It rains in Emma Purifoy’s bedroom.
The residence, inside the Roger Williams public housing community, has several issues, according to Purifoy’s daughter Victoria Overton. In addition to the leak in the bedroom ceiling, rain infiltrates the living room of the structure at 1756 St. Stephens Road as well.
“It’s moldy,” Overton said. “It’s a health risk for my mom.”
Maintenance workers have come to patch the leaks on multiple occasions, Overton said, but have never completely repaired the problem that began when a weak tornado hit the community in December 2012.
Yet Dwayne Vaughn, executive director of the Mobile Housing Board, wrote in an email message Sunday morning that they haven’t received a recent complaint from Purifoy.
“Our records show that there have been some previous concerns, but all have been addressed,” he wrote. “We were unaware that a leak has emerged in the bedroom and will have one of our management team members go to the apartment to abate the situation. Some of the units at Roger Williams develop leaks from time to time due to the deterioration of some roofs and caulking over time.”
Across the street from Purifoy, the roof of an empty apartment looked as if it had caved in.
Vaughn explained that the community was built in 1954 and is one MHB has requested the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allow to be demolished.
Overton said it has taken maintenance personnel as long as two months to respond to work orders at her mother’s apartment. Vaughn wrote that workers responded quicker than that.
“Our records do not agree that there has been any interval of two months to initially patch the leak,” he wrote. “To the contrary, the records note the initial leak patch was completed the same day that the situation was reported.”
Albert Pharr complained that the window in his apartment has been broken since he moved in four years ago and management hasn’t fixed it because, he said, they’re out of spare windows.
“MHB repairs broken windows for residents who are living in MHB apartments,” Vaughn wrote. “MHB is unaware of any resident who has had a broken window in their residential unit for any length of time.”
Vaughn added residents may be charged for broken windows, if it’s determined the cause exceeds normal wear and tear.
“Therefore residents sometimes do not promptly report mishaps with windows,” Vaughn wrote.
Purifoy was told by management to be out of the apartment by February of next year, Overton said. Vaughn wrote that while HUD is mulling a request to demolish the community, no one from management has told any of the residents to move out.
“MHB is unaware of anyone in management who has told residents to move from the community,” Vaughn wrote. “MHB has had resident meetings explaining that MHB was seeking to demolish and dispose of Roger Williams homes, but MHB emphasized that if HUD approves the request, MHB is required [by] HUD regulations to assist residents with relocation to comparable affordable housing and MHB will shoulder the allowable relocation costs for any such move.”
Fredrick Johnson, a resident of the R.V. Taylor community, is raising his eight kids in an apartment he says leaks when it rains. The 42-year-old said the family places towels at the base of a large vent where water leaks through every time there is a storm.
He said he had a good job in construction, making $1,100 per week, until he was shot in a robbery about a decade ago, after cashing a check one evening. Johnson said one of the four shots permanently injured his knee. He currently receives federal disability payments, which provides just over $600 per month.
Johnson said his wife works at McDonald’s, but doesn’t earn enough for the large family to leave public housing.
In addition to the leaks, Johnson wondered why his apartment was without central air conditioning and pointed to several units nearby that had it. He said he’d be happy with a screen door, so he could get some fresh air in the house without bugs coming in.
One small air-conditioning window unit is all the family has to cool the apartment on 1220 Duval St., and Johnson blames the unit for a $400 average monthly electric bill.
“We keep the air on,” he said. “We can’t turn it off. If we turn it off for one second it feels like you’re in a sardine can.”
No one at the management office of R.V. Taylor returned a call seeking comment.
Other Roger Williams residents complained about management, but didn’t want to be named, out of fear of losing their apartments. One Roger Williams resident, who asked not to be named, originally complained about the time it took to get water hooked up to his clothes washer, but then changed his mind and said he hadn’t had a problem with management, once other residents were in earshot.
One other R.V. Taylor resident said he didn’t have any problems with maintenance staff on site.
Occupancy rates for MHB have fluctuated in recent years, according to numbers provided by HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan. In 2011, the rate was 64 percent. It rose slightly to 69 percent in 2012 and 70 percent in 2013, before falling again to 67 percent currently.
Shanahan called the rates “historically low” and said they’ve hurt federal funding for the MHB. Federal budgets for housing boards were also prorated 89 percent in 2014, Shanahan wrote in an email.
In a previous Lagniappe story, Vaughn said federal funds make up about 90 percent of the MHB’s budget. He blamed budgetary restrictions this month for the need to layoff 16 MHB employees as well as changes to the way properties are maintained.
Eligible funding for individual housing boards is based on several factors, including occupancy rates, Shanahan said.
“Due to historically low occupancy rates and other factors, the Mobile Housing Board has not realized full funding potential, despite the proration,” Shanahan wrote.
In fact, the MHB lost out on a total of $2.5 million in 2013 and $9.7 million in 2014 because the board didn’t meet the national leasing standard of 97 percent, Shanahan wrote.
“The 2014 potential funding is significantly higher, due to Roger Williams and Josephine Allen units being vacant due to proposed demolition, merged units through reconstruction to larger-sized units in Orange Grove, rejecting units proposed for modernization in Thomas James and other essential factors that impact operating subsidy calculations,” she wrote.
To put that in perspective, the MHB only received $10.8 million of a possible $13.1 million because of the low occupancy rate, Shanahan wrote.
Part of the low occupancy rate stems from the MHB moving residents out of Josephine Allen before letting HUD know of the proposed demolition of the apartments there, Shanahan explained. She added that the MHB is in the process of “sending more information … to HUD’s Special Applications Center, in order to provide a final determination” on a possible demolition. HUD is currently reviewing the application for the demolition of Josephine Allen, she added.
Vaughn said MHB can’t remove Josephine Allen from the occupancy calculations until HUD approves its demolition request.
Josephine Allen, which is now completely empty and boarded up, has 292 vacancies. Roger Williams has 298 vacancies out of a total number of 452 units, Vaughn said.
“ … Upon HUD approval, MHB’s occupancy will increase markedly,” he said.
The Housing board operates eight multiple family communities and five senior developments, according to its website.
The communities include Oaklawn Homes, Orange Grove Homes, Roger Williams Homes, Gulf Village Homes, Renaissance Properties, R.V. Taylor Plaza, Thomas James Place and West Cardinal Place. Josephine Allen is not listed on the website. The senior developments include: Central Plaza Towers, Emerson Gardens, Frank Boykin Tower, The Gardens on First Avenue and Downtown Renaissance.
In addition to demolitions, a number of factors affect the occupancy rate, Vaughn said, including the age and condition of housing and other housing options for low-income families.
“MHB is engaging in an occupancy initiative where it has reorganized and streamlined its maintenance operations to make more units ready in a quicker fashion,” Vaughn said. “It has also made a more concerted effort to increase its customer service emphasis and its resident retention activities. MHB believes it will dramatically increase its occupancy, assuming HUD approval of the demolition applications and the increasing success of its resident retention activities.”
Vaughn said the occupancy rate of its viable property, which excludes Josephine Allen and Roger Williams is more than 80 percent. Nine of the 11 viable properties have adjusted rates of over 90 percent, while another has a rate below 60 percent and the other has a rate over 85 percent, Vaughn said. The two non-viable properties — Josephine Allen and Roger Williams — have rates of more than 20 percent combined. He said Josephine Allen was completely vacant.
Mobile Development Enterprises
While MHB struggles with its financial issues, questions still surround the non-profit company Vaughn and Housing Board members run from the MHB offices. Mobile Development Enterprises is a nonprofit, third-party contractor providing MHB with program management, resident empowerment, construction management, grants development, daycare and public relations services, Vaughn wrote.
Several sources have previously told Lagniappe that MDE handles the day-to-day operations of the board and has served as a way to hire employees without input from the county’s Personnel Board. Vaughn said that while MDE does provide “some operational leadership for some of the major initiatives of MHB” there is no intent to circumvent any authority from the Personnel Board.
“MHB believes its relationship with Personnel Board is good and that the Personnel Board has provided valuable and helpful technical and human resources guidance as MHB goes about its day-to-day activities,” Vaughn wrote.
Vaughn wrote that while MDE gets its funding from a variety of sources, its chief source of revenue comes from the Housing Board. This raises questions as to the appropriateness of State Rep. Adline Clarke, D-Mobile, serving as vice-president of MDE.
Vaughn wrote that Clarke was serving as vice-president before she ran for the 95th District seat in the legislature. During the election questions about just how separate MDE and MHB are created some difficulties for Clarke.
“As there was no federal, state, or local prohibition against a member of MDE serving the public through elected office, MDE does not believe it inappropriate for a person to so serve,” Vaughn wrote.
A more recent issue was the awarding of an MHB contract to a company in which Clarke’s brother has an ownership stake. Superior Masonry was awarded a contract to help make some of the vacant units ready. Vaughn said the familial relationship was disclosed before the contract was awarded and was only done after the “understanding that no MHB or MDE employee would benefit from the award in a (financial) manner.”
Clarke didn’t return a phone call requesting comment for this story.
Vaughn said MHB has five members, while MDE has three. He said the Housing Board and MDE board have separate meetings, although they share some of the same board members.
Housing Board member Donald Langham seems to contradict at least part of this statement in a 2013 Lagniappe story in which Langham initially expressed ignorance of what MDE was when questioned, but eventually came to recognize it. He said it was something rarely discussed, perhaps occasionally at the end of a regular MHB meeting.
Meanwhile, tax records indicate MDE moved from having 18 employees and a payroll of $973,000 in 2010 to 72 employees in 2011 and a payroll of around $725,000, with a total operating loss of $582,000.
Former Mayor Sam Jones appointed all five of the current Housing Board members. They are Ruby Lang, Melvin Clark, Clarence Ball, Norman Hill and Langham. Their appointments end in a range from this year for Lang to 2018 for Langham.
None of the board members returned a call seeking comment for this story.
Former MHB employee Samuel McCord was a maintenance supervisor at both Roger Williams and Gulf Village. McCord was laid off this month after 25 years as an employee.
He said there were several construction issues at Gulf Village, including the keeping of building supplies in the elements and the failure to use treated plywood on the floors of apartments there. McCord described the floors of apartments at Gulf Village as “trampolines.”
Vaughn wrote that MHB does store supplies at Gulf Village, but in a “secure maintenance warehouse, or in a fenced yard adjacent to the warehouse.
“The fenced area is locked when MHB professionals are not on site and the area is secured with lighting, cameras and alarms,” Vaughn wrote.
As for the flooring issue, Vaughn wrote that the renovations of Gulf Village were made to the specifications drawn by a licensed architect.
“MHB understands that the drawings called for some standard plywood on the housing and on those areas with contact with the ground, treated plywood,” Vaughn wrote. “MHB believes that the contractors renovated in accordance with the specifications provided.”