, he adds, there are landlords who do feel a sense of social responsibility.
"Honestly, what you'll hear when you talk to landlords is that they really love the program," he says. "They love what it's about, the sort of 'mission' side to it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shelter in the Storm"