Butler County public housing program improves

HUD gives high marks to county’s 17 public housing complexes.

Butler Metro Housing Authority officials have increased training for employees, re-arranged staff, and re-branded the agency within the last five years in hopes of improvement.

The strategy has paid off. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds most of the county authority’s 17 public housing complexes, has given the units higher marks during the past four years, according to inspection reports obtained by the Journal-News.

“(The agency) has made a lot of improvement,” said Gloria Glenn, the president of the Butler Metro Housing Authority board. “The employees have worked well to make sure our scores are up.”

Glenn said the agency has faced a number of challenges during the decade she’s been on the board, but infighting between employees has lessened since the new executive director, Phyllis Hitte, took over nearly six years ago.

Some public housing residents, however, say that while maintenance of their complex has been sufficient, they still harbor constant concerns over building security.

“This is our home, we’d like it to be safer than it is,” said Thomas Moye, a resident at the John Ross Hunt Tower, a public housing complex in Middletown.

Genuine improvement

HUD comes in every year to examine the grounds and buildings the housing authority operates. Butler Metro Housing Authority runs 1,100 units in Hamilton and Middletown for low-income residents. The authority has a $12 million operating budget and also administers a total of 1,400 Section 8 vouchers, which are used to pay landlords for low-income tenants.

When inspectors examine the authority-owned complexes they look for crumbling sidewalks, out-of-order appliances and broken windows, for example, among other issues.

In 2010, the public housing complexes received an average score of 69 out of a possible 100. Last year, the complexes scored an average of 87 — and some units won’t even need an inspection this year because they performed so well in 2013. If complexes get a score of 80 or higher, HUD officials allow the complex to skip a year of inspections. Within the last two years, all of the authority’s complexes have scored high enough to skip a year or more of inspections.

The changes come roughly seven years after the agency dumped its former director — who HUD officials had criticized for lack of experience in the public housing realm — and later replaced him with Hitte.

“We did a lot of evaluating,” Hitte said of changes at the agency within the last few years.

Hitte describes the agency as one that was just barely making monthly bill payments when she took over the top position. Now, she said, the agency has built up an extra month’s worth of reserves. She estimates the agency saved about $100,000 every year after deciding to close its Middletown office five years ago.

Hitte also made staffing changes when she took the helm. Of the agency’s 43 employees, she swapped four of the top management positions. Increased staff training was also crucial to improving inspection scores, Hitte said.

“We actually brought a group in to help us better learn what we could expect on an inspection,” Hitte said. “If you know the rules, you know how to do better.”

A local Butler County community action agency called Supports to Encourage Low-Income Families (SELF), also hosted training for the Butler Metro Housing Authority employee to better work with needy residents.

“I felt they were genuine in wanting to improve their operation,” Jeffrey Diver, the executive director for SELF, said of the training session he hosted for the agency.

Budget cuts at the federal level have caused the agency to shed almost 10 positions since Hitte took over, yet the authority’s union president said Hitte has transformed the workplace in a good way.

“Morale has gone up and everything else has gone up too,” Debbie Bargo, the president of the union that represents Butler Metro Housing Authority workers, said. “Everybody was dreading to come to work — they no longer dread it.”

Hitte also made the decision to keep the housing authority’s office closed on Fridays. The agency now stays open Tuesday and Wednesday until 6:30 p.m. to accommodate tenants’ schedules.

“We felt like it served the people that we serve,” Hitte said of the office hour changes. “How can you tell someone you have to be here but you’re also suppose to go to work?”

Hitte said such changes, along with staff willingness to change, have improved the scores from the federal government and kept customers happy.

Still, tenants living at the John Ross Hunt Towers in Middletown, said they’ve been frustrated by what they believe are constant drug deals, lack of security and prostitution at the building.

Moye, who is the president of the building’s tenant council, said maintenance workers have been diligent in building upkeep, which is what HUD bases inspection scores on. He said, however, he’s often been worried about his safety during the three years he’s lived in the building. Tenants living in the county’s public housing pay up to 30 percent of their income, if they work, toward rent each month.

“There’s been more bad points than good,” Moye said. “It’s suppose to be a secure building (but) we have to do our own neighborhood watch.”

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