St. John Housing Authority celebrates higher score from HUD _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Many St. John parish public housing units, like these in LaPlace off of Elm Street, are empty having been flooded during hurricane Isaac. The St. John Housing Authority is being removed from HUD's list of troubled agencies.

After more than a decade of being listed on a federal roster of “troubled” local housing agencies, the St. John the Baptist Parish Housing Authority has cleaned up its act and earned a new designation: “substandard.”

That was the grade given by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in a recent annual assessment of the beleaguered agency. Its score, which covered the authority’s fiscal year that ended in September, was 60 out of a possible 100, with the total being dragged down by a low mark on the physical condition of its properties (18 out of 40).

Still, it’s a sign of improvement. The authority, which had been deemed troubled since at least 2002, received a perfect mark on its financial accounting in the latest HUD assessment, and a separate audit released by the state’s legislative auditor found that several deficiencies cited repeatedly in previous years have been corrected.

“When I came in, there was a lot of cleaning up that was taking place,” said Trina Henderson, who took over as the agency’s executive director in 2011. “Now, I would like to say that, for the last year or so, the Housing Authority’s actually managing.”

The authority recently selected a developer, Columbia Residential, to plan its next stage: redeveloping its 296-unit system, which consists of buildings in LaPlace, Reserve, Garyville and Edgard.

It’s the same Atlanta-based firm that oversaw the creation of Columbia Parc, a $440 million development on the site of the former St. Bernard public housing complex in New Orleans. Henderson said the New Orleans development is a model of a mixed-use, mixed-income public housing development akin to what she would like to see built in St. John.

As part of its work, the firm will be tasked with figuring out how to pay for the work, likely using a mixture of state tax credits, rental subsidies and private financing.

That work will begin more than a year after an outside consulting firm recommended demolishing three of the St. John agency’s four buildings.

A year ago, a report released by the state’s legislative auditor painted a grim picture of the authority’s record-keeping, outlining a dozen areas where officials were not in compliance with federal or state regulations. The latest audit, released in January, cleared the agency of those findings.

Many of the problems had been repeat infractions that went uncorrected for years. But more recently, the agency has taken steps to better train staff and made other hires in an effort to get the issues straightened out.

In coming months, Columbia plans to hold meetings with residents as it works to draw up a plan identifying ideas to redevelop the sites.

“We know that we need to redevelop our properties, but what we’re basically getting from the stakeholders is: ‘Where do we want to rebuild? Do we want to rebuild on the same site?’ ” Henderson said.

While that planning effort is underway, the agency is working on bringing some of its damaged units back into commission.

Many of the properties were pushed into further disrepair by Hurricane Isaac in 2012. At present, about half of the 296 units are occupied.

A 2013 study recommended tearing down most of the authority’s buildings and offering residents vouchers so they could relocate to privately owned apartments in the meantime.

“Overall, the (public) housing stock is dilapidated and obsolete,” said the report, paid for by HUD. “It no longer provides safe, sanitary and decent housing for its residents.”

In evaluating the physical condition of the units, the report also asked whether redevelopment should occur on the same sites or if the parish should look elsewhere. In particular, it said, the question of whether to maintain public housing in Edgard is “a significant issue” because that area is less developed than the parish’s east bank.

But Henderson has noted that Edgard could eventually become more heavily developed if industries begin moving to the area — an argument that gained traction when EuroChem Group AG announced last month that it will build a $1.5 billion ammonia and urea production plant at the old Goldmine Plantation site.

“We still have a little cleanup to do, but right now, our day-to-day operations are operating as a housing authority should,” Henderson said. “Our financial affairs are in order, and we’re able to meet our deadlines.”

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.