HANO boss resists push to open public housing to more ex-convicts

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New HANO (Housing Authority of New Orleans) CEO Gregg Fortner stands near his office in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, July 23, 2014. He is the first leader of the organization since it was released earlier this month from 12 years under federal control.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans has received its lowest performance score from the federal government in at least four years, earning a “substandard” rating for its management of public housing.

However, Executive Director Gregg Fortner said Tuesday that many issues federal officials highlighted in a recent review are likely to be remedied once HANO submits more documentation in June.

The substandard rating, he said, was assigned because HANO missed a key benchmark by only two points.

After HANO sends those documents to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the authority expects its score of 69, out of a possible 100 points, to be lifted to 71, ending the substandard rating, Fortner said.

Still, that 71 would be HANO’s lowest score in four years, according to past annual audits in which HANO received anywhere from 75 to 77 points since the agency was returned to local control after federal receivership ended.

After a detailed discussion of the score and what prompted it, the HANO board went into executive session to discuss Fortner’s performance — its third such closed-door debate about Fortner in recent months.

Fortner’s contract is up in July. The board has not made a decision on whether to extend it.

HUD grades local housing authorities on the physical condition of their buildings, the state of their finances, their management and operations and how well they spend capital grant money.

Agencies that do poorly are assessed more often, and consistently low scores can result in corrective actions, or even loss of autonomy. Poor management prompted HUD in 2002 to place HANO under federal receivership, an arrangement that lasted for 12 years.

The latest audit doesn’t seem to allege any of the patronage, financial mismanagement or subpar building standards that plagued HANO in the past. But HUD did slap HANO with a “substandard management” designation, a label that requires HANO to take corrective action. 

The “substandard” label is a step above “troubled” but below "standard" and "high performing." 

Substandard labels are given to agencies that achieve less than 60 percent of possible points in a category. HANO fell well short in the management area, achieving 13 of a possible 25 points.

Fortner said the problem was mainly with the way HANO logs its occupancy rates for public housing. Instead of logging actual occupancy as units were filled at its new Lafitte and Florida housing developments, it instead submitted documents that presumed the buildings were full when they weren’t.

HANO will remedy that problem in the future, Fortner said. Moreover, the occupancy issue for Lafitte and Florida could be a moot point in future audits, as those buildings are now fully occupied, he said.

HANO also attached one of the invoices for work done on the commercial portion of Columbia Parc, the development that replaced the former St. Bernard housing complex, to the wrong project. When that mistake is corrected, the agency will get additional points. 

Fortner said he expects that HUD will lift the unwanted designation once HANO turns in an audit on June 30 verifying that it has remedied the errors.

The agency did better in other areas, achieving 30 of 40 possible points for the physical condition of its properties, 21 of 25 points on its finances, and the required 5 of 10 points for capital funds spending.

While the board generally seemed to accept Fortner’s assurances that the problems would soon be fixed, at least one member criticized his apparent delay in sharing the HUD review with the board.

“I understand that you feel confident” that problems will soon be solved, board Vice President Andreanecia Morris said, “but the issue is that the board needs to be aware that this is happening.”

After the board went into executive session to discuss Fortner’s performance, it adjourned without any further action. 

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.