Just two weeks before it was to resume self-management of its federally subsidized farm-worker housing, the Homestead Housing Authority received official word from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that its request to do so was denied.
According to an April 16 letter from USDA area director Angela Prioleau to HHA executive director Oscar Hentschel, the decision is a result of Hentschel’s lack of housing management experience, and the fact that the request itself was submitted to the USDA about three weeks too late.
“I’m not surprised the USDA did not approve,” said HHA board member Lois Jones. “The USDA is the funding agency for the program and it is their responsibility to ensure that the right people are put in place.”
Jones has been roundly critical of her colleagues, and especially of their decision in March 2011 to appoint Hentschel at the head of the agency over 23 other candidates who had experience in public housing. She was dismissed in 2013 when she stopped attending meetings in protest of the way the HHA was being managed, but new Homestead mayor Jeff Porter re-appointed her in March.
The USDA first told the HHA to relinquish management of the roughly 300 housing units in 2011 following a blistering audit that revealed the properties had been grossly mismanaged since at least 2006, with HHA employees padding their pockets while the units fell into disrepair. Many of the cited problems began before Hentschel joined the agency.
The HHA complied in early 2012, bringing in Cincinnati-based management company Nelson & Associates. But the authority reversed course this January, with the HHA board voting 4-0 to terminate the company’s contract a year early. HHA officials said at the time that although Nelson & Associates was doing a good job, its management fee could be better spent on unit improvements.
At that January meeting, the board resolved that Nelson & Associates would hand over all operations by April 30, with complete self-management beginning May 1.
According to Prioleau’s April 16 letter, USDA rules require housing agencies that receive funds from the USDA to submit requests for self-management at least 45 days before self-management begins. But the HHA did not submit such a request until April 4 – after Prioleau had written to warn the housing authority that it was moving quickly toward self-management without formal federal approval.
Jones now wonders what the HHA will do come May 1 with those properties if Nelson & Associates isn’t re-hired.
“The HHA is now in a quandary,” she said. “As I see it, the only recourse is for the chairman of the board to call a meeting to rescind the termination of the management agency. ... Failing that, the HHA will be without competent and professional management and that can only lead to a disaster.”
Ramona Nelson, the firm’s president, said that she “really enjoyed” working with the HHA and would gladly see her contract with them through April 2015 – when it was originally scheduled to expire – should the housing authority rescind its termination.
Reached on Wednesday, Hentschel declined to comment other than to say that the HHA had not yet decided whether or not to appeal the USDA’s decision.