Council members question Lexington Housing authority about relocation process

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comMay 14, 2013 

Complaints from Pimlico Apartments tenants affected by a mass relocation has prompted the Urban County Council to question how the Lexington Housing Authority is handling the move.

The Urban County Government has no control over the organization, which receives federal funding, but officials are trying to help.

Eighth District Councilman George G. Myers, city officials, and advocates met with Housing Authority director Austin Simms on Tuesday morning to ask how the Housing Authority is aiding an estimated 119 families who haven't found new homes on the private market using a federal voucher.

Then on Tuesday night, the city sent representatives to a tenants meeting hosted by the Catholic Action Center and the Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative. More than 60 residents met with about 20 advocates, officials and citizens providing assistance with finding housing and moving. The housing authority wants to have residents moved by July 31.

"The Housing Authority is doing everything in its power to help," Ginny Ramsey of the Catholic Action Center said at that meeting, "but when you have this large amount of people who have to move ... it takes the whole community to help navigate."

Residents had told council members at last week's work session that Housing Authority officials required them to make a quick decision without telling them about the challenges they would face in finding new homes.

Myers, whose district includes the Pimlico Apartments, told the Herald-Leader before the Tuesday morning meeting that he was not questioning the integrity of anyone at the housing authority.

"But when people bring those kinds of things forward, you have to do something, at least your due diligence to look into it and see what's factual."

After meeting with Simms, Myers said some of the information that residents gave the council was not accurate. He said the Housing Authority was meeting government guidelines for the relocation. However, Myers said, Housing Authority officials acknowledged that "there is room for improvement" in the process for helping the tenants who chose to relocate to private property.

The Housing Authority is "committed to working with us and others to help those things happen in a positive way," Myers said.

David Christiansen of the Central Kentucky Housing & Homeless Initiative, said Tuesday that the relocation presents a particular challenge for Lexington because 119 families are trying to find low-cost housing at one time.

In March, tenants were told they must move because the Housing Authority was renovating their complex. Some residents told the Herald-Leader at that time that they were given a week to decide between two options.

The building, which was built in the late 1970s, has fallen into disrepair and is antiquated, Simms has said. The $18 million to $20 million rehabilitation will take an estimated 14 to 15 months.

Option A was a transfer to another public housing unit in Lexington with the option of returning to the refurbished Pimlico and having moving expenses paid. Option B meant accepting a federal voucher that allows them to rent from a private landlord with no moving expenses paid by the Housing Authority.

Simms said Monday that all but 10 of the Pimlico Apartment residents took the second option, a federal voucher that will allow them to rent from a private landlord. Under federal regulations, those who take the voucher must find a home within 60 days of signing the agreement.

Some residents had told the council at last week's work session that they weren't told that they would be left to their own devices to such an extent if they took the voucher. They said they either can't find a home with the voucher or haven't been able to come up with money in such a short time to move.

Simms said Monday that any Pimlico resident who hasn't yet found a new home and wants to give up the voucher can stay in public housing. He said the resident would be moved from Pimlico when a public housing unit becomes available.

He said no tenant would be put out on the street.

So far, no one has given up a voucher, Simms said. Christiansen said another problem is that residents can't get back their deposits from the Housing Authority until they turn in their keys, so they don't have money for security deposits.

Jessica Spivey, a resident who spoke to council members last week, said in an interview last week that Housing Authority officials have not provided residents with enough information about landlords who will take the vouchers, known as Section 8.

"Everybody who I've called said they either won't accept Section 8 or they need to have the deposit right this moment to hold the house," Spivey said.

Simms said he can't steer residents to landlords willing to take the voucher, but his staff is providing information about large apartment complexes where managers have said they will. He said about 30 residents have moved so far with vouchers.

Resident Mary Chidester, told the council that despite what the Housing Authority originally told her, under the voucher rules, she and her toddler son were downsized from the two-bedroom apartment that she is eligible for in public housing. Chidester said she was given only $588 a month — enough to pay for a one-bedroom on the private market.

Some residents who took the voucher have asked the city for help with moving expenses.

At last week's Urban County Council work session, Urban County Social Services Commissioner Beth Mills also said the way the project is being handled meets federal guidelines. She will not recommend that the city spend money for moving costs for those who accepted the voucher to find a home with a private landlord. Because federal funds are involved, Mills said in an e-mail, "local government can't interfere in federal process and mandates."

Tuesday's meeting would pair tenants with faith based groups, landlords and citizens who are willing to help with costs and other issues.

First District Councilman Chris Ford, the chair of the Council Social Services Committee, said Monday that he thought improved community relations on the part of the Housing Authority would help the situation.

Myers wants the Housing Authority to work with the city, Fayette County Public Schools, United Way of the Bluegrass, and other groups to give the best opportunity for Pimlico Apartment tenants. Myers said he is encouraging the Housing Authority to use a minority contractor and to give tenants jobs working on the renovations.

"If you are dealing with cattle then you go by the book and say sorry, you signed a document. But when you are dealing with people ... when you are dealing with families and children, you work within the rules to ... make the situation best for everyone," Myers said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears.

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