Public housing fray: HUD says no Norris conflict of interest
Former mayor and City Councilor Dave Norris has made a career out of working for nonprofits dedicated to helping the disadvantaged. That's why it was so surprising to find in a recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development note of a possible conflict of interest in his roles as chair of the public housing authority board and as a paid consultant for public housing residents. Norris calls it a distraction from the real problems with the housing authority, and the HUD report has festered into a verbal brawl between residents of public housing and those who run it.
"HUD has determined there is not a conflict of interest in the work I've done for [the Public Housing Association of Residents] and my work on the board," says Norris. "Unfortunately, some people are trying to take the focus away from the housing authority and drag PHAR's name through the mud and my name through the mud."
A HUD spokesperson confirms to the Hook March 25 that the agency has found no financial conflict of interest with Norris at this time.
HUD funds Charlottesville's 376 public housing units, which are managed by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. CRHA has a board of directors– a group that is often in conflict, according to former board member Norris.
The residents of Westhaven, Crescent Hall, and other scattered units have their own association– PHAR– and pretty much all of the entities involved are pointing fingers at each other for the mess the city's public housing is in.
Last year, the housing authority requested the HUD review, and in February HUD returned a 41-page assessment citing numerous problems, including the housing authority's failure to adopt policies that ensure financial viability, reluctance to follow policy in rent collection, lack of trained and knowledgeable staff, and lack of support from the board of directors for policy enforcement.
Among those pages is one paragraph noting that the chair of the housing authority board of directors– at that time, Norris– had been paid by PHAR.
The residents association hired former city councilor Holly Edwards to administer a $150K grant from HUD to help residents access services in the community that could improve their lives, explains Norris. When Edwards asked for help in setting up the administrative procedures for the ROSS grant– Resident Opportunities and Self-Sufficiency– "I was happy to help out," says Norris. "I've served numerous roles at PHAR, both paid and unpaid. I was administrative director four or five years ago. I've been publicly associated with PHAR, and I'm very proud of that."
He was paid $9,200 for his work, and when the HUD field officer working on the assessment saw his name on the program, "They asked the legitimate question, was it a conflict of interest, and their superiors say it was not," says Norris.
"That assessment is just the tip of the iceberg," continues Norris. "It doesn't answer the bigger question: Is the housing authority a viable entity? It's hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, it's poorly funded and poorly managed."
Board member Bob Stevens is openly critical of Norris' gig with PHAR, particularly because PHAR sued the housing authority, and board members Norris and Stevens were assigned to work on legal strategy. "If you're working for one of the plaintiffs, you don't sit in on legal strategy meetings," blasts Stevens.
"Disingenuous," returns Norris. "There were many, many months when I did no work for PHAR. He's trying to make it look like PHAR was trying to buy my support."
Housing board members knew of his work with PHAR and he disclosed his income from PHAR, adds Norris.
"I knew he worked at PHAR 12 or 15 years ago," says Stevens. "None of us knew he was doing work for them [currently]."
Regardless of the dispute over any conflict of interest, housing authority director Connie Dunn says generalizations that the authority is a mess are "way overblown" and that it's operating more efficiently than ever before.
She acknowledges the housing authority has been plagued with high turnover, and points out that housing directors in places like Waynesboro or Wytheville stay in their jobs 15 or more years.
In a March 22 letter responding to HUD and its finding on the lack of trained and knowledgeable staff, Dunn writes that PHAR and Legal Aid spend a lot of time challenging the housing authority's normal operations, "often forcing staff to operate in a hostile work environment."
Then there's the conflict between the housing authority when it attempts to enforce policy and the resident association. "Other housing authorities are not dealing with this constant push back on policy," says Dunn. "And our policy is lenient compared to other places."
She says she has no problem working with the residents association, with these caveats: "It doesn't mean that the housing authority can bend the rules and it doesn't mean I'm going to allow criminal activity. There's an expectation that if you apply [for public housing], you should be admitted."
Dunn offers a further perspective about public housing. "It's not suppose to be permanent housing," she says. "It's supposed to be transitional housing to allow residents to get their financial house in order."
Maybe that was the case at one time, responds PHAR vice-chair Joy Johnson. "It's about the only affordable housing in Charlottesville," she says.
Housing authority rents average $233 for a one-bedroom apartment, $274 for a three-bedroom and $341 for a five-bedroom, according to Dunn
PHAR jumps into the fracas with a four-page statement at a March 25 press conference, and complains that HUD made no effort to consult with residents for their perspective on the housing authority management.
"The report contains a number of misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and incorrect information," blasts PHAR staffer and one-time city council candidate Brandon Collins. "The CRHA seems to have embraced these lies as a way to deflect criticism from the public."
Continues Collins, "Our homes are crumbling, we are treated with disrespect, our rights are being violated, we demand a seat at the table, and we are tired of an out-of-control housing authority that is ignoring its own policies and procedures."
"Enough is enough," say sign-carrying residents at the press conference.
Both Collins and PHAR vice-chair Joy Johnson denounce the attacks on Norris and PHAR.
Norris has gotten a bad rap, says former councilor/PHAR service coordinator Holly Edwards. "He has consistently worked hard for low-income people over the years," she says. "He's consistently worked hard for PHAR."
She says that the tension between the housing authority and tenants is happening all over the country. "Urban renewal happened in the '60s," she says. "It's all crumbling."
Mediation between the two might be a good idea, she suggests.
In the midst of the controversy stemming from the HUD assessment, Edwards is one person who doesn't think it's so bad. "I'm hoping people will see the HUD report as an opportunity to create changes in the housing authority," she says.
"It's an opportunity to transform the city," says Edwards, "and the transformation can be in more viable and valuable housing stock for people across a wide spectrum of incomes."