April 24, 2015

Records show public housing often filled with violations

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Lavell Blissit stands outside Steer Place in Urbana on April 15, 2015. He has been a resident there for the past four years, he said.

Robert Holly/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Lavell Blissit stands outside Steer Place in Urbana on April 15, 2015. He has been a resident there for the past four years, he said.

Cockroaches, mice feces, broken appliances and mold were among the most severe violations found during standard public housing inspections this past year in Champaign County.

Besides the violations in homes, inspectors noted additional deficiencies on the grounds and in the common areas of many of the buildings, as well. These include overgrown vegetation and erosion under porches.

Ed Bland, executive director of the Housing Authority of Champaign County, said many of the units are simply getting old and require more upkeep.

“It’s no different than a person who buys a house,” he said. “As your house ages, you’re going to have to do more.”

Overall, there are 354 public housing units that make up the housing authority’s public housing portfolio. Inspection records compiled by a privately hired company show that more than half of these units received violations in 2014. In 2013, slightly less than half received violations.

The vast majority of public housing units are reserved for individuals with disabilities or the elderly. Those 338 units are broken up into six separate housing sites. The remaining 16 units are “scattered sites,” which are five-bedroom homes for low-income families.

Inspectors mark deficiencies as minor, major or severe. Minor violations include problems such as loose door handles and bubbled paint. Major violations often deal with broken appliances, such as inoperable burners on stoves.

The violations labeled severe range from mold and infestation to inoperable smoke detectors and exposed electrical wires.

During last year’s inspections, the Washington Square site, which contains 104 units for elderly individuals, had eight units with missing or inoperable smoke detectors. Five units had inoperable “Call-for-Aid” features. Additionally, the front doors of 29 units did not latch or close, according to the inspection reports.

But Minerva Wolfe, a caregiver at Addus HealthCare who assists a man in his 80s living in Washington Square, said this development isn’t the worst she has seen.

“I’ve seen many [housing developments] around the area. This one is pretty good,” she said. “I have seen some very bad ones.”

A Missouri-based inspection company, Midwest Inspections, conducted the Uniform Physical Condition Standards inspections in June and July. This cost the housing authority $3,003, said Matt Garard, director of finance, though he was unsure of the amount of money used to fix the violations.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires housing authorities to receive Real Estate Assessment Centerinspections for each housing site and unit.

Public housing authorities often complete UPCS inspections, such as those conducted by Midwest Inspections, to help them meet REAC standards and obtain higher REAC scores, according to the Midwest Inspections website.

“From the inspection, they identify the things we need to do, and then we go ahead and do the work,” Bland said.

Maintenance requests provide more insight

The housing authority has a maintenance staff that attends to most deficiencies, Bland said. For more serious problems, such as infestation, licensed companies often have to step in.

The inspection reports listed five of the 16 scattered public housing sites as infested with roaches in 2013. In 2014, three of those sites were found to be infested with roaches once again.

Residents can notify the housing authority of any problems that arise between annual inspections, Bland said.

“If a tenant doesn’t tell us something is broken, we have no way of knowing,” Bland said.

The housing authority corrects all deficiencies within 30 days of receiving notice of them, he said.

Requests that are considered emergencies — gas leaks and inoperable smoke detectors, for instance — are completed within 24 hours, according to the housing authority’s website.

Complaint records show that the housing authority completed 5,126 work orders in 2014. Most maintenance requests and complaints filed were completed in less than a week. Almost all “emergency” orders, such as replacing carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, were fixed in a day.

Yet, the records showed little consistency in the time it took for requests to be completed.

Some requests to remove snow and ice were taken care of in four or five days in January but in only a day or two in February. It often took five days to a full week to complete a request to pick up garbage and large items on public housing property. Larger tasks, such as the turnover of a unit in preparation for someone new to move in, often took about a month, but only took a week in other instances.

Lavell Blissit, a four-year resident of Steer Place in Urbana, said his maintenance requests are typically taken care of quickly.

“Sometimes they wait on me that day, and sometimes it’d be one, maybe two days,” he said. “They get right to it.”

Lack of funding leads to deteriorating conditions

In general, a lack of government funding to public housing nationwide may be a reason for housing conditions worsening, said Bob Palmer, policy director for Housing Action Illinois, a coalition that works to protect and expand the availability of affordable housing.

Public housing has been underfunded for decades, he said.

Housing authorities, for example, have not received funding to build additional public housing since the 1990s, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in 2013. That report also stated that nearly all housing developments were built before 1985 and “have accumulated large underlying renovation needs.”

In Champaign County, three developments were built in the 1960s. Steer Place and all 16 scattered sites were built in the 1970s, and Washington Place in 1980. The most recent development, Hayes Homes, was built in 2007.

The decline of public housing conditions is especially a concern for agencies with high populations of elderly and disabled tenants. A 2005 study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that more elderly or disabled individuals are moving into public housing but most developments had not been updated to meet their needs.

“It’s challenging for public housing authorities to take good care of their properties,” Palmer said. “And the people who suffer are the residents.”

“HUD-assisted families have a right to live in decent, safe, and sanitary homes,” said Chicago-based HUD public affairs officer Gina Rodriguez. “Taxpayers also have an expectation that subsidized homes are decent.”

Public housing has about $25.6 billion of unmet capital need nationwide, according to a housing department 2010 study.

“There’s a capital backlog of needs for public housing across the country,” Palmer said. “[Housing authorities] are not getting everything they should just to be able to operate public housing on a daily basis.”

In Champaign County, Bland said he feels as though his housing authority has enough money and resources to maintain the condition of its public housing units. He also said it has the resources to sufficiently fix any problems that arise.

The housing authority’s estimated 2015 fiscal year budget, which runs from January through December, is about $16.1 million.

Blissit said he has never noticed any major problems with his living conditions.

“They’re fair conditions,” he said. “They’re not real bad, but they’re not 100 percent. I’d say they’re at about 70 percent.”

Locations of Housing

This map shows where all the units are located. Larger icons represent public housing locations with more individual units. For example, Oscar Steer Place has 108 individual units, so it is represented with the largest icon on the map. Click on an icon for additional information.

View larger mapMap by Abraham Koshy

The Housing Authority of Champaign County oversees the county’s public housing. It manages six larger public housing locations and 16 five-bedroom homes. There are 354 housing units in total. The majority of the county’s public housing is located in Champaign and Urbana.