While a Mobile Housing Board official praised a program aimed at addressing an issue that was the focus of a blistering federal audit, both former and current employees called it a waste of money.

In an email message sent earlier this month, MHB Executive Director Dwayne Vaughn called the agency’s Vacancy Reduction Program, or VRP, a “success.” He wrote that the plan, which was later called an “occupancy initiative,” was devised as a way to address the board’s “significant occupancy concerns.” The program was approved by HUD’s Alabama field office in 2011.

“The VRP was approved by HUD-Birmingham on January 27, 2011, and fully operational on July 18, 2011,” Vaughn wrote. “Since the initiation of the VRP/OI occupancy effort, some 1,589 units have been turned, made ready, come online or otherwise leased. Moreover, all of the original units identified in the original VRP have been addressed, excepting those then-vacant units in Roger Williams Homes and Thomas James.”

Vaughn said the program was multi-pronged. The plan was to demolish two obsolete sites — Roger Williams Homes and Josephine Allen — where some 90 percent of the board’s vacancies existed, as well as work to fill vacancies in other communities. The plan also sought to curb the number of move-outs to below national averages.

The program was ultimately hurt by move-outs, Vaughn wrote.

“We believe VRP/OI were successful. Unfortunately, MHB did not see all of the gains it desired as its attrition rates adversely impacted some of the gains made through VRP/OI.”

But multiple sources, including both current and former employees, said the VRP helped add to the attrition rate because it took maintenance employees away from a site-based system and put many to work on “making readies.” This resulted in a reduction in the number of completed, routine work orders. Existing tenants, sources said, would move out over a lack of maintenance.

“The routine work would back up and people would leave,” a source said. “So, you were turning two units over and four [families] would move out.”

However, the same source said the VRP would’ve worked “if we’d had the staff to do it.”

Vaughn admitted there were “skeleton crews” on-site at other communities to perform work orders, but added that VRP personnel performed work orders too. He said more than 75 percent of maintenance personnel were used for VRP purposes.

“With respect to the VRP, the majority of maintenance and related personnel were assigned to VRP crews and performed make-ready, and on occasion, work orders,” he wrote. “The properties had skeleton crews to handle work orders, as the emphasis was on making units ready and leasing them as soon as possible. As Josephine Allen was already largely vacant during the summer of 2011 and vacant in the fall, its maintenance personnel performed work orders related to unit boarding, leaks, etc.”

Another issue, multiple sources said, was managers weren’t “pushed” to move people into apartments that had been refurbished through VRP. Another source said the vision behind VRP was good, it just wasn’t executed properly.

Yet another source claimed the VRP was inefficient. The program would require maintenance to pull out and replace flooring that “could’ve been buffed” and cabinets that “could’ve stayed.”

In an audit released earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General wrote it didn’t feel like MHB had done enough with the funds allocated to reduce the number of families on its waiting list. It also asserted the Roger Williams and Josephine Allen properties deteriorated to the point where both complexes needed to be torn down because of poor maintenance. Vaughn wrote that he disagrees.

“We believe that the OIG report’s assertion that Josephine Allen and Roger Williams deteriorated due to poor maintenance was incorrect and without any factual support,” he wrote. “Roger Williams was put in service in 1954 so that it was nearly 57 years old in 2011. Josephine Allen was put into service in 1965 so that it was nearly 46 years old in 2011. Both were approved for demolition by HUD for obsolescence, not deferred maintenance.”

State Rep. Adline Clarke clarifies business ties
Mobile Development Enterprises Vice President and State Rep. Adline Clarke explained her business ties with the MHB, which were highlighted in a Lagniappe story last week.

In an email message sent Friday, Aug. 19, Clarke confirmed she had a previous business relationship with Cheryl Williams, president of Spherion. Clarke said the two operated a temporary employment company together, called the Clarke Group, for many years. Clarke said she hasn’t been in business with Williams for more than two decades.

“Since I left the company over 20 years ago to pursue other interests, I have not been affiliated with, nor have any interest in the company whatsoever,” Clarke wrote. “At any rate, I cannot speak on behalf of The Coleman Group or Spherion. Since I have had no financial or other interest in the firm for over two decades, there is no conflict of interest.”

Clarke wrote she does not know when Williams started doing business with MHB because she was well-removed from the company at that point.

As for Sun Belt Structures, she said her brother, Plearse Clarke Jr., was unable to get the business “up and running.” When it was incorporated about 30 years ago, she, Plearse Clarke Jr. and her half-brother, Frank Seltzer, were listed as incorporators.

“At any rate, the company no longer exists, if it ever did from a practical standpoint,” she wrote.

A contract the MHB entered into with Superior Masonry, owned by Seltzer, was questioned in the OIG report given Clarke’s family ties. Clarke maintains there was no conflict of interest in the awarding of that contract.

“With respect to the contract between Superior Masonry and Mobile Housing Board, I was not on the selection panel that reviewed qualifications of contractor firms for Mobile Housing Board at any time,” she wrote. “Nor did I advocate for the firm. The familial relationship between my half-brother and me was disclosed to Mobile Housing Board and all others who reviewed responses to the solicitation.”