RICHMOND -- Faced with systemic problems throughout its public housing agency and a lack of credibility with city staff, the City Council this week unanimously approved hiring an independent investigator to audit the troubled department.
"We know we have problems" in the housing authority, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said. "But we still need to identify causation. Our residents deserve more than outrage."
The decision follows weeks of turmoil sparked by media reports that alleged the Richmond Housing Authority has been dogged by mounting debt, misuse of funds by staff members, inadequate security and living conditions at its public housing units, and improperly authorized work contracts, among other problems.
City Manager Bill Lindsay announced a plan last month to deal with the problems that included immediate inspections of all units; surveys of tenants to determine their needs; exploring whether to switch security providers; and assessing whether to begin moving tenants out of the most dilapidated public housing structure, the Hacienda.
But Lindsay offered his unequivocal support for hiring an outside agency Tuesday, calling it a "good project" and saying it was worth the cost, which he estimated would be about $200,000 in both contract costs and staff time.
"I don't like to say this, but within the staff we have a credibility problem," Lindsay said, noting the value of an independent investigator.
The housing authority is nearly $7 million in debt and is wracked with resident complaints about slow maintenance and infestations of insects and rodents. A 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the housing authority, alleged widespread mismanagement by the Richmond agency and called Executive Director Tim Jones "ineffective."
HUD spokeswoman Gene Gibson said last month the city's agency is working with HUD to resolve the issues and correct the agency's poor performance ratings. Lindsay said the agency has adopted a balanced budget of $26.2 million for this fiscal year. The agency oversees 550 units and disburses vouchers under the federal Section 8 program to an additional 1,750 residents.
The agency's advisory commission, composed of residents and volunteers, is no longer meeting because of recent resignations among its ranks.
Councilman Tom Butt successfully urged McLaughlin to include in her proposal investigations of whether HUD provides sufficient funding to the city to perform its housing duties.
Councilman Jim Rogers questioned where the funding for the audit would come from. Lindsay said the funding sources had not yet been identified.
Staff will identify a firm for a potential contract within 45 days, Lindsay said. The council is set to discuss issues within the housing authority, including examining Jones' performance, in a meeting next week.
Councilman Corky Boozé alleged that Jones' staff had distributed home pest abatement products to residents. Jones acknowledged that his staff had disbursed "sticky traps" to residents as an "interim measure between extermination measures."
The six-floor Hacienda building is particularly troubled; leaks in the roof have made the entire top floor uninhabitable. Jones said after Tuesday's meeting that it would cost nearly $400,000 to replace the roof, and acknowledged that the housing authority has lost about $130,000 in rents since 2011 because of 24 top-floor units being vacant.
Jones said he hopes to have the housing authority removed from the HUD list of "troubled" agencies this year, and said he looks forward to the opportunity to improve agency performance. Jones said he earns $162,432 per year, and has not received a raise since 2011.
Lindsay has said he has made no decisions regarding Jones' future.
"I think I can get the job done," Jones said. "If (Lindsay) asks for my resignation, I'll draft my letter."