As many as 18 employees at the Housing Authority of New Orleans were shown the door Wednesday, part of an overhaul driven by reduced federal funding.
Officials began reassigning terminated employees’ cases to staffers spared from the cuts on Wednesday, a process that is expected to last about a week.
The laid-off employees, totaling between 14 and 18, represent almost a fifth of HANO's Section 8 workforce, which handles payments to people living in privately owned buildings but using HANO vouchers to pay the rent.
“This was a budget-driven requirement,” HANO Executive Director Gregg Fortner told the agency’s board Tuesday. Had the program been left untouched, “we would have been over $1 million over budget as far as staffing.”
The Section 8 department’s restructuring could be one of several, as HANO continues to examine the effectiveness of its programs, Fortner said.
HANO’s budget has been hit hard in recent years by dwindling federal allocations and rising costs. The board in August pulled $1.9 million from a rainy day fund to keep this year’s budget balanced, a move that went against Fortner’s promise in 2014 to end the practice of taking money from reserves.
To keep HANO on track, he’s had to renege on that pledge twice. The agency has cut staff by about a fifth in the past few years, going from 287 employees in 2014 to a budgeted 226 this year.
The terminations Wednesday, which weren’t mentioned in August's budget presentation, reduce that figure further. They stem from repeated reductions of the cash the federal government gives HANO for the administration of the Section 8 program, and from inefficiencies in the program generally, Fortner said in an interview.
Section 8, officially the Housing Choice Voucher Program, gives low-income families, the elderly and the disabled subsidies for apartments or homes. Case managers in HANO's Section 8 department work with landlords and tenants who participate in the program.
Although a notice HANO filed with the state Workforce Commission said 22 positions were affected by the change, Fortner said 23 people have in fact been let go during a restructuring process that has been underway since August. Some of them, however, have since been replaced.
The upshot is that the Section 8 department went from as many as 105 staffers last year to 87 positions as of Wednesday, he said. The department actually has only 82 people, he said; five vacant positions are still being advertised.
Even those who are staying had to reapply for their jobs.
Reduced cash aside, Section 8 has long been plagued by inefficiency, Fortner said. Historically, he said, HANO would add staff without trimming positions that weren't needed any more. Some workers handled too many cases, while others oversaw too few, he said, adding that the department had gained a reputation as unprofessional.
“We had people who would call and complain that their worker disrespected them, or they couldn’t get a telephone call back,” he said. “We had numerous complaints about the people at our front desk. … It was just totally unacceptable customer service.”
The terminations Wednesday bring the total number of Section 8 cases per employee to just under 550.
In the past, HANO Section 8 staffers handled as many as 590 cases apiece. At HANO’s counterpart in Los Angeles, workers handle as many as 575 cases each, Fortner said.