On behalf of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, we are writing to protest the Administration’s apparent policy to refuse meetings or communication with representatives of the 2.1 million families who live in privately-owned, HUD assisted housing, and to punish nonprofit organizations under contract with HUD who have attempted to assist HUD tenants.
We have written you several times to request a meeting with you or your Assistant Secretary for Housing, John Weicher, to discuss a range of housing policies which affect our members, since our one brief meeting in October 2001. The nation has lost more than 200,000 units of affordable HUD-assisted housing due to owner and HUD decisions to terminate federal subsidy contracts in the past few years, while your Administration opposes new rental housing to replace units lost and now has proposed a Section 8 renewal budget which will cut off at least 184,000 families from Section 8 assistance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. While your refusal to discuss this dismal record may be understandable, the unwillingness of a “public servant” to face the victims of his policies can hardly be excused.
Our most recent unrequited request for a meeting with you was last spring, when you declined to meet with our elected tenant Board or attend our annual Conference in Washington, D.C. At the time, your scheduling office assured us that Assistant Secretary Weicher would meet with NAHT. When we called the Assistant Secretary’s office, we were told he was “unavailable,” but that a lower level official in HUD’s OMHAR office would meet with us. That same day, we received a letter from the Director of OMHAR informing us that this same official had in fact been instructed not to meet with anyone unless they officially designated to represent a HUD grantee suspended pursuant to a HUD audit. So much for your Administration’s willingness to meet with its primary “customers.”
But it gets worse. Last month, our then Board President, Louise Sanchez, secured a commitment from Assistant Secretary Weicher to meet with the NAHT Board while they shared a satellite training broadcast to HUD multifamily housing employees. Following this public commitment, Mr.Weicher’s office called to schedule a meeting on Tuesday, September 30; only the specific time remained to be confirmed. As a result, 14 low income tenants on our Board raised funds to fly to Washington, from all parts of the country, looking forward to a chance to discuss the growing list of serious concerns facing HUD tenants. As our Board arrived in Washington last Thursday, imagine our disappointment when we learned that Mr. Weicher was now “unavailable” to meet. Your Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing, Stillman Knight, has likewise refused to meet with our Board or membership since his appointment by the Administration last May, and General Deputy Assistant Secretary Sean Cassidy has been similarly “unavailable” since 2001.
Mr. Secretary, your Administration is the least responsive to tenants and most disengaged of any we have dealt with in the entire history of HUD. Until you took office in 2001, NAHT and its predecessor tenant network enjoyed regular, quarterly meetings with every Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing since the Reagan Administration, with every Assistant Secretary for Housing since Janet Hale in 1985, and with every HUD Secretary since Jack Kemp. It was Secretary Kemp who in fact helped initiate an exciting direct dialogue with HUD tenants, with the vision of enlisting thousands of volunteer tenants as the unpaid “eyes and ears” of HUD in its oversight mission. Over the next decade, NAHT institutionalized regular meetings between tenants and regional HUD staff and quarterly meetings between the NAHT Board and top HUD officials in Washington, D.C., including appearances by HUD officials at NAHT’s Annual Conference. This process resulted in myriad improvements in HUD policies benefiting tenants and in an efficient grievance process for enforcement problems in the field, resulting in improved administrative performance by HUD at little cost to the Department. We regret you have turned your back on these proven results.
While we continue to enjoy an on-going and productive dialogue with the many fine career officials who remain at HUD, the political appointees of the Bush Administration who alone can make policy decisions have chosen to slam the door on organized tenant groups. It is scant comfort to learn that virtually all other housing constituency organizations, and Congresspeople and staffers from both parties on Capitol Hill, have voiced identical and widespread complaints about your Administration’s lack of competence, disengagement and unresponsiveness to their concerns. The 2.1 million families who live in housing subsidized by HUD, and the taxpayers and tenants who foot the bill, deserve better than this.
Rather than treating tenants as partners, you have chosen to treat us as the enemy. Your disgraceful response to the Inspector General audits of Section 514 nonprofit HUD contractors enlisted to assist tenants underscores this point. Despite the most extensive “witchhunt” in the history of HUD, wasting 42% of the Inspector Generals field audit resources last year in an unprecedented 100% review of 42 OTAG, ITAG and VISTA Volunteer grants to assist tenants in HUD housing, the audits found no pattern of impermissible “lobbying” with HUD funds. The IG questioned only $11,002 out of $13 million reviewed in five audits—less than 1/10th of 1 percent--and these grantees vigorously protest even these (mostly erroneous) findings.
We are pleased that the audits have exonerated the OTAG/ITAG/VISTA programs and most grantees of the “lobby” allegations. Yet your Administration has illegally suspended all but 14 of these small nonprofit grantees for more than a year, with no end in sight, in flagrant violation of HUD’s own audit resolution Handbook. Owners and housing authorities which openly divert public funds are almost never treated this harshly or unfairly. The Section 514 program, and HUD’s reputation for fairness and good faith in honoring its contracts, has largely been destroyed.
Far from “overspending” Section 514 programs, less than $20 million of the $61 million available to HUD to run these programs has actually been spent. Your Administration has been able to honor its contracts for work already performed for only eight out of 32 months since the contracts were signed in December 2000. Since you took office in 2001, you have yet to appoint anyone to run these programs, despite your written promise to Capitol Hill to do so in March 2002. As the IG noted, your Administration’s failure to provide training to new contractors in grant management, despite their repeated requests, led to the mostly minor administrative errors for which these groups are now being illegally suspended. Having solicited groups to participate, HUD has then punished people who have attempted to help tenants, bankrupted several organizations, and deprived tenants in more than half the country of the resources to participate in decisions affecting the future of their homes.
The message is clear: HUD wants to silence the organizations which work with tenants, and deny tenants the access or resources to make our voices heard at HUD. But we will not be silenced. Your Administration’s refusal to meet with or respond to tenants leaves us no choice but to resort to unusual methods to find and communicate with you and to save our homes.
Carol Driscoll, President
HUD’s discretionary handling of the audit witchhunt has shown astonishing ineptitude and bad faith. One example: several organizations (including Georgetown University) which sent HUD checks to pay back allegedly ineligible costs were surprised to later receive a second request for the same funds, after HUD had cashed their checks. No wonder HUD’s reputation for honoring its contracts with nonprofit organizations has been destroyed.
To this day, HUD has yet to forward the IG audits to grantees or notified them of their suspensions, as required by Audit Resolution Handbook 2000.06. In fact, the chief of OMHAR’s audit resolution Task Force denied that the Audit Resolution Handbook existed. When we forwarded it to her and the responsible agency official, she acknowledged its existence but stated that the due process provisions of the Handbook do not apply. Assistant Secretary Weicher and OMHAR have refused our repeated requests to make available the alleged legal opinions behind the Department’s actions