Recently, housing advocates have called attention to abysmal living conditions at several Louisville Metro Housing Authority buildings. Issues include mold infestations, water damage and general disrepair.
LMHA’s Executive Director Lisa Osanka met with members of Metro Council’s Community Affairs, Housing, Health and Education Committee on Wednesday to discuss the state of the agency’s properties, maintenance backlogs and Section 8 voucher holders.
Osanka pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic and said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development waived inspection requirements that led to the deteriorating living conditions highlighted in the Courier Journal’s reporting last month.
“We are now getting caught up in trying to get eyes and ears on all of those units and have a plan in place to get that done,” Osanka said. “We are a little behind schedule, and I believe a number of these items that came up would have been highlighted if we had been able to get into those units and get these issues addressed.”
There are different inspection and maintenance protocols for agency-operated public housing, units run by property management companies and mixed-income developments that accept Section 8 vouchers.
LMHA has an annual budget of about $130 million. Of that, the housing authority gets $11 million from HUD for the maintenance of the agency’s 3,500 public housing units.
Osanka said it’ll take more than that to cover all the necessary repairs across the city’s public housing stock. The agency relies mostly on federal money because, unlike some cities, Metro Government doesn’t fund the public housing authority. She said, because of the limited funding, LMHA’s capital improvements department makes a list of necessary repairs, prioritizing those that pose health and safety risks to tenants.
“It’s possible that there would be things on that list that would get pushed down to a future year because of the limitations in annual HUD funding,” Osanka said.
During the meeting, Democratic Council Member Keisha Dorsey, of District 3, asked about accountability. She also raised the possibility of funding some of LMHA’s necessary repairs using federal coronavirus relief funds.
“My biggest concern is: How do we work together to make sure that we are inspecting LMHA-owned and operated properties and holding LMHA to the same standard that we would hold mom and pop landlords to?” Dorsey said. “If we can remediate some of those with some of these one-time [American Rescue Plan] dollars, I’d be very interested in the conversation.”
Osanka said LMHA carries out its own annual inspections of agency-managed public housing properties in addition to ones by HUD’s Real Estate Assessment Center. But that’s all pre-pandemic. But property management companies that oversee several LMHA properties get to implement their own policies.
There’s little recourse available to ensure safe and decent living conditions for Section 8 voucher holders. Osanka said LMHA inspects units at move-in and then once annually — a process that’s only recently resumed after a precautionary pause due to COVID-19.
Danielle Flynn is a voucher recipient and has lived in the same apartment complex since 2015. She said maintenance problems have persisted, and property management is unresponsive.
“You can never get them to come out. It’s gotten so bad to where I always have to call the city 311 Metro, or Section 8 [office] to ask for an inspection,” Flynn said. “I have to call him to get them to come out here to pressure management to fix something.”
Flynn said issues she’s had living there include a broken stove and oven, extended hot water outages and faulty plumbing — her apartment has failed inspection twice. Commonly, LMHA gives landlords 30 days to fix issues preventing units from passing inspection. If they don’t, then the agency initiates what’s called an abatement, and federal rent payments stop.
Flynn said that’s what’s happening with her unit. She said she sought advice from LMHA regarding next steps, but that representatives weren’t very helpful.
“The best thing they could tell me to do was to start early lease cancellation, so I can move out,” Flynn said. “This summer when the unit failed, I was asked to come to the rent office, and the lady in the rent office told me that I was behind on my rent,” Flynn said. “Once I examined my ledger, I realized that they had been charging me the wrong rate for rent.”
Since then, Flynn said the property management company has been retaliating against her and her mother who also lives in the same complex.
“We both received these eviction notices simultaneously the same day. Now my mother has been here for almost 17 years. She’s never been late on her rent,” Flynn said.
Flynn said the property management company is erroneously charging them late rent and maintenance fees. She said she’s worried about losing her voucher because of how her landlord could respond on the early lease termination form.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Democratic Council Member Cassie Chambers Armstrong, of District 8, asked Osanka if the process could be vetted to better protect residents against landlord retaliation.
“That’s really problematic,” Chambers Armstrong said. “Should we have more scrutiny given to these forms before we initiate termination procedures or take additional steps to make sure that we’re not having that chilling effect on folks looking for better quality housing?”
Osanka said if a landlord declares that damages and owed rent exceed the amount of the security deposit, then tenants don’t get relocation assistance unless they can come up with the money.
“They can maintain their current units, but it’s just that we wouldn’t process them for a move because of the unpaid rent or the damages that exceed the security deposit,” Osanka said. “There are 10,000 families on the program, and so there might be a few that are facing a different situation than most.”
She added that residents living under unsafe conditions would need to request a complaint inspection.
Osanka did not offer any solutions to the concerns presented during Wednesday’s meeting, but said she would follow up with council members.