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Federal housing specialist takes Sedgwick County department to task over number of families served

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, July 28, 2013, at 7:24 p.m.

Sedgwick County’s housing department is under fire by a federal housing specialist who says more families could and should be served.

But the county’s housing director, Dorsha Kirksey, and Mary K. Vaughn, director of Wichita’s housing and community services, say they are having a tougher time getting people into government-subsidized apartments and homes because of clients’ credit issues and criminal and rental histories.

“Our leasing numbers are down,” Kirksey said. “It’s getting harder and harder to get people qualified.”

The county’s housing department offers Section 8 vouchers to residents who qualify. The city has some public housing it owns and also participates in Section 8, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program.

Sedgwick County gets 342 vouchers for eligible households and funding to serve 300 to 315 households, depending on family size. As of Friday, 233 vouchers, or 68 percent, were in use. The city handles about 2,650 vouchers, and about 90 percent of those are in use.

“One of the issues we are having as well is when landlords screen the tenants, the tenants are not passing those screens,” Vaughn said.

A HUD staff member recently criticized the county’s housing department in an e-mail she sent to Kirksey, Assistant County Manager Ron Holt and Commissioner Karl Peterjohn. The Eagle received a copy of the e-mail. Julie Tudor, a public housing revitalization specialist, took Kirksey to task for not using a forecasting spreadsheet tool that HUD does not require but encourages housing authorities to use.

“I am very concerned regarding the financial status (of) your program and its rapidly diminishing size,” Tudor said in the e-mail sent last month.

Kirksey responded, explaining some of the financial information needed to use the tool isn’t available until midmonth each month and that any numbers she would input would be estimates. The forecasting tool projects leasing, spending and funding over a two-year period.

Tudor responded by e-mail that “It is not my intention to be contentious, but if you truly have, and use, your own system for tracking utilization, I don’t understand how the agency got into its current position between last year and this year.”

She noted that last year, the county’s housing department “only utilized 76 percent of its budget authority, leaving $281,943 in unused funding and only leasing 71 percent of its unit months available. Future year’s funding is always dependent upon the actual use in the prior year. Because the agency did not use $281,943 of 2012’s funding, the agency lost the potential for generating renewal funds for 2013 funding in that amount.”

Tudor said in the e-mail, which a HUD spokeswoman noted was not meant for public consumption, that lower leasing rates were threatening revenue for administrative expenses.

“As leasing of families is essential to generating revenue for the administrative expenses, the agency is not maximizing its earnings that pay for the program’s administration,” Tudor said.

Holt, the county’s assistant manager who oversees Kirksey and her department, said he did not share Tudor’s concerns about management of the program.

He and Kirksey said the forecasting tool Tudor wants Kirksey to use is cumbersome and not of much benefit to the department.

“Dorsha’s talked to me about the decrease in clients and the money we’re receiving,” he said during an interview with The Eagle and Kirksey.

The Eagle contacted Tudor for comment. Agatha Gutierrez, a public affairs specialist for HUD in Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, responded on her behalf. Gutierrez said Tudor’s job is to provide housing authorities with technical assistance and to monitor for compliance with statutory, regulatory, procedural and contractual requirements.

Asked if HUD was concerned that funding to Sedgwick County was being mismanaged, Gutierrez said “the e-mail was not intended for public consumption but rather as a notification and tool to the Housing Authority in an attempt to assist them in maximizing their dollars to an optimum program level.”

Asked if HUD was concerned about Kirksey’s leadership, Gutierrez said, “HUD does not have any personnel authority or perform any evaluation process for housing authority staff.”

“It is HUD’s mission and highest priority to ensure that all program funds are utilized to assist eligible families in need of housing assistance,” Gutierrez said by e-mail. “With so many families in need, our efforts to monitor the utilization of funding and ensure that the maximum number of families receive assistance is our primary focus. The tone of (Tudor’s e-mail) is a reflection of the seriousness of that concern for families not served if the funds are not utilized.”

Funding eligibility

In 2012, Sedgwick County’s housing department received $1,135,854 from HUD, Kirksey said.

“We are still receiving adjustments to that,” Kirksey said.

The county’s housing department pulled 254 households from its waiting list last year and got 33 households leased.

This year’s funding was decreased to $867,033 – in part because of sequestration, Kirksey said, and in part because of leasing numbers. HUD also is making housing authorities spend down any reserves they have, Kirksey said.

Kirksey said the department doesn’t yet know what it will receive next year.

“As you should know, renewal funding for future years is based on utilization of its annual budget authority,” Tudor said in her e-mail.

Tudor noted that the county’s funding eligibility last year “was $1,204,318 and due to the lack of spending, 2013 renewal eligibility dropped to $867,033, a reduction of program funding amounting to $337,285. Additionally, with all of the ... funding at your disposal, the agency only utilized 71 percent of its unit months available.”

The department, she said, “could have assisted many more families than it did.”

“After all, if you crunch the numbers, I would think someone would begin to question, if not be downright concerned at losing that $337,285 between last year and this year,” Tudor wrote to Kirksey. “That figure translates into 1,022 unit months or approximately another 85 families you could have been assisting per month at the current per unit cost of $330. If that isn’t enough to raise considerable concern, it’s also $50,173 worth of prorated administrative fees that were lost, or $4,181 per month. This is money that could be going to your agency instead of back to HUD.”

Kirksey said she lived in a project-based Section 8 program apartment for about a year many years ago as a single mother. She said she knows how tough it can be for families and, based on her own experience, wants to help as many as possible.

She said more and more, landlords won’t accept clients because of “credit history or because of some criminal legal issue.”

The department, she said, advises clients to be upfront with landlords. But ultimately, landlords have the final say. And many, she said, are saying no.

“We see that decline because of the higher bars that have been set by landlords,” Kirksey said.

In addition, clients of the county’s housing department can’t use vouchers inside the city limits of Wichita because the city’s housing program has jurisdiction there. Kirksey said many people who are low income don’t want to live outside the city because of transportation or employment issues. The Sedgwick County program also serves people in Harvey and Butler counties, however.

The city is in a bit of a Catch-22, said Vaughn, director of Wichita’s housing department.

“HUD knows how much we should have to administer the program,” she said. “Because of federal cuts, they have announced the most we will be able to get is 69 percent of what they say we need. But in order to even get that, we have to have our clients leased in apartments.”

So there are fewer staff members available to help eligible clients. Vaughn said she used to have six inspectors and now has three who are tasked with inspecting more than 2,500 households’ apartments or homes.

Clients have 60 days, Vaughn said, to redeem a Section 8 voucher, and “they’re coming in asking for extensions. We’re trying to get people who hold vouchers leased. But we have reduced staff, caused by reduced funding from HUD, and are experiencing some delays in running background checks on clients. That combination of things, from the landlord screens to the operational issues here, that makes us not being 100 percent leased.

“We have people who have vouchers, and they can’t find a place to move.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

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