Homestead - South Dade

Homestead Housing Authority scrambles to keep $3 million USDA grant

Just more than a month after taking the reigns over from his controversial predecessor, Homestead Housing Authority interim Executive Director Shane White has to deal with his first crisis.

At stake is a $3 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that would pay for 30 new townhome-style units of farmworker housing – a grant that the previous two HHA administrations apparently let languish for over six years unused, and that the USDA now says it wants back.

According to the USDA, this grant expired after five years.

In an emergency meeting Wednesday night, the HHA board voted unanimously to support White’s recommendation to ask for a one-year extension on the grant and to try and rush permitting and construction to exhaust the funds within that period.

“I’m pleased that the board made an informed decision,” White said after the meeting. “Like I explained to the board, whatever decision that is made I’m going to take it and 100 percent we’re going to move forward and we’re going to move forward fast. Because it’s not about us, it’s about the families we serve.”

According to the authority, the units are badly needed: At least 75 families currently sit on their waiting list for USDA-subsidized farmworker housing.

White says he only got wind of the funds a couple weeks after taking over, when he got a bond hearing notice about the $300,000 part of the grant that came in the form of a loan. There doesn’t seem to have been any recent communications between the authority and the federal agency about the money, and no warnings the authority was in jeopardy of losing the funds until he reached out, White said after the meeting.

Michael Botelho, the USDA area director for the HHA’s USDA-subsidized construction, was not available for comment.

The authority already has drawings of the 30 units, but it has yet to get some of the required permits, and neither the demolition nor construction contracts have been put out to bid. Drawings will also need to be reviewed to ensure they don’t need major updates to meet current code, White told the board.

The whole process, White said, should take between 16 to 18 months. He told board members they could try and cut into that timeline by starting the permitting work and advertise – though not award – the bids before getting the final go-ahead from the USDA.

White warned the board that asking for the one year extension came with the likely risk of leftover costs at the end of the year, but argued it was probably still the authority’s best option. He told them forfeiting the grant was ill-advised given the desperate need for more housing, but that contesting the USDA’s decision was also a bad idea, given that the authority had, in fact, broken the rules.

The authority’s lawyer, Gilberto Pastoriza, also advised them not to appeal the USDA’s decision outright and to either forfeit the funds or ask for the one-year clemency period.

“If you look at the law in its pure state, we are outside its boundaries,” Pastoriza said.

The HHA had until recently been mired in a nearly yearlong back-and-forth with the USDA over self-management of about 300 units of USDA-subsidized farmworker housing. It lost management of those properties back in 2012 after a blistering federal audit revealed chronic mismanagement dating back to at least 2006. The authority retained management of ongoing construction throughout.

White’s predecessor, Oscar Hentschel, was repeatedly slapped down by the federal agency in his attempts to take back the properties, with the USDA citing Hentschel’s own lack of public housing credentials as a key reason. His tenure, which began in March 2011 when he was hired by the board over 23 candidates who had actual public housing experience, ended in late September when he was abruptly fired by a nearly all-new board. In late October, the USDA released the result of Hentschel’s last appeal: he had been again denied.