Posted by Jarvis DeBerry, Columnist, The Times-Picayune September 05, 2009
Sherry Baker showed a lot of initiative when she mailed in a Section 8 application to the Housing Authority of New Orleans soon after she saw it.
And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that people trying to free themselves of poverty have to have initiative.
Baker, though, was going to be punished for her get-up-and-go. When she sent in her application, it was the official policy of HANO that Section 8 applications arriving before Sept. 6 would not be placed in the lottery for the coveted vouchers.
Wednesday morning the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center expressed “grave concerns” about HANO’s plans to ignore early applications. Wednesday afternoon, HANO said all the applications would be treated equally, that is, that officials there would not ignore those they received early.
There’s such a clamor for the housing help partly because it’s been eight years since HANO has offered new people a chance to get vouchers. The Section 8 program aims to help undo what the government did decades before when it warehoused poor people in large apartment complexes. With vouchers, those who might otherwise be surrounded on all sides by other poor people can, in theory at least, rent a place less beset with problems.
Housing advocates in New Orleans say they expect at least 20,000 applications for the 3,500 vouchers HANO will offer. Last week, a HANO attorney said the agency had received 3,600 applications. Had HANO insisted on enforcing its no-early-application policy, it would have ignored those 3,600 and sent the unmistakable message that when trying to move out of poverty in New Orleans, it’s better to foot drag than hop to it.
Working at HANO, which doesn’t appear to be all that different from foot dragging, also helps. At least it appears to have helped Dwayne Muhammad who ran the voucher program until he left HANO last month.
As reported by WWL-TV, Muhammad had a $100,000 annual salary but was using a $1,400 monthly voucher for rent on a Gentilly house.
With a $100,000 salary, Muhammad would have to be raising something like 37 school-age children to qualify for a housing voucher. But if he had a brood that large, he’d be starring on a reality show that would pay for at least a three-bedroom. And thus he’d be relieved of his apparent temptation to steal from poor people.
The day after the television report, the agency released a statement saying that Muhammad is “no longer an employee of HANO.”
Does that mean there are now 3,501 Section 8 vouchers available?
It must amuse Section 8 applicants that their attempts to find better housing are so often opposed by people who associate them with crime when the HANO office itself seems overrun with thieves.
Not only has Muhammad’s apparently fraudulent Section 8 usage been brought to light, but last week the U.S. attorney’s office filed charges against a Florida contractor who, according to prosecutors, stole $900,000 from HANO over three years. That contractor, Elias Castellanos, was serving as HANO’s chief financial officer.
HANO was placed under federal receivership in 2002 because of chronic mismanagement.
While “doing work” for HANO, prosecutors said, Castellanos bought himself a Lamborghini Gallardo worth more than $200,000, a Ferrari, a Porsche and two Mercedes-Benzes.
Meanwhile, rents in New Orleans continued to rise and people like Sherry Baker, who cleans hotel rooms, were waiting on HANO to open up its Section 8 application process.
She sent in her application early, and now, thanks to the policy change, she won’t be punished for it. Baker may actually be one of the thousands who wins a voucher through the lottery.
If she does, let us hope that nobody at HANO rips her off.