La Joya Housing Authority agrees to address deficiencies

Following findings of abuses and other deficiencies by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the La Joya Housing Authority board approved certain steps the housing authority will take to address those issues.

The Housing Authority board of commissioners approved a resolution Tuesday detailing what steps they would take following communication from HUD noting they were waiting for the housing authority to correct those deficiencies found in their 2018 fiscal year audit.

Executive Director Ruben Villarreal discussed those issues addressed in the resolution at length with the board.

Through the resolution, the board agreed to track the on-clock hours for their employees which Villarreal said was implemented on Sept. 19.

“Upon my arrival that seemed to be lacking,” Villarreal said.

Now, they’re using a virtual time system called “On the Clock” that Villarreal said costs approximately $16 per month.

Following alleged abuses of the housing authority’s waiting list, through which people sign up for an opportunity for low-rent or for Section 8 housing, they pledged to abide by the waiting list protocols.

“That’s in response to another deficiency that they found that apparently the waiting list was being violated and manipulated,” Villarreal said, “so this established our understanding and our compliance that the waiting list is now going to be followed to the letter.”

Villarreal informed the board that only he and Compliance Director Blanca Valdez have input or control over the waiting list.

“This recertifies our commitment to make sure that the waiting list does not get moved, it does not become a tool for anybody and as far as I’m concerned, we’re going to go by the book,” he said.

The third issue was regarding record-keeping for their board meetings which Villarreal said had not been maintained. As of October, though, he said board minutes were stored and kept on paper and electronic file under lock and key.

“Very simply put, we’re keeping minutes now,” Villarreal told the board. “So if you ask me for minutes for any meetings since I’ve been here, we have minutes of those meetings.”

From the housing authority’s audit, HUD also flagged their lack of a procurement policy, though Villarreal noted that the board adopted one in August which was reaffirmed during Tuesday’s meeting.

Another major issue had to do with the maintenance of tenant records, rental payments and arrears, which are overdue payments.

Villarreal explained to the board that previously, money that was owed to the housing authority was “manipulated” to appear as revenue that they had in their bank account.

As of September, Villarreal said the housing authority had created a compliance department under the direction of Valdez, their compliance director, to deal with transactions, rental payments and arrears.

During an October meeting, the board had approved the hiring of a CPA to oversee and advise on the proper ways of handling write-offs and bad debt. That position has not been filled, however, because the housing authority does not have the money available.

Next, the housing authority agreed to adopt frugal and responsible travel and training policies and agreed to suspend all travel for one budget year, or 365 days.

The audit also found instances in which board members were reimbursed for travel expenses without proper receipts, Villarreal said, explaining the need for the remedy.

“In the matter of improper reimbursements, the La Joya Housing Authority will direct its attorney to research possible reimbursement violations,” the resolution stated. “After such action, the La Joya Housing Authority will instruct its attorney to issue invoices of re-payment to any board member, or staff, who is found to have been improperly reimbursed or misused Federal money.”

Another finding was that funds from an account were transferred into a blended nonprofit account and it’s unclear what happened to those funds, according to Villarreal.

HUD requested that those funds be returned to the right account but because they can’t be found, they’re currently unable to fulfill that request.

“We can’t put something back if we don’t have the monies in our bank accounts,” Villarreal told the board.

In response to that issue, though, the housing authority pledged to adopt an internal funding control policy which will address the possible consequences of improperly transferring and co-mingling funds from different housing authority bank accounts.

Additionally, they will provide HUD with account activity reports every three months.

With the actions approved by the board Tuesday, members of the board expressed hope the housing authority was finally moving in the right direction.

“We’re doing everything that we can to make sure everything is clear and doing everything the right way,” said Board Commissioner Yvette Flores. “We want to make sure we abide by the policies and regain the trust of HUD and everybody else.”

Board Chairman John Peña said they were moving forward and praised Villarreal, who was hired in September, in his dealings with HUD.

In April, the housing authority was designated “troubled” by HUD because of the failing score they received under the Public Housing Assessment System due to their expenses equaling more than their revenue, their poor rent collection, and their below average occupancy of units, according to a July 1 letter from HUD.

Because of the designation, Villarreal said they have not received federal funds but he touted that they’ve since made progress with their rent collections, going from 52% of people who weren’t paying to about 19%.

“It’s thorough, it’s going to be challenging,” Villarreal said of the recovery agreement. “But, you know what, when we come out the other side we’re going to be a housing authority that’s going to be a model housing authority that can compare itself to anybody in the Valley.”