The Austin Chronicle

Housing Authority in Trouble With HUD

By Kimberly Reeves, September 29, 2006, News

The Housing Authority of the City of Austin could be forced to repay $588,130 to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for overpayment of Section 8 tenant vouchers, according to recommendations in a federal audit released this month.

The potential penalty sounds dire, but on the scale of misdeeds and miscalculations, this is a minor misstep for Austin's housing authority. The audit, completed by HUD's Office of Inspector General, tags and audits suspected cases of "overhousing." In Austin, the vouchers of 662 tenants over the last three years were pulled because the voucher size appeared to exceed the needs of the members of the household.

The circumstances varied: An extra relative could be living with the family, a live-in caretaker might no longer live in the unit, or a change in the family unit – such as a divorce – went unreported to the housing authority in order to keep a larger apartment. Of the 662 suspect vouchers reviewed, HUD considered 180 families to be "overhoused."

"It wasn't a surprise to us," HACA president James Hargrove admitted. "We knew that we would see some problems in the audit, but we felt like there was adequate justification in our files. It's something we should have paid more attention to." Housing authorities must be vigilant for a certain degree of fraud in Section 8 vouchers, he said. That includes the "overhousing" issue. In the bigger picture, though, the $588,000 represents less than 2% of the $33 million the housing authority receives each year, Hargrove said. It's a tiny fraction of the total families served. "If we find any fraud, we will investigate it. We've turned numerous cases over to the district attorney's office," he said. "In the big picture, though, we are housing 5,025 families every night in Austin with very few problems."

The infraction also is fairly minor compared to some of HACA's past violations, Hargrove said. When Hargrove came on board nine years ago, the housing authority was in HUD's sights for failing to use all of its available units. At the time, a total of 330 units in the city actually were boarded up and unused, despite a waiting list of 6,000. That waiting list is still 6,000, but every available unit is now being used, and Hargrove and his board are looking for new ways to expand housing stock.

Hargrove is optimistic a resolution can be reached with HUD. A meeting is scheduled next week to work out details on any potential fine.

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