Abuse, Advocacy & Activism, Dept. of Agriculture, Housing

Feds Rip Mismanagement of Homestead Farmworker Housing

From MiamiHerald.com, Christina Veiga, 10 Nov 2011.

The federal government says the Homestead Housing authority heaped benefits on employees while making a shambles of the units they managed.

Having the Homestead Housing Authority as a landlord can be a nasty proposition: Its federally subsidized dwellings for farmworkers feature rusted bathtubs, broken cabinets, peeling paint and general disrepair.

On the other hand, having the housing authority as a boss means twice-yearly bonuses, generous employer contributions to 401(k) accounts, 100 percent paid health insurance for some and employee loans for those who need them.

So says a blistering report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which partially funds the agency. The report says the authority has been grossly mismanaged since at least 2006 and requires an outside organization to be brought in to clean house, literally and figuratively.

“Pockets have been padded and the property has suffered as a result,” USDA Area Director Michael Botelho told housing authority board members at an emergency meeting on Thursday. The new management would have the option of bringing in its own staff and dismissing current employees of the authority.

Among the issues cited in the Department of Agriculture’s report:

  • Tenants were overcharged for their utility use over a period of four years. Those tenants are currently owed about $58,000.
  • Housing was assigned to workers who didn’t qualify — because they lacked immigration papers.
  • Some farm workers who should have received rent assistance received none. As a result, they spent more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
  • Employees were paid bonuses as high as 25 percent of their annual salary.

“It’s sickening,” said Cipriano Garza, an activist on behalf of farmworkers for decades. “The farmworkers have been complaining about this for years.”

The USDA’s report also blasts the housing authority for having units sit empty while farmworkers were in need of a place to stay. It says some households have been shoved into homes that were too small while other families have room to spare. In one case cited, seven people were living in a two-bedroom home.

Other deficiencies included water damage, missing smoke detectors, a lack of accessibility for the disabled and generally “filthy” conditions.

“It appears that we are taking care of the staff before we are taking care of our properties,” Botelho said. “These [employee perks] are unreasonable and they have significantly contributed to the degradation of the housing authority.”

Although the report did not cite specific salary figures, Audelia Martinez, who chairs the board that oversees the authority, referred at Thursday’s meeting to a maintenance worker who makes about $80,000. She said the authority’s deputy director, Monica Rusconi, got a bonus of about $5,000 in June.

Rusconi, though, heads a separate Homestead Housing Authority program administered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and involving Section 8 vouchers for rental assistance. Rusconi told the Miami Herald she earns $65,000 as head of that $16.2 million program — one that has had 100 percent compliance, according to reports dating back to at least 2007.

The USDA violations put the cash-strapped authority — it was also chastised for having only $187,000 in maintenance reserves, while more than $4 million in capital improvement projects are needed — on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars for inappropriately assigning housing assistance to unqualified renters. Though no firm figure was given, the housing authority may have to repay the USDA $250,000, Botelho said.

Complicating matters: the housing authority cannot use USDA money to repay the debt.

“I would say that the housing authority, at this time, is broke,” Botelho said. “They’re on the verge of bankruptcy.”

While part of the housing authority’s $20 million budget comes from the USDA to help farmworkers, additional funds come from HUD to provide rental assistance to low-income individuals.

HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan said in an email that Homestead “can’t use HUD funding to repay the USDA. Public housing agencies may only use HUD funds to support HUD programs that they administer.”

HUD has also recently conducted a review of the housing authority, but has not yet released its findings.

In a separate action, board members voted to hire an outside agency to investigate two sexual harassment complaints filed by employees against the housing agency’s director, Oscar Hentschel.

Hentschel has said he won’t step down, declaring: “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Instead, he got straight to work on a response to the USDA report. The housing authority has 30 days to explain how it plans to tackle the issues cited.

Though Hentschel — whose hiring in March has been criticized due to his lack of relevant experience — has been under fire, many of the problems that have been cited predate his tenure.

The USDA cited compliance issues going back to 2006, when Ed Carrera was executive director.

He left last year after the authority bought out his contract, and is now executive director of the Mexico, Mo., housing authority.

Board members said the previous director never brought the issues, or employee bonuses, to their attention.

“This is news to me,” said board member Arturo de Leon. “I’m so disgusted right now.”

The authority is separate from the rest of Homestead’s city government, except that the mayor appoints the seven members.

Carrera, reached by phone, offered explanations for some of the USDA’s findings. He said maintenance at two of the authority’s four housing centers was deferred because those centers were going to be torn down or moved. Some of the over- and under-housing of tenants was temporary as the housing authority tore down units and built new ones, he said. And he added that the bonuses were granted in lieu of pay raises.

He did accept responsibility for the overcharging residents for utilities. He also said if undocumented workers were provided housing, it was only because the housing authority was given false paperwork.

“The bottom line is, I’m dealing with real people. The USDA is doing their job, but I also had a bunch of people I was responsible for, and I wasn’t going to throw them out in the street,” Carrera said.

For more Homestead news, follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

Source: MiamiHerald.com, “Feds rip mismanagement of Homestead farmworker housing” by Christina Veiga, 10 Nov 2011.

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