Homestead - South Dade

Homestead housing agency appealing federal decision

The Homestead Housing Authority will not necessarily resume self-management of its U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidized farm-worker housing if an appeal goes its way, clarified new HHA board member Michael Goodman at the embattled housing authority’s Tuesday meeting.

The HHA has been trying since January to resume self-management of the roughly 300 units of farm-worker housing for which it receives USDA money, but the federal agency has repeatedly said no, citing the entire HHA staff’s lack of adequate experience in public housing, incomplete paperwork, and no evidence of the substantial savings promised in its requests to self-manage.

“The reason I wanted to clarify that is I think that the board – that we – really need to look at the facts here,” Goodman said on Thursday. “And it looks like [the USDA] has brought up some valid points that we need to follow up on.”

A new letter from the USDA to HHA executive director Oscar Hentschel dated Aug. 18 reiterates earlier concerns and also warns that the housing authority’s suggestion to use its Section 8 supervisor to help manage USDA-funded properties would constitute “commingling funds.” The Section 8 housing voucher program run by the HHA is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Hentschel has requested an appeal with the USDA National Appeals Division, which operates independently of other parts of the USDA and whose decision would trump earlier denials. A hearing is set for Aug. 27 at 10 a.m. at the Miami-Dade County Extension Service office at 18710 SW 288th St. in Homestead.

Hentschel’s lack of experience in public housing has been cited by the USDA in its denials. He was hired in March 2011 by the old HHA board over 23 candidates who had many of the required credentials, including experience in public housing.

On the witness list for the government in the appeal hearing is HHA board member Lois Jones, a long-time critic of Hentschel and her former board colleagues.

The HHA first handed control of the USDA properties over to outside management company Nelson & Associates in 2012, after a blistering federal audit in 2011 revealed the housing authority had grossly mismanaged the properties since at least 2006.

Many of the issues cited in the audit predated Hentschel, but the USDA’s last letter argues that “there has not been any significant staff change from the time of non-compliance to show a knowledgeable and experienced staff to manage a federally funded physical asset.”

The HHA is separate from the Homestead municipal government except for the mayor’s ability to appoint board members. Homestead mayor Jeff Porter has been steadily ousting former mayor Steve Bateman’s appointees as their terms expired, and Goodman is one of five new HHA commissioners. Jones was first appointed by former mayor Lynda Bell and re-appointed by Porter. The only holdover from Bateman’s administration is Audelia Martinez, currently the HHA board chair, whose term expires this September.

New board member Russell Black called the USDA’s concerns about self-management “not insurmountable requests that could be taken care of quickly,” and said that Hentschel and staff still had his full support.

He added this caveat: “I’m still getting educated on a lot of things, and I’m going to continue to ask questions to see where I might have insufficient information.”