Indianapolis public housing in ‘period of renewal’ says new boss

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The new executive director of the Indianapolis Housing Agency told his equally new board of commissioners that, “We are in the renewal period of the organizational life cycle so this is a time to reset our relationships, reset the work that we do and reset our focus on providing quality affordable housing.”

John E. Hall is in his third week overseeing the agency that provides housing for 22,000 low income Marion County residents and he stood by as seven members of the reconstituted nine-member board of commissioners took their oaths of office.

Last fall, Mayor Joe Hogsett announced his intentions to remake the board to include more residents and give his handpicked executive director a fresh team charged with oversight.

“We got some hope for the future,” said longtime resident Sandra Bailey, “and we just gonna continue to do what we do.”

Hall inherits an agency that has experienced, by its own account, rising crime rates, declining maintenance, slumping occupancy and questionable financial controls as determined by state and federal auditors.

“I am still in a period of discovery,” said Hall after the meeting, “so what we’re working on is reconciling our vacancy/occupancy numbers. This week staff is actually going through units doing unit inspections so that we can make a better determination on the actual number of units that are vacant.

“In totality the portfolio is hovering around 90 percent occupancy but we have properties that dip as low as 80 percent.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and IHA’s own budget, mandate 97 percent occupancy.

“We have vacant units,” said Hall. “I need to make sure they’re getting turned over and being made available.”

IHA has reported a waiting list in excess of 130,000 applicants who are seeking public housing.

Hall said he has directed his staff to reconcile that list to determine whether individual applicants are on multiple lists.

One reason units are vacant is IHA’s lack of maintenance personnel to make repairs and turn apartments around for new residents.

HUD recently found IHA out-of-compliance on closing requests for repairs in a timely manner.

“We need to do a better job in turning our maintenance work records around,” said Hall. “We are currently down some staff so we’ve advertised for six permanent positions so I’m hoping to fill those by the first of the month as well.”

IHA reported crime at some of its properties increasing by as much as 70 percent last year, but Hall reported many of those numbers are actually down by 16 percent during the first two months of 2019.

Sandra Bailey said she’s seen improvement in both maintenance and public safety at the Laurelwood Apartments on the city’s southside.

“16 percent compared to what it was before, that’s a huge difference there so that alone itself should say something in regards to the crime in our communities,” she said.

Hall said next week he will meet with both HUD staff on assistance in turning around the agency and IMPD to discuss public safety.

“One of the charges that the staff is working on is insuring that all of our surveillance cameras are operational by the end of this month,” he said. “I think you previously reported we had 74 out, and that was the charge to make sure all 74 of those are operational.”

In January, off-duty police officers were not patrolling IHA properties due to a lack of budget approval.

Those officers are back on patrol and Hall has directed his staff to do a better job of determining whether applicants qualify for public housing or should be evicted for rules violations.

“We have got to make sure we are screening our tenants appropriately and we’re holding our residents accountable to the dwelling lease agreement that they assigned and agreed with us.”

Hall reported to the board that IHA’s 2018 revenues totaled $80 million with $75.6 million in expenses.

He said he’s confident the revenue figures are accurate.

“The expenses, how we spent those, those are unaudited numbers so when we have the auditor come in and reconciled I will have that confidence by September.”

Federal and state authorities have issued reports critical of IHA’s financial record keeping.

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