DADE CITY — While thousands of people wait on a list for public housing in Pasco County, dozens of units have sat empty for up to three years, waiting for repairs before new tenants can move in. The county's low-income housing agency said it couldn't come up with the cash to fix up the duplexes.
At the same time the vacancy problem was going on, though, the Pasco County Housing Authority was remodeling its Dade City headquarters. That project, which finished in spring 2008, has attracted scrutiny from federal officials because it included an eye-popping $11,500 in overtime payments to a maintenance worker accused of having a sexual relationship with the agency's executive director.
A vacancy rate that at times topped 15 percent is the most recent problem to surface during an agency overhaul that began this fall after media coverage of a whistle-blower lawsuit by a former employee. Besides allegations of mismanagement, the suit accused former executive director Karen Turner of creating a hostile work environment by having sex during work hours with another employee, who has since left the authority. That suit is pending.
Turner was forced to resign in September and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began a comprehensive audit of the housing authority.
"Quite frankly we came into a hornet's nest," said David Lambert, one of four new board members appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to oversee the $15.1 million agency. "We're slowly slogging our way through it."
HUD's audit is due by the end of the month. Several "immediate recommendations" that federal officials gave to the housing authority provide a preview of its findings, though the report could reveal other problems. Some of HUD's recommendations include:
• Lower the vacancy rate. That will provide help to some of the 2,300 poor residents on a public housing waiting list — and bring more rental income into the agency.
• Review overtime problems. Interim director Linda Wright said she stopped all overtime pay except for work on "turning around" homes so they are ready for new tenants.
• Submit a financial audit covering 2010. Because that report is overdue, HUD will likely label Pasco's housing authority a "troubled" agency, which could imperil some of its federal funding. Lambert hopes the designation can be removed quickly after the audit is finished Dec. 6.
"When (the HUD report) comes out it's going to be pretty damaging to the prior administration," said George Romagnoli, Pasco County's Community Development director.
Romagnoli has long complained that the housing authority has not been a "good partner" with his office on affordable housing issues. For example, he highlighted a questionable policy regarding federal Section 8 vouchers that poor people can use to help pay their rent. Those vouchers are portable — a family can use them anywhere in the country.
Several years ago, Romagnoli said, the housing authority adopted a policy that said when a voucher became available, it would go to a Section 8 family that had come to Pasco from another area. That family would now be counted against Pasco's voucher limit, and its old voucher would go back to the outside agency. It's unclear why the agency would give preference to people from outside the area instead of Pasco residents.
"Other communities like Sarasota say, 'No we're not going to do that. We're going to help our own people first,' " he said.
Eugene Williams, a Community Development employee focused on homeless issues, said the housing authority applied for a $600,000 grant last year to give homeless people a place to live. Because a staffer checked the wrong box on the application, the agency only got $100,000.
Meanwhile, as the administrative headaches are worked out, agency staff members are trying to get more homes ready for tenants.
Vacant units have dropped to 62 from 78 in the past month as maintenance workers focused on getting units ready for new tenants. The goal is a 95 percent occupancy rate, or roughly 25 units vacant at any one time.
On a tour of Cypress Farms in Lacoochee last week, several vacant homes were badly in need of repair. Stolen copper piping. Vulgar graffiti. Holes in the walls. Some people leave their homes in decent shape. Others clearly don't.
Maintenance supervisor Don Franklin said units went without upkeep for so long for two main reasons: Staffers were directed to other projects, and the community manager didn't inspect the properties often enough to spot problems. Wright recently suspended that manager.
Franklin also showed off some of his recent handiwork, with freshly painted walls, new tile and bathroom fixtures. He and his staff are also focused on curb appeal, cleaning up sidewalks and clearing vegetation from parking lots. The goal is to encourage residents to start taking more pride in the community.
"This community here has been let go for a while," Franklin said. "Some of the residents are starting to show some concern."
Applications for a new executive director to replace Turner were due this weekend. Lambert said the agency has about 20 applicants, including some with experience at similar agencies in other states. He hopes to have a new director by early next year.
"We need to find someone with some experience and knowledge that will help fix the problems," said John Finnerty, another recent appointee by the governor to the housing authority board.
Wright, who is not applying for the permanent director position, said she was "in shock" when she started finding the problems at the agency. "I always thought we were high-performing," said Wright, an agency veteran who oversaw the agency's Section 8 program before moving into her new role.
Wright was close with Turner, the former director. She recalled one employee telling her, "You should've known, you were her friend." Her reply: "We didn't discuss things. We didn't talk about work."
Wright praises the recent work to uncover and correct problems at the housing authority, though she is still pained that Turner's "life was destroyed" by the recent upheaval.
Still, could the recent improvements have happened if Turner was still in charge?
"You know, I don't know how to answer that," Wright said.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.