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Is it safe?

ANC votes ‘no confidence’ in housing under construction at HOPE VI site

(Published May 5, 2003)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Staff Writer

Acting after two recent unexplained fires and other signs of disarray at a publicly funded housing project now under construction in Southeast Washington, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission has unanimously voted no confidence in the project.

The vote by ANC 8B members came after a public meeting on April 22 peppered by loud resident complaints that the D.C. Housing Authority has failed to deliver mandated local and minority job slots at the site and services for residents displaced from two public housing complexes torn down to make way for the project.

The job and housing opportunities are required in the federal HOPE VI guidelines for the mostly taxpayer-funded $100 million Henson Ridge mixed-income development at Alabama Avenue and Stanton Road SE.

"We have no confidence that they were actually telling us the truth that things are safe and the project is on track," ANC Commissioner Jacque Patterson said after the vote, referring to statements made at the meeting by officials of Mid-City Urban LLC and Beazer Homes, the developer and builder chosen by the housing authority.

Patterson’s sentiment and resident complaints were bolstered the day before by the housing authority’s announcement that it had abruptly fired the entire team of service providers under contract to deliver job and housing opportunities to former residents of the Stanton and Frederick Douglass public housing complexes.

Lawrence Dwyer, the housing authority’s HOPE VI project manager, said last week the service-providing team’s management structure "collapsed" due to infighting over funding levels for various team members and other issues. He acknowledged that the providers failed to effectively deliver job training, job placement, financial counseling and other services.

"From a service standpoint, there was not sufficient performance," Dwyer said.

Failure to provide similar services has led to lawsuits in other cities, including a suit recently settled in favor of public housing residents in New Orleans.

At the April 22 ANC meeting, Mid-City Urban and Beazer representatives told residents and commissioners that the Henson Ridge project is in compliance with minority and local hiring rules. They offered assurances of the quality of construction at the site after two fires in late March and early April.

Housing authority officials did not attend the meeting. Patterson said officials there didn’t respond to several calls asking them to attend.

He said the commission’s no-confidence vote would stand until housing authority officials meet with commissioners and satisfy them that the housing being built at Henson Ridge is sound and that job and housing opportunity regulations are being effectively satisfied.

"What they’re going to do with relocating people and bringing them back to the new development – that’s the biggest part of this HOPE VI project," he said. "We have a big issue with that."

He said he also wants answers from city officials about the rate of hiring for local and minority contractors and workers at Henson Ridge. Local contractors recently held a protest at the construction site.

"The developers get tax credits and other financial benefits [for compliance], and then a month into the project, they’re not anywhere near that," Patterson said. "I don’t think (the Henson Ridge developers) are making a real effort."

Dwyer said last week that he hopes to meet with Patterson and other ANC commissioners soon.

Two firefighters were injured when a floor unexpectedly collapsed during the first fire at Henson Ridge on March 25, leading fire officials to refuse to send firemen inside a house to fight the second fire on April 13. The fire department then shut down much of the site and opened an investigation into the fires.

A Mid-City spokesman said last week that fire department officials recently allowed a re-start of construction on houses not directly affected by the fires. The investigation into the cause of the fires is continuing.

At the meeting, Mid-City Urban President Victoria Davis revealed that Mid-City officials’ own inspection after the fires turned up other construction problems in homes at Henson Ridge, including those unaffected by the fires.

"We’re finding a couple of things," she said. "We’ve found some electrical and plumbing problems."

She said the inspections also found "some work we need to do on roofs, and on foundations we’re grading a little bit off." She said the company expects to correct the problems "over the next two to three weeks."

A company spokesman said last week that nothing learned to date indicates any connection between those problems and the recent fires.

Nonetheless, Patterson said he hopes soon to arrange for a city housing inspector to tour the Henson Ridge site with ANC commissioners.

"We want the units to go up, but we want to have confidence in the safety of the buildings and the quality of the construction," he said.

A housing authority spokesman said the recently fired team of service providers, called Henson Ridge Associates, has spent about $2 million on the failed programs – about half of the amount allocated for such services over the life of the HOPE VI grant, she said.

The team was composed of three private firms – the NOAH Group, Capitol City Training and Employment Center, and Toni Thomas Associates. A nonprofit resident-run organization, Just U Wait N See, was the group’s fourth member.

Dwyer said last week the team failed to effectively place minority and local contractors in jobs at the site.

"There was a failure to get a Section 3 plan in place that sufficiently got people into jobs," Dwyer said, referring to federal housing regulations that cover local and minority hiring on projects that receive federal housing funds.

"Contractors and sub-contractors were calling and saying that referrals to Henson Ridge Associates weren’t producing jobs," he explained.

He also acknowledged that the program to give financial counseling and job training to former public housing residents who want to rent or buy homes at Henson Ridge has been left in limbo at a late stage of the project, which got underway in 1999.

Toni Thomas, director of Toni Thomas Associates, defended her job performance.

"To me, my level of effort was pretty good," she said. She said she worked "putting up programs for youth and teens and seniors…to stay connected with re-located residents."

NOAH Group officials did not return calls seeking comment, but a Mid-City spokesman said the firm had "achieved all of their milestones" in its work.

Thomas contested Dwyer’s assertion that she and the other partners had fought over money.

"I was happy to work for what was allocated to me under the budget," said Thomas, who said she and a three-person staff were paid $9,000 a month for their work.

Dwyer said he expects residents to start moving into rental units at Henson Ridge this summer and into for-sale units sometime next year.

"Everything’s not fine," he acknowledged. "We don’t have plenty of time. ...[but] We’re confident we have enough time."

A housing authority spokesman said the agency hopes to introduce a new service coordinator on May 10.

However, former public housing resident Elaine Carter, who said she hopes to move into the new development, expressed discouragement last week.

"Right now, I’m just confused about the whole process," said Carter, who was president of the Stanton Dwellings Resident Council and participated in the Henson Ridge planning process. Carter said she hopes to accompany Patterson to a meeting with housing authority officials.

"The bottom line is, they have a different agenda now than when we started out….I don’t know when anybody will be moving in, or if," she said.

Donna White, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said there are no HUD rules governing a local housing authority’s decision to fire its HOPE VI service providers. She said HUD would ask the D.C. Housing Authority to submit a new plan for the agency’s review.

She also said HUD regulations make no provision for the agency to recover public funds spent by a local housing authority on a failed program.

"What we are concerned with is that services are being provided to residents," she said.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator