Council approves HUD-required recovery agreement for Charlottesville public housing

The Charlottesville City Council meeting on October 19, 2020 lasted until nearly midnight. When I began my reporting from it the next day, I ended up writing several hundred words about Council’s discussion of a performance agreement for direct city investment of $3 million in public housing renovation and development. I’m posting articles on other items that happened that night. 

The Charlottesville City Council has agreed to a recovery agreement that commits the city’s public housing agency to develop an action plan to address issues uncovered in an audit. 

“That audit found fiscal deficiencies, accounting errors with the collection of rent tenant account receivables so we were not collecting rent in our field,” said John Sales, who has been the executive director of Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) since this August. 

Listen to audio version of this story!

Following the audit, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development placed the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority on its “troubled” list based on a scoring system of how well agencies are performing. 

At their meeting on October 19, 2020, Sales stated his agency does not want to put people on the street. 

“We do believe in not evicting families because that just puts other stress on other services that the city has to fund,” Sales said. “We try not to evict any family for non-payment of rent.” 

Sales said CRHA works with families to help come up with repayment plans and to lower rents where possible. 

“We’ve actually created an eviction diversion program that we have asked to be funded through the [Community Development Block Grant] so that will come in front of you hopefully and it will get funded and that will allow us to work more with the families on non-payment rent,” Sales said.

According to a memo Sales sent to Council before the October 19 meeting, there were 163 CRHA households that owed back rent as of October 15. Later in the meeting, Council considered using a portion of the CARES Act funding to cover that backlog. 

But, the agency cannot collect rent on units that are empty. 

Sales said there were 64 vacant units when he arrived in August. 

“The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) begins to penalize Housing Authorities that have a vacancy rate above 3 percent,” Sales wrote in the memo. “The Housing Authority had a vacancy rate of approximately 17 percent.” 

Sales said that when he started there was a shortage of maintenance workers to fix up vacant units, but that has changed. Habitat for Humanity has helped refurbish seven units so far as part of an agreement with CRHA, and the agency has hired a contractor to get others moving.

“A contractor typically charges about $25,000 to turn a vacant unit, and it costs us around $11,000 to turn a vacant unit,” Sales said, adding they have hired a contractor for three units to get more units ready for new occupation for those on a wait list. He said the CRHA will fill all the units by the end of the year. That doesn’t include units at Crescent Halls that are being left open due to planned construction. 

In his memo, Sales outlined how he has identified other issues that need to be addressed, such as mismanagement of the housing choice voucher program. Still, he sounded a positive town.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Sales said. “We still have a long way to go but we see the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Council was appreciative of Sales’ efforts. 

“I’m in awe right now, that’s all,” said Vice Mayor Sena Magill. 

Councilor Heather Hill said she appreciate the candid nature of Sales’ reporting.

“I just feel like some of these things have come up in the past and have just been kind of put to the side or not really answered or addressed and I just really appreciate the transparency by which you have presented this information,” Hill said. 

City Councilor Michael Payne said much of the work conducted is what will be called for in the separate sustainability plan he has to provide to both HUD and Council. 

Mayor Nikuyah Walker is a member of the CRHA Board of Commissioners. She said she has had many friends and relatives who have lived in public housing, and there had been initial skepticism from some that Sales had the skills to do the job. 

“There were some people whose resume had more other things that you look for in this position but it took you no time to get in and show that even people who have been hired in the past had had all of those things listed and had previous experience, that you’ve done things that they in just a short window of time that they were unable to do during their tenure,” Walker said. “And some of those were a lot of years.” 

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