Miami-Dade County

Report: Housing agency wasted millions

In a blistering report aimed squarely at the beleaguered Miami-Dade Housing Agency, the county's inspector general said Thursday that most of $4.1 million in payments meant to help people qualify to buy affordable homes was squandered on mismanagement.

A costly redevelopment program known as HOPE VI promised new, affordable housing for hundreds of families displaced from Liberty City's Scott/Carver Homes. The program has been dogged by irregularities, and county officials have been blasted for funding a housing agency that has misspent millions of dollars.

The inspector general's 40-page report criticized the housing agency for spending $900,000 not on clients but on its own administrative services; a contractor, Atlanta-based H.J. Russell & Co., for collecting $920,000 despite inadequately monitoring the program; and the county's Department of Human Services, which received $1.7 million, for ``inadequate case management.''

''Dominating our findings are those related to unnecessary costs that were either excessive or for duplicate payments for the same services,'' Inspector General Christopher Mazzella wrote.

In a statement included in the IG's report, H.J. Russell denied any wrongdoing. ''The simple fact is, Russell would not receive payment from MDHA had it failed to execute its contractual obligations to its client's satisfaction,'' the company said.

Mazzella's report comes on the heels of a July investigation by The Miami Herald into the Miami-Dade Housing Agency that found it spent more than $22 million in federal and local funds, but only three of 411 promised homes were built. And those three homes were built for free by Miami Habitat for Humanity.

The project is years behind schedule, with millions spent on architects, consultants and staggering Housing Agency overhead costs.

CLIENT SUPPORT

Mazzella limited Thursday's report to the Community and Support Services program, a $4.1 million arm of HOPE VI. The CSS program is supposed to give Scott/Carver Homes residents the chance to become self-sufficient enough to qualify for home ownership by cleaning up credit history and other means.

MDHA was tasked with overseeing the construction of the 411 affordable homes where ramshackle barracks-style houses once stood on Liberty City's Northwest 22nd Avenue. Those homes were torn down or boarded up about five years ago, displacing about 800 families, but with the promise of new homes when they returned.

The housing agency contracted work out to Human Services and H.J. Russell -- hired in 2001 for $2.5 million -- to help residents qualify for home ownership.

MISMANAGEMENT

Mazzella said the housing agency and its contractors spent 85 cents of every dollar in the program for ''inadequate program administration and case management.'' The other 15 cents, the report notes, went to client support.

The report found MDHA paid $900,149 for the salary and benefits of two people just to oversee the CSS program. Mazzella said they failed.

MDHA also paid H.J. Russell almost $400,000 for a database that turned out to be a spreadsheet and for project milestones that were claimed to be reached but never documented.

Mazzella also criticized the county Department of Human Services, which was supposed to provide case management services to the displaced. He said his office could not find DHS files matching the level of services it had reported.

Earlier this year county commissioners approved an additional $830,000 from local construction funds to pay H.J. Russell for additional services and two more years of program management. County Manager George Burgess killed that plan two weeks ago and chose not to renew H.J. Russell's contract with the housing agency.

`CHANGE THE CULTURE'

There ''is no way to refute some of the things that were raised by the inspector general,'' noted Cynthia Curry, a senior advisor to Burgess hired in February to oversee the reeling agency.

Said County Mayor Carlos Alvarez: ``We have to change the culture that has permeated in that department for so many years.''

Since The Herald investigation sparked community outrage and forced a series of meetings, Burgess has removed six Housing Agency officials and one former one (working elsewhere in the county government) and launched a national search for a new director. He vows more staff changes are coming.

That's fine with Yvonne Stratford, 52, who is still waiting for her new home. She lived in Scott Homes for six years before being relocated to another housing project.

''I think they cheated us and they cheated the system,'' Stratford said. ``We didn't get anything.''

Problems facing the housing agency's HOPE VI program peaked in January when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development warned that its $35 million grant for the project was ''at risk'' because the agency was moving along at a ``snail's pace.''

The Herald later tried to trace 250 of the displaced families and found that more than a third had moved on with no forwarding address.

Charles Elsesser, an attorney with Florida Legal Services who represented a group of HOPE VI families who lost a lawsuit challenging their displacement, said the county failed his clients in several ways.

''They were promised not just home ownership, but employment training, job placement, business development, day care and after-school care, case management, and child development,'' Elsesser said.

``What this [audit] shows is they got none of that. What's maybe the saddest thing is the end result is just this audit and a commitment to proceed better in the future -- but they still are not going to get these services. The money is gone.''

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