On the agenda…
- The Fayetteville Housing Authority’s 2018 Annual and Rolling Five-Year Plan.
A special meeting of the Fayetteville City Council began at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 24, 2018 inside room 219 of City Hall, located at 113 W. Mountain St. in Fayetteville.
Listed below are the items up for approval and links to PDF documents with detailed information on each item of business.
Present: Adella Gray, Sarah Marsh, Mark Kinion, Matthew Petty, Mayor Lioneld Jordan, Justin Tennant, Sarah Bunch, John La Tour, Kyle Smith
1. Fayetteville Housing Authority’s 2018 Annual and Rolling Five-Year Plan (Details): A resolution to express the City Council’s recommendations to Mayor Jordan concerning the Fayetteville Housing Authority’s 2018 Annual and Rolling Five-Year Plan.
– Pass 8-0
Board officials last week submitted their plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as required by federal law before HUD funds can be released to the authority. Jordan has until the end of the month to provide his signature, but the City Council wasn’t scheduled to meet again until Aug. 7.
The Housing Authority owns and maintains three public housing complexes – Hillcrest Towers, Lewis Plaza and Willow Heights – and manages Morgan Manor, a former public housing property which has been converted to function under a Section 8 housing program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). The program uses public equity, but also provides benefits to private investors in exchange for providing capital needed to fund housing improvements and provide assistance to low-income residents. Lewis Plaza may also be demolished and converted to RAD, according to board documents.
Tuesday’s discussion is expected to center around the board’s 2017 vote to sell the aging Willow Heights property to a private developer and move its residents to Morgan Manor. That decision has since irked residents who would rather see improvements at Willow Heights instead of adding more low-income residents to the Morgan Manor area.
The conditions at Willow Heights have sparked increased public attention in recent weeks, partly because of the hot temperatures the area has sustained this summer, and also because of a broken water pipe that left residents without water for about 36 hours last week.
Mayor Jordan began the meeting by saying that he understands there are many people in Fayetteville who object to the plan to move residents from Willow Heights to Morgan Manor, but said he won’t jeopardize the $281,000 that the authority is set to receive for its 2018 (fiscal year beginning Sept. 1) funding.
Council member Marsh spoke next and said she thinks residents should ask for more oversight when it comes to the Housing Authority board. Marsh read the board’s plan today and said she thinks it’s vague and doesn’t properly convey the appropriate information needed for a solid five-year plan. She called it “an underwhelming plan for such an overwhelming need.” She said with what she could understand, there are several problems with the plan. For example, she said there’s a disproportionate amount of money budgeted for consultant fees than for capital improvement projects when there are obvious signs of need at Willow Heights. She questioned why there was no public comment at the board’s budget meeting. She said while she was told that nobody from the public showed up to the budget meeting, she questions whether the board is actively attempting to shut out the public’s voice when it comes to low-income housing in Fayetteville. She said she hopes tonight is the beginning of more citizen engagement about the issue.
Council member Tennant said he’s talked with a lot of residents about the plan, many who think the authority’s public housing program should be completely overhauled. He said while he’s all for a longterm betterment of public housing, he wants tonight to focus on what can be done now.
Council member Kinion agreed, and said this meeting should be focused specifically on how the board’s plans can be improved since there is only one week left before the mayor must sign the documents needed to get the HUD funds.
Council member La Tour said he agreed with Marsh in that he read the plan and found it “incomprehensible.”
The first few residents to speak said the Housing Authority and its plan need an overhaul.
One person said she thinks the board conspired to sell Willow Heights and move its residents to Morgan Manor. She said public housing shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of a private developer.
Another said the board is mostly made up of solid members, but there are two whose egos have gotten in the way of making logical decisions.
Others criticized specific board members and said the entire Housing Authority should be dissolved.
A woman who lives at Willow Heights said while she appreciates the public forum tonight, she wishes the board would quit arguing and start working together. She said her ceiling is falling in and the unit where she lives with her three small children has experienced flooding problems. She said those interested in the issues should stop beating each other up and come together to find some solutions to the problems the residents are experiencing.
Other Willow Heights residents said they would be homeless without the Housing Authority, and they think the board is doing the best they can to assist them with the resources available. They did, however, say that more help is needed for the aging and dilapidated housing units.
Residents who don’t live in public housing said from the outside looking in, it appears as though the Housing Authority is mismanaging the units at Willow Heights. Others continued to criticize the board in general, and some specific members.
Mayor Jordan interjected and reminded the audience to please speak to the board’s plan since that is the business at hand tonight.
One person said the plan should prioritize seeking funds for housing vouchers for homeless people, which is something the board may not currently have the capacity to manage.
Deniece Smiley, executive director of the Housing Authority, said she’s overseen the board for four years and is passionate about helping low-income residents. She said it’s a challenging job that has been particularly difficult lately as some residents have attacked her reputation. She said the outcry about the plan is just a conspiracy to replace her and the board members who are disliked by certain residents and City Council members.
Several residents said there could be far better solutions to the problems at Willow Heights than by selling the land to a private developer and moving its residents to Morgan Manor. They used a recent GoFundMe campaign as an example. The crowdfunding campaign was organized to raise enough money to purchase 50 energy-efficient air conditioners for the complex. As of Tuesday evening, the campaign had surpassed its goal and raised $15,905 from 108 people in four days.
Board member Mike Emery said everyone at the authority is doing the best job they can and with good intentions. With the recent community interest and opposition to the board’s plan to sell Willow Heights, he said there’s been a lot of aggression aimed at both him and his fellow commissioners. He called himself “the most hated person in the room” tonight, but apologized to anyone he’s offended recently because of his defensive behavior. He said he knows there are people who are against the sale of Willow Heights, but said the board’s decision was the best plan available at the time.
Council members asked Emery about some recent claims that there are mold problems at Willow Heights. They’re wanting to know why mold remediation isn’t a line item in the five-year plan’s budget. Emery said he believes there is a line item that can be utilized for mold remediation, but that it’s not specifically spelled out.
Smiley said recent tests show there is no mold in the units. She said HUD requires tests for several kinds of potential issues, and that the board always adheres to those requirements.
Marsh asked Smiley how much money is in the board’s reserves account. Smiley said about $900,000. Marsh asked why some of that money couldn’t have been used for air conditioners at Willow Heights. Smiley said most of the residents do have air conditioners in their units, despite rumors that they do not (the recent crowdfunding campaign was to purchase energy-efficient air conditioners to help lower energy costs).
City Attorney Kit Williams questioned Emery about whether the board’s sale of Willow Heights used a competitive bidding process. Emery said it did not. He asked Emery if he didn’t think it would’ve been a good idea to use competitive bidding. Emery said while the board might’ve been able to get more money out of the deal, he doesn’t think it would’ve made any difference to the people who are opposed to the sale.
Marsh said the fact that the board didn’t seek competitive bids is an example of how the board is inadequate. Emery said he always adheres to HUD regulations and did nothing wrong by working with just one buyer. The conversation became heated and Marsh asked Emery, “I mean who do you work for here? HUD or the Housing Authority?” Emery said board members are unpaid volunteers so he’s not paid at all for his work on these issues. Marsh said while HUD may not have required a competitive bidding process, the people of Fayetteville expect more.
Marsh asked Smiley why the board has budgeted $146,000 for office expenses. Smiley said the authority’s office is in need of several improvements, including the addition of a security system and a space for confidential meetings with residents whose privacy is jeopardized when discussing personal matters in the open spaces of the current office. She said the current office has become cramped and despite Marsh’s scrutiny, it’s just a matter of fact that the office must be improved occasionally if the city’s public housing programs are to be operated efficiently.
The discussion continued about the sale of Willow Heights and centered around the timeline of the contract. A former Planning Commission member who served at the time of the original sale discussion last year, said she believes the property came under contract about five months before it was formally appraised, which could be a violation of HUD rules. She said she also spoke to a HUD representative at the time who said their office had not been notified of the potential sale, as required by federal regulations. City Attorney Kit Williams said if true, those might be reasonable arguments to claim a breach of HUD rules, which means it’s possible the contract could be abandoned, despite the board’s claims that there is no way out of the agreement at this point.
One person said the fact that the board is lacking in oversight and has delivered a plan that doesn’t reflect the citizens’ priorities is indication that the public is just as at fault for the problems as the board members. Now is the time to get to work to address the immediate needs of the city’s low-income residents and to adjust the plan into a workable form before the deadline.
Council member Petty said he couldn’t care less about intentions. “I care about results,” he said. While he’s inclined to give more leeway to the Housing Authority who are tasked with doing so much with so little, he said he thinks it’s clear that the current board has acted improperly in its handling of the sale of Willow Heights, which could be an indication of incompetence. He said he thinks the contract to sell the property needs to be voided and if the current board won’t abandon the contract then maybe it should be replaced with a board that will.
Kinion said he also feels for the Housing Authority, but thinks they could have been victim to potentially self-serving consultants that offered some ill-advised plans regarding either the sale of Willow Heights or the conversion of properties to the Rental Assistance Demonstration program.
Petty said he’s not a fan of RAD conversion, but said he’s not convinced the five-year plan should be amended to remove all possibilities of more RAD conversion (as was proposed earlier), considering there are some success stories with the program. Council member Smith said he understands Petty’s reservations, but said the whole thing throws red flags for him, especially considering there seem to be some self-serving consultants involved here. Petty nodded in agreement.
City Attorney Kit Williams said while there have been a lot of good ideas thrown around regarding changes that the authority should consider moving forward, the council needs to make recommendations for concrete changes to the five-year plan, because the plan must be amended at the authority’s next meeting in two days if the mayor is to sign the documents in time to get the necessary HUD funds.
Williams said based on the conversations he’s heard tonight, he recommends the council ask the authority for a few specific things:
1. Prioritize homeless to obtain housing vouchers, including staff capacity if needed to handle additional housing vouchers.
2. Reduce consultancy fees and prioritize budgets for the necessary health and maintenance of existing facilities.
3. End the probably invalid land sale contract of Willow Heights.
4. End RAD conversion for the fiscal year 2018, especially the demolition of Willow Heights.
5. The Housing Authority should work with and apply for funds for Community Development Block Grants.
Marsh suggested adding a sixth recommendation:
6. Adopt the recommendations of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center’s Willow Heights Livability Improvement Plan.
Mayor Jordan said he doesn’t support RAD conversion. He said he doesn’t think the city should tear down Willow Heights or Lewis Plaza and send their residents to a new place. He said he thinks that’s concentrated poverty.
Jordan said it’s unknown whether the board will accept the council’s recommendations on Thursday. Regardless, he said he will still sign the documents needed to get the $281,000 for the city’s public housing residents for the upcoming fiscal year. If the board isn’t cooperative with the council’s requests, he said that issue can be taken up after the money is secured.
During the vote, the six recommendations were approved unanimously.
This meeting was adjourned at 10:11 p.m.