TALLAHASSEE — The state Department of Community Affairs announced a series of sweeping changes Friday to a widely criticized housing program, including the dismissal of a senior staffer and a streamlined grant approval process.
The announcement was celebrated by local governments that had complained state workers were dodging questions about how to use the grant and dragging out the application process for nearly a year. At stake is $91 million in federal housing dollars that must be earmarked by September.
The program's troubles were detailed in a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau report published days before the changes were made.
Florida trails 42 states in spending its share of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a federal assistance grant that funds the purchase, rehabilitation and resale of foreclosed properties. While roughly 14 percent of the grant money has been spent nationally, Florida has spent 2 percent of its award, according to the Housing and Urban Development Department, which oversees the grant.
Florida received more Neighborhood Stabilization Program dollars than any other state, and any not obligated by September must be returned.
Under the changes announced Friday, the state eliminated several approval and procedural requirements it had been demanding of grant recipients before they could spend their awards, giving cities and counties greater control over how they spend the money.
The program's ranking staffer, Deborah De La O, a management analyst who earned $19 an hour, was also dismissed last week. De La O's responsibilities included fielding questions from grant recipients.
"Her voice mail is always full," said Jamie Rowland, senior housing specialist for Osceola County in a recent interview. "You can't even leave a message."
The Department of Community Affairs has had trouble filling the five temporary positions budgeted to staff the program.
Of the three remaining staffers, two were hired within the last month.
"Any and all responsibilities related to NSP are covered," wrote department spokesman James Miller in an e-mail Monday. "Also, we are close to bringing on several more employees from different divisions if necessary."
The program provides grants for rural counties and smaller cities, to help them rebound from the housing market collapse and foreclosure crisis.
Melinda Thomas, director of housing and community development for Melbourne, a coastal city slated to receive $1.9 million, said the state took weeks to respond to her questions. The program changes brought her new hope that the grant dollars will be spent on time.
"Things should move very nicely," she said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.