North Adams Housing Authority staff gets 'substandard' grade
NORTH ADAMS -- The North Adams Housing Authority staff is dealing with a "substandard management" notice it received relating to the 2010-11 fiscal year, but Executive Director Jennifer Hohn said that issue -- along with others she said she and her staff inherited -- have been vigorously addressed.
In a Nov. 27. notice from the Office of Public Housing of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in Boston, the North Adams authority received a substandard designation in a Public Housing Assessment System (PHAS) audit.
The principal issue was the occupancy level among the authority's 305 units of subsidized housing.
The overall HUD audit score was 79 out of 100 points, according to the notice, which asked the housing authority to "take immediate action to identify the source(s) of the performance deficiencies and develop and implement a plan to recover its PHAS score and ensure long-term sustainability at an acceptable level of performance."
HUD supplies funding for the North Adams authority, which manages subsidized housing units for seniors, individuals and families in the city. Hohn expressed frustration over the implementation of new, higher occupancy standards in the middle of federal fiscal 2011, which ended that Sept. 30. "They switched the benchmarks," she said.
Under the previous HUD scoring system, Hohn said, the North Adams Housing Authority would have received an 88. Hohn said the authority has made significant improvements on several fronts but it is being cited on "historical" occupancy data that is no longer relevant.
"The agency was in bad shape a few years ago," she said. "But I've worked hard with our staff to move forward, and the agency is in better shape now than it ever has been."
Housing Authority board Chairman James Canavan agreed, saying the agency "sort of let things slide" after the retirement of longtime director William Boland until Hohn took over in 2010.
He said vacancy rates today are "the lowest in decades," and rest of the HUD report, Canavan said, "was positive."
"I think [Hohn]'s doing a great job, and I've been in housing a long time," Canavan said. He is a former executive director of a housing agency in eastern Massachusetts and also serves on the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority board.
The HUD report "is what it is," being based on a prior fiscal year, he said, adding, "HUD is doing its job [of seeking improvement in public housing across the nation], and we do not object."
Hohn said she faced myriad issues when she took the position, including three annual budgets that had to have audits completed, a high level of turnover on the authority board, and buildings in need of renovation.
A new HUD occupancy score is expected this month, Hohn said, and she expects it to meet the new occupancy guidelines. Those more aggressive rules, she added, are an attempt by HUD to learn which housing authorities have units that are no longer needed and/or which need to make management improvements. The rules essentially make the goal 98 percent occupancy for all units.
Hohn was not alone in criticizing the threshold as somewhat unrealistic. The Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, in its bulletin, The Advocate, said in a Nov. 28 issue that PHADA "believes the standards are set too high and point loss occurs too rapidly" in assessing authority management.
In a letter Hohn sent to HUD in Boston on Dec. 10, she listed the hiring of outside contractors to help maintenance staff turn over vacant apartments faster, changes in work-order flow concerning vacant apartments, quicker background checks for prospective tenants and other measures to meet the new occupancy guidelines. The recent average has shown about six vacancies among the 305 units at a given time, she said.
The North Adams authority commissioners did not hold a meeting in December, following the Nov. 27 HUD notice, but they have a meeting set for Jan. 28.
"We have made a lot of progress on that," Hohn said, adding that a new score from HUD should reflect that improvement.
Hohn, who became interim director in 2009, after the previous executive director, James Baldwin, left for another position, became director in July 2010. The city native has worked at the authority for 10 years, including two as assistant director.
North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright said he was unsure how Hohn would develop after taking the director's job, but he's seen her improve herself, through hard work and study, and the North Adams Housing Authority.
"There have been three major infrastructure projects in her three years, more than in the past 10 years," he said.
Those included a $3.2 million energy-saving upgrade to replace heating units and perform other work, for which Hohn secured a HUD-back loan. The project, through projected energy savings, is expected to save more on energy than it will cost the authority.
Other projects included a security system providing video that streams directly to the police station and has reduced crime in the authority-managed buildings.
Alcombright described Hohn as highly motivated, adding, "She has just become almost a self-taught guru in the housing profession."
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