HUD weighs tougher inspections of public housing after complaints of substandard conditions

The first meeting with stakeholders on changes was 2 weeks after NBC News showed taxpayers are subsidizing families living in substandard conditions.
Housing And Urban Development Department Secretary Ben Carson Testifies To Senate Committee On Department's Budget
HUD Secretary Ben Carson testifies during a hearing before the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee June 7, 2017 on Capitol Hill.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

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By Laura Strickler, Hannah Rappleye and Suzy Khimm

WASHINGTON — The Department of Housing and Urban Development is considering a major change to toughen inspections on properties that are owned or subsidized by taxpayers, according to HUD PowerPoint presentation materials obtained by NBC News.

The first meeting with stakeholders on the possible changes occurred in late November two weeks after an NBC News investigation that aired on Nightly News showed taxpayers are subsidizing thousands of families living in substandard conditions.

One change under consideration is shortening the amount of notice owners and public housing officials are given before a federal inspection. Currently HUD gives owners a heads-up three to four months before an inspection. An idea under consideration would change that to seven days, according to the HUD PowerPoint.

Public housing directors said this would be "a monumental change to current practice," according to coverage of the meeting in a newsletter for the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association (PHADA).

If owners or public housing authorities balked at inspections, they would receive an automatic score of zero, according to the documents.

A HUD spokesperson said the department would have no comment until the changes are finalized.

The HUD proposal stated that the policy changes could be rolled out as early as February 2019. The documents say the purpose of the change is to provide "inspections that protect families and reflect the property's true physical condition."

HUD officials told stakeholders at the late November meeting they felt change was necessary because some private owners had been known to pay consultants tens of thousands of dollars to help them pass inspections, according to meeting attendees.

Attendees also said there was pushback from some industry participants in the meeting.

In a phone interview with NBC News, Tim Kaiser, PHADA's executive director, said, "Focus on the outliers. … A large majority of housing authorities do a good job. Don't apply 'solutions' that are not necessary."

The Infill apartments on Barbour Street in Hartford, Connecticut.Hannah Rappleye / NBC News

Kaiser says the bigger problem at HUD is a lack of funding and oversight as well as the ongoing loss of personnel, which he says has a widespread impact.

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When NBC News started asking questions about HUD inspections in early October, a HUD spokesperson said the department had been working on an inspection overhaul since HUD Secretary Ben Carson came into office in early 2017.

But Kaiser says the first he and his colleagues had ever heard of a major change to the program was at the late November meeting, after the NBC News story aired.

Another group that attended the HUD meeting, the National Multifamily Housing Council, told NBC News in an email it would not comment until the policy was formalized.

'Relocate families to better conditions and then work out the details'

In the recent NBC News report, one HUD official was recorded on tape conceding that the inspection process was "broken."

HUD hires third-party inspectors to examine tens of thousands of properties where low-income families live. But the inspections themselves are widely criticized as inaccurate.

NBC News reported that two properties in a Hartford, Connecticut, neighborhood were infested with mice, had large holes in the ceilings and a sinkhole in the parking lot — but still passed HUD inspection.

Documents showed that landlord Eli Fish had severely neglected his property, the Infill Apartments. Problems included mice, black mold, collapsed ceilings, bedbugs and roaches. Fish received a failing HUD inspection score of 27 in February, 2018 but the agency was slow to demand permanent changes.

Fish did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Sarah Wheeler cries in the living room of her home in Hartford. Wheeler says both her landlord and the federal government have ignored her pleas for help in fixing the conditions in her family's apartment. Hannah Rappleye / NBC News

Local activist Cori Mackey of the Christian Activities Council, whose group organized the tenants in Hartford said despite the attention, the landlords keep getting paid.

"Everyone from medical doctors to senators have weighed in on the need to relocate families immediately, and the response has been what we consider to be an over-abundance of caution for due process for the owners," she said. "Our message to HUD is to immediately relocate families to better conditions and then work out the details with the owners and buildings."

Tenants say movement can't come soon enough.

"We're angry," said Sarah Wheeler, a tenant in a Fish-owned building. "We can't get anybody to help us to do anything."

Walter Thomas and his wife Sarah Wheeler pay $1,160 a month for their HUD-subsidized apartment. They say it is infested with bedbugs and mold and the family often goes without heat. They and other families at the complex say neither the property manager nor HUD respond to tenants' concerns.Hannah Rappleye / NBC News

Erica Pierre, who lives at the Infill Apartments with her daughter, says there have been no inspections, letters or calls from HUD.

Pierre told NBC News that Fish reached out to her last week to "talk about repairs."

"That's not what I want," she said. "I want to move, because the repairs do not fix the mice."

The property's latest federal inspection score will be released next week.

Within the last two weeks the city's fire marshal conducted a secondary inspection at the Infill Apartments and found additional violations. If Fish does not make immediate repairs within weeks the fire department will refer the case to the state's attorney for criminal prosecution according to a spokesperson for the Hartford mayor's office.

Blocks away, the city recently took action against another property owned by Fish.

The city says Fish was repeatedly told to fix an apartment that had problems with lead paint since a child had been poisoned in the unit under the previous owner.

But Fish failed to fix the property despite repeated notifications according to public records obtained by NBC. Another city contractor told NBC News that Fish also falsified his lead disclosure form.

The city terminated Fish's housing voucher contract on Nov. 25.