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Housing agency responds to critical audit

Vera Jones doesn't need a 77-page audit to tell her that the roof leaks and the faucet won't stop running.

"I've been calling and calling the manager's office but nobody ever wants to fix anything," said Jones, who lives with her six children in the Ponce De Leon housing project. "All they give you is hassle, and I'm the one stuck in a place where the walls are moldy."

Poor maintenance and deplorable living conditions were among the serious management problems unearthed by a recent federal audit of the Tampa Housing Authority.

On Tuesday, housing officials responded with a flurry of new programs ranging from a preventive maintenance team and better manager training to regular resident surveys.

But they didn't address the role played by Audley Evans, the former housing authority director who now heads a private, non-profit organization that works with the housing authority. The audit accused him of mismanaging federal money and suggested the authority immediately sever its relationship with Evans.

But that's a move the housing authority wasn't prepared to make Tuesday.

"The role of non-profits is a very complicated issue," said Ed Johnson, chairman of the housing authority's board. "Though we know we've made mistakes in the past with non-profits, we're not going to do anything before we consult our legal department."

Evans, whose business dealings were the focus of the federal audit, has been unavailable for comment since the report was released Monday. His Temple Terrace office was closed Tuesday morning and he didn't show up at the housing authority news conference Tuesday afternoon.

The audit, written by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, chronicles a pattern of mismanagement during the final years of Evans' eight-year tenure.

Auditors determined that managers handed out jobs to unqualified friends and relatives and that renovation contracts were improperly split to avoid public bidding requirements. The audit also found that abuses were covered up in annual reports to federal officials.

But what is most troubling to housing officials, including Jerome Ryans, the authority's new executive director who starts Friday, is Evans' continuing role with the housing authority.

Before he resigned in July 1996, Evans exploited the housing authority's reliance on non-profits to create for himself a lucrative position he continues to hold, the audit concluded.

Over the years, the 5,000-unit housing authority, like others nationwide, has formed small, non-profit organizations that handle some aspects of the low-income housing business. These entities are allowed to generate income by charging market-rate rents _ rates public agencies can't charge _ while operating outside the bidding procedures and regulations that govern public agencies.

Before he left the housing authority, Evans became the director of one of these non-profits, the Tampa Housing Development Corporation. He transferred assets and used money from authority bonds to finance property acquisitions like warehouses and apartment complexes, the audit found.

Auditors concluded that the housing authority should never have given Evans' non-profit corporation $1.9-million in contracts. That amount, along with another $613,000 determined to be improperly allocated, will have to be paid back to HUD, the audit says.

The problems are causing city leaders to take a more active role.

"We are going to keep a closer eye on public housing," said Mayor Dick Greco, who plans to send and aide to monitor authority board meetings. "We're going to do what we can to make sure that every dime spent in those projects benefits the people who live there."

Residents like the sound of that but will believe it when they see it.

"We've got peeling paint, missing windows, and people complaining," said 70-year-old Lola Jackson, who lives in Ponce De Leon. "There's a whole lot of work that needs to be done."