Housing authority has hard time overcoming history

Historically the Las Vegas Housing Authority squatted among the worst of local government agencies. Since 1987, it has been the subject of hundreds of articles.

Nepotism. Fraud. Juice contracts. Cronyism. Overcharging poor people. Filth. Infestation.

Stories of mismanagement abounded. A whistle-blower was fired.

Since 1989, past executive directors left under a cloud.

In Jan. 1, 2010, the Las Vegas Housing Authority was merged with the Clark County Housing Authority, creating the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority. A year later, the indebted North Las Vegas Housing Authority also merged.

Today, it has a $137 million budget. The authority manages traditional public housing for 7,606 people and more than 10,000 rental vouchers for what is commonly known as Section 8 housing.

The superagency is currently headed by John Hill, who had 20 years of experience with housing authorities in Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., and New Haven, Conn.

Hill has been in charge for three years. Long enough to make friends. And foes.

The inspector general released an audit in January to see whether there were any problems with the $21 million in stimulus money the authority received under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Not all of the period examined was under Hill.

Based on a review of only four contracts, the audit referred to “significant deficiencies.” The authority didn’t make sure proper wages were paid by contractors, and workers were underpaid by $7,300. The authority didn’t properly report the number of jobs created and retained, and the authority’s use of stimulus funds was not always transparent.

Hill said some problems were due to the challenges created by the merger. In March, all the deficiencies were considered cured. (As a longtime reader of government audits, I was not horrified by the findings.)

But new allegations have surfaced. A complaint was filed June 6 with the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asking for civil and criminal audits into the new agency.

In filing the complaint, activists Beatrice Turner, Deborah Jackson and Beverly Hannon raised a number of concerns, alleging conflicts of interest, questionable contract procurements and poor management practices.

They said materials were improperly stored and that money was spent on improving “curb appeal” instead of fixing interior problems, including mold, roof leaks and bed bug infestation.

In a two-hour interview recently where we went over the complaints point by point, Hill said not one of the complaints has merit. Either they are “unfounded” or they are based on “misinformation.” However, he cautioned, “It doesn’t mean that at one point there wasn’t an issue.”

It remains unknown whether the inspector general for HUD will launch an audit .

The complaint includes some backup documents, but mostly allegations without details. But with the dreadful history of the housing authorities in Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, the inspectors may be inclined or even feel compelled to check it out.

One specific allegation regards former Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates, who is now a contractor and in the past two years has obtained multiple contracts with the authority.

Turner charged that the work done by Atkinson Gates was shoddy.

Hill said that, like every other contractor, her construction firm is given time to remedy problems.

He said Atkinson Gates has done so and that there are no problems with the contracts given to Gates McClain or her latest company, Eco Construction.

Emails from housing authority staffers complaining bitterly about their autocratic treatment by Atkinson Gates were signs of personality conflicts, according to Hill.

The executive director defended the improvements since he took over, saying key indicators tracked by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department are all positive.

I cannot possibly determine who is correct, Hill or Turner and her supporters.

Both sides are passionate in their beliefs.

Hill is trying to head off any kind of inspector general’s audit by being proactive in challenging the allegations.

He is keeping the nine-member authority board headed by the Rev. Dave Caseleggio updated, and he is working on a response letter to the congressional members copied with the complaint.

Transparency is one of Hill’s favorite words, so perhaps a better approach to the inspector general would be to say, “Come on down, and look everything over. We have nothing to hide.”

The history of previous executive directors, which I will cover in Saturday’s column, has shown there has been plenty to hide in housing authorities in Southern Nevada.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at 702-383-0275.

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