The Homestead Housing Authority is moving ahead with plans to self-manage federally subsidized farm-worker housing, despite a warning from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the authority does not yet have approval to do so.
According to HHA officials, complete self-management will begin May 1. The USDA provides the money for the farm-worker housing.
In 2011, a blistering USDA audit reported that those same properties had been grossly mismanaged since at least 2006, with units falling into disrepair while HHA employees padded their pockets. The report demanded the HHA hire an outside management firm, and in early 2012, the HHA board complied by bringing in the Cincinnati-based Nelson & Associates.
The HHA reversed course on Jan. 30 with its board voting 4-0 to dismiss the outside company. They said that although Nelson & Associates was doing a good job, Nelson’s management fee could instead be put toward unit improvements. According to Ramona Nelson, the firm’s president, her contract with HHA is worth about $150,000 annually.
In a letter dated March 26, USDA area director Angela Prioleau told HHA executive director Oscar Hentschel’s that she “would advise caution as USDA; Rural Development has only reviewed the transition plan and an incomplete Management Plan. We have not approved Homestead Housing Authority to self-manage.”
At the same Jan. 30 meeting dismissing Nelson & Associates, the board approved a transition plan detailing how the organization would move to self-management by May 1.
Prioleau’s letter also references that board resolution.
“I would like to go on record by stating that there is no documentation that was provided by USDA, Rural Development of support or the approval of a Transition Plan to Self-Management as your Resolution 14-04 signed on January 30, 2014 states,” the letter says.
The letter goes on to detail about the documentation still required by the USDA to make a determination about self-management, including a written request and detailed management plan.
So when Hentschel told the HHA board at a meeting on April 3 that all was on track to transition to full self-management by May 1, HHA board member Lois Jones interrupted him, asking him to address Prioleau’s letter, which had been sent to all HHA board members.
“It appears the Board was erroneously led to believe that the HHA was approved to self-manage the properties in question when in fact it was not,” she said, reading from a prepared statement.
Hentschel assured Jones and other board members that approval had in fact been granted. Prioleau – who had just taken over for USDA area director Michael Botelho – just didn’t have all the information, he said. He had responded to Prioleau’s letter with communications between himself and Botelho in which he had provided all necessary documentation, Hentschel said at the meeting.
“Further, I see no evidence that present staff has the experience and/or professional ability necessary to self-manage,” Jones’ statement concluded. Jones had been stridently critical of the board’s decision to hire Hentschel in 2011 over 23 other candidates who actually had the required qualifications.
Jones was dismissed from the board in 2013 when she stopped attending meetings in protest of the way the agency was being managed. Last month new Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter re-appointed her.
Hentschel’s request for approval, submitted April 4 to Prioleau in response to her letter, quotes then-area director Michael Botelho in an Oct. 22 email. “We have informally and tentatively agreed to allow a transition from third-party management to self-management subject to … intense monitoring from this agency. It should be clearly noted that many of the findings and violations that led to [the USDA] requiring third party management were a direct result of former employees,” Botelho wrote, according to Hentschel.
Noting that less than a month stood between the application and the intended date for self-management, Jones wonders what kind of legal and management bind the HHA will find itself in if it still doesn’t have approval on May 1.
“We can’t get rid of the management company if we have nothing to replace them,” she said.
Reached for comment on Tuesday, USDA spokeswoman Ellen Boukari confirmed that the HHA had in fact just submitted an application, but said the agency hadn’t reviewed it for completeness, let alone approval yet. Boukari declined to “speculate” as to whether or not approval might not come before May 1.
Hentschel declined requests to be interviewed for this article, and requests made by the Herald to the HHA’s public information officer for details of the transition plan and communications between Hentschel and Botelho regarding self-management have gone unanswered.