Housing Headache

Lawsuit, drama follow accusations of racism at CMHA

Oct 7, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Greater Cincinnati’s public housing agency has been getting lots of attention in the media spotlight lately, but it’s probably not how it hoped to round out the year.

The rush of publicity began when three Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) clients filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in August, alleging a list of wrongs, injustices and racially biased activity perpetuated by the agency.

Attorney Robert Newman’s complaint alleges CMHA has engaged in “racial vigilantism” to keep its African-American clients from moving into predominantly white neighborhoods ever since Arnold Barnett became board chairman. Barnett, 69, is an advertising executive from Green Township.

Soon after, the case took on the trappings of pop-media hype when Barnett lashed back at Newman.

In a statement made to a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter for an Aug. 20 article, Barnett claimed he ordered CMHA staffers to buy property in Hyde Park, where Newman lives, for use as low-income housing.

“I told our director to go see if we can buy any property in (Newman’s) neighborhood,” Barnett is quoted as saying. “If he likes it so much, let’s give him a few.”

Appearing later on WKRC-TV (Channel 12), Barnett said he never uttered the final sentence, alleging The Enquirer misquoted him. The agency is looking at buying property in Hyde Park, Barnett explained, because there’s virtually no low-income housing there while other neighborhoods are oversaturated. Barnett also has publicly referred to Newman as a “flaming liberal.”

Beyond the vicious sound bites, beyond any personal spat that might be erupting between the parties, there is still the matter of the plaintiffs’ complaint. Does it hold water? Is it substantial enough to cause a HUD investigation? And exactly what are the three plaintiffs alleging has occurred?

To evaluate the complaint, it helps to first understand what CMHA does.

The agency has two main programs, according to CMHA spokeswoman Kelly Kramer. It provides low-income housing for more than 5,000 households in Hamilton County and also operates the county’s Housing Choice Voucher program, which used to be known as Section 8 and is administered using federal guidelines. That program provides a subsidy to help qualifying renters fill the gap between market-rate rent and what they can afford to pay for housing.

The complaints filed by plaintiffs Latonya Foster, Fayetta Martin and Seraunna Smith focus on the Housing Choice Voucher program. While Foster and Martin allege that the housing vouchers they were approved to use were taken away unfairly, Smith alleges that she was unfairly kept from joining the waiting list to receive a voucher.

Newman says much of the concern centers around the voucher application process.

“(In) the verification process, the people who run the qualifying department at CHMA, they have a very laborious, detailed process before they can certify someone for a voucher,” Newman says.

While it can take a typical landlord as little as 24 hours to run a credit check on a potential tenant, Newman estimates it takes four months for CMHA to complete the voucher application process.

But that’s not really an accurate comparison, Kramer replies.

CMHA’s voucher application covers a much broader range of information than what a landlord seeks, she explains. The application’s employment and income questions cover more detail than a credit check, and the application requires information for all family members rather than just the primary tenant. Further, the CMHA application includes a criminal background check.

Part of the reason for the scrutiny is the high demand for CMHA’s services. Smith’s inability to get on the waiting list for a voucher is not unique; Kramer said the list has been closed since December 2007. When it opened for three days that month, more than 15,000 people requested applications.

Kramer wouldn’t comment on the specific selection criteria that move someone from the waiting list to an active voucher, but she did dispute the complaint’s claim that CMHA doesn’t use all of the vouchers it can.

“We have a baseline marker (of vouchers awarded) we’re supposed to hit,” she says. While that number changes from month to month, she says there are more than 10,450 households currently using vouchers to help pay rent in Hamilton County.

“We have quite a few more people out shopping with vouchers right now,” Kramer adds.

Both Martin and Foster allege that they received vouchers and then had them rescinded. Martin claims CMHA took her voucher after she lost her job, citing a policy of giving preference to employed applicants. Foster claims she was told funding “dried up” for her voucher before she could use it.

“There are several reasons a voucher could be taken away,” says Kramer, citing everything from a voucher recipient earning more income or taking more than the allotted 90 days to find a suitable residence to more specific criteria such as unreported additions to a resident’s family size. She didn’t know how many vouchers are taken away in a typical year but said it’s a small portion of the total number in use.

“It’s not an uncommon occurrence, but I don’t know if I’d call it common,” she says.

Not surprisingly, Newman disputes the claim.

“(Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio) has tens and twenties and thirties of legal aid cases regarding evictions” since Barnett took office, Newman says.

Still, the allegation that wrongful eviction suits are on the rise since the new chairman started his term in July seems to be disputed by the Legal Aid Society.

“We’ve seen an uptick in the last one to two years, but not because of Barnett,” says Nick DiNardo, member of Legal Aid’s housing and consumer law practice group. He adds that wrongful eviction cases are not uncommon, however, and that comments like Barnett’s snap in August are doing significant harm.

“They do have a duty to make sure (voucher recipients) are good neighbors, but demonizing this is just wrong,” DiNardo says. “We need good leadership, and we don’t have it now.”

Barnett isn’t passively accepting Newman’s complaint, filing a defamation lawsuit Sept. 17 against the attorney in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court. The suit seeks at least $500,000 in damages from Newman, alleging he’s caused Barnett “shame, mortification and emotional distress.”

So what does this recent made-for-reality-TV flap reveal about CMHA and its leader? Although Foster, Martin and Smith’s complaint is far from an open-and-shut case, only time will tell if HUD sees enough reason to investigate the agency.

One thing the case has already shown, though, is a strong hint of Barnett’s method of handling pressure. The case might lead to nothing, but the reaction of the man tasked with managing the housing needs of more than 16,000 families in Hamilton County could be a trust-breaking verdict in its own right.