Fayetteville Housing Authority seeking new director, would be sixth in four years

FAYETTEVILLE – The Housing Authority is looking for a temporary or permanent executive director after its most recent leader stepped down to take up another post.

The new director would be the sixth in just over four years. The authority faces reimbursement of more than $164,000 that the federal government says it owes due to the misuse of public housing money.

Audra Butler had held a senior position with the authority since September last year. His last day was Friday.

In an Aug. 16 letter to the authority’s board, Butler said his decision was in no way a reflection of the authority or its staff.

“The past three years at the Housing Authority have been both challenging and rewarding,” Butler wrote. “It has been a pleasure to lead this group of passionate and dedicated team members over the past year of transition. I continue to believe in the mission and vision of Fayetteville Housing Authority and I leave wishing only success and sustainability to this amazing organization.”

Butler is listed as a regional director of rural housing for Communities Unlimited, a local nonprofit serving seven states to help lift residents out of poverty.

Leadership roles within the authority will be split between program manager Tara West and finance manager Charles Wheeler, the board discussed on September 15. The board has decided to reopen an application period for a permanent director while soliciting offers for a temporary director.

The idea is that if the board does not receive nominations from a viable candidate for permanent director by its October meeting, it could still choose from a pool of candidates to serve temporarily until a permanent director be hired, said Board Chair Melissa Terry.

The board implemented a similar strategy earlier this year, when it selected Tia Cauley of the East Chicago, Ind., Housing Authority to serve as interim manager. The authority paid Cauley $9,900 to serve there for 30 days and serve a total of 60 days, Terry said. The authority would not be able to rehire Cauley as a temporary manager under federal rules, Terry said.

Leadership Transitions

The authority has had four different leaders, not including Cauley’s time as acting director, since the council fired former chief executive Deniece Smiley in September 2018. He replaced Smiley with Angela Belford, who became chief executive. acting in October 2018 and was installed as executive director in March 2019. The council fired Belford in March 2021 after residents and former staff brought complaints against her.

Next was John Berry, who resigned last September, followed by Victoria Dempsey, who resigned two weeks later. Both cited the conduct of the board, particularly that of Terry, as the reason for their resignation.

Terry said Butler served as a glue that helped keep the staff together. Staff turnover dropped significantly once Butler assumed leadership, and Terry praised Butler’s steady hand and problem-solving ability.

The authority’s nonprofit, FHA Development Inc., owes the regular authority more than $164,000, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The debt stems from the misuse of public housing money on non-profit development properties.

HUD reviewed the authority and released a report in March.

Investigators reviewed financial records, real estate transactions, service contracts and compliance with rules and regulations and also interviewed former and current employees. The survey was conducted remotely from August 16 to November 29, covering activities from January 2019 to August 2021.

Federal investigators said the nonprofit development association owed the debt because the authority used public housing money on residential properties owned by the nonprofit, even though the properties did not didn’t have social housing. Housing development plans fell through after bank financing collapsed and many tenants were unable to pay rent due to the covid-19 pandemic, Terry said.

The nonprofit development of authority operates separately from the regular authority, although the composition of the boards of directors of the two entities is the same. Four of the five seats are filled on both boards. The three council commissioners other than Terry all began their terms this year. A position remains vacant for a public housing representative following the death of Ezra Breashears in June.

The nonprofit sold all of its properties to recoup financial losses during the pandemic, except for one, an apartment complex on 12th Street and South Washington Avenue. The nonprofit plans to use rent money from the resort to pay off debt to the regular authority under an installment plan, Terry said.

In May, a representative from the HUD field office in Little Rock told the board that it did not need to reimburse the federal government, nor pay interest or penalties. However, debt owed to the regular authority of the nonprofit cannot be from federal sources.

The city council can appoint or remove members of the Housing Authority board, but has no power over the operation and management of the organization, city attorney Kit Williams said. The city administration has received updates from HUD officials in Little Rock on the review and its findings, which administrators have relayed to council members, said Susan Norton, chief of staff for Mayor Lioneld Jordan.

“Obviously we care about providing as much quality housing as possible to people in need,” she said.

Look forward

Terry said Thursday that the authority asked HUD to provide a detailed listing of the $164,287 debt. She said she wanted to be sure of the amount before the development nonprofit began making payments to the regular authority. The Housing Authority still hasn’t received the document requested by HUD, Terry said.

HUD, in its review, also requested vouchers covering additional expenses of $56,075, or otherwise reimbursed the money to the federal government. The authority has submitted the supporting documents, according to a response sent to HUD in August.

The Authority Development nonprofit is in line to receive $104,936 from the city of US bailout money. City council is expected to tentatively accept the financial aid at its Oct. 18 meeting.

The bailout money would reimburse the nonprofit development for expenses related to maintenance, repairs, property management and mortgage payments for a period of one year starting in March 2021, according to its request to the city. The nonprofit cannot use the money to pay off debt owed to the regular authority.

The nonprofit development association has committed about $200,000 in unpaid rent to tenants during the pandemic, Terry said. Even though most properties have changed hands, unpaid rent remains unpaid, she said. The nonprofit Development Association applied for emergency rental assistance for tenants in Washington County, but the county’s emergency fund ran out of money.

Rent arrears hurt tenants because those unpaid amounts are attached to their names, Terry said. The non-profit development association has recovered some of the money from the sale of the properties, but cannot give up the sales, she said. There are few options left other than donations, Terry said.

“Removing this windfall rent would just be a huge gift to residents and to replenish our working capital,” she said.

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