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Votes

ARHA Commissioners Split On Three Debated Votes

Her objection was to the point.

"I consider it very inappropriate for us to put in our contracts with contractor's requirements that we ourselves are not enforcing."

That was the reaction of Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) Commissioner Shirley Marshall when it came to voting on a Section 3 Plan to be made part of the approval process for designating a developer for the Samuel Madden Homes, known as The Berg.

Her objection centered on an agenda item to be voted on at Monday night's Commission meeting. It called for approving a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requirement that all Authorities have such a plan and make it a part of contracts they let in excess of $100,000.

Section 3 Plans are affirmative action plans designed to raise economic capabilities of public housing residents. It encourages contractors, working on such projects, to hire residents in order to help them gain the necessary skills to better their economic status and become self-sufficient.

Marshall stated her objections to the ARHA Plan when she noted the staff document, pertaining to the docket item, made reference to an ARHA Section 3 Plan dated 1997. "Either we're really behind in getting this to HUD or the date was a misstatement," she said.

Connie Lenox, ARHA Director of Development, pointed out that "Section 3 Plans are rarely enforced by HUD." She was supported in her analysis by ARHA Chairman, A. Melvin Miller, who emphasized, "Section 3 has been a HUD nemesis ever since it was initiated. Almost everyone who deals with HUD has agreed to do this."

William M. Dearman, ARHA Executive Director, explained, "We do what we can to get them (contractors) to hire our residents. But, there is no teeth in this program. The only thing we could do, if they don't comply, is not hire them again."

That brought forth a question from Commissioner Antoine P. Cobb, as to, "Why can't we put in a performance requirement for the contractors? We are writing the contracts."

Commission Vice Chairman Carlyle C. Ring, Jr., then made a motion that the Board "approve the Section 3 Plan before us, with staff considering our discussion tonight." It was seconded by Cobb.

RING EXPLAINED THAT THE ARHA plan could be updated and adjusted after the fact by staff. His rationale for encouraging his colleagues to vote for the plan, with his proviso, was the fast approaching date for picking a Berg redevelopment contractor, scheduled for June 24.

Marshall countered with, "I'm voting against the motion because I don't see why we have to vote (on this) tonight. I'd rather see it come back with a full plan for reconsideration."

Commissioner Carter Flemming joined Marshall in her objection by noting, "I am troubled that we have not taken this seriously. Where is our responsibility to meet our goals?"

Cobb then withdrew his second stating, "I agree with Shirley. I think we should work on this for the next month." Miller suggested "we write our own Section 3 Plan and not rely on HUD."

Ring continued to push for a vote stating, "I feel strongly enough about this for us to be on record prior to the bid letting on June 24." In order to get it to a vote, Commissioner Ruby Tucker replaced Cobb's second with her own to Ring's motion. It then failed five to three, with only Miller, Ring, and Tucker in favor.

Staff will now review the document, verify the dates referenced, and develop a new proposal for the Commission to be submitted at a future meeting, according to Dearman. The entire Section 3 element will be analyzed in this process as it applies to ARHA, Dearman verified.

LATER IN THE MEETING, Ring raised another question applying to The Berg redevelopment project in conjunction with the advertising of a Request for Proposal for demolition bids. His question pertained to the legal liabilities involved with the environmental impact that could be trigger by the demolition.

When Lenox noted that ARHA planned to undertake the Environmental Impact Study internally, Ring pointed out, "Usually the company doing the demolition wants to do their own environmental assessments. Rather than us bearing the legal liability, it's better for the bidder to assume that liability."

Ring noted that the docket item applied only to Phase I of the project and that it is "nothing more than a study, just going around asking questions." He said, "I don't have a problem with Phase I. But, I still think the bidder is going to want to make his own study."

Marshall questioned why the demolition was not included as part of the overall redevelopment project. Lenox said that, "We have been informed that the property is more valuable to the developer if it is already cleared."

Even the docket item dealing with advertising for bids to perform seasonal grounds keeping and landscape services came under extended debate. Both Cobb and Flemming questioned the wisdom of subletting this responsibility rather than keeping it in-house.

Cobb explained that as a member of the Board of his residential association he has experienced many difficulties with outside contractors performing landscape and grounds keeping services. "It's always a question of unsatisfactory services for the money being spent," he said.

Flemming noted the incongruity with the Section 3 debate and the potential elimination of three ARHA staff positions that now perform the landscape duties. "These are positions that enable people to develop skills that can help them move up the ladder. Why eliminate these in-house people?"

Dearman assured her that they were not eliminating any staff positions, just realigning them for other duties. However, when pressed he would not categorically promise that the people involved would still be employed. Language in the proposal carried a qualified "if" suitable positions are available.

Both Cobb and Marshall questioned whether the outsourcing would actually safe any money. This vote passed five to three with Cobb, Marshall, and Flemming voting against.

THE FINAL DEBATE of the evening centered on whether to allow staff to convert 40 units of public housing at Glebe Park to Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, and be maintained as affordable housing. The impetus for this being staff's contention that HUD is promoting portability of Section 8 vouchers.

These vouchers, given to tenants to help pay rent, can be taken with the tenant when, and if, they move to another jurisdiction. It is a way for ARHA to receive monies to utilize in other project areas, according to staff.

"Families who receive these vouchers can take them anywhere in the country. In reality what we would be doing is giving families an option and possibly opening up units for others to use," Dearman explained.

He also noted the very tight Alexandria housing market with "less than one percent vacancy in the city. We have been advertising for landlords with very little success."

Mary Ish, ARHA Director of Housing Operations, told the Board, "If this is passed we will still have over 1,200 people on our waiting list for Section 8 vouchers." She also noted that HUD favors this approach.

Marshall asked if ARHA has been doing any Landlord Outreach programs encouraging them to accept Section 8 vouchers. "Fairfax County has been doing Landlord Outreach for the past three years," she emphasized.

"The problem is not how many vouchers are out there but how many landlords are out there. We are sending the wrong message with the affordable housing crisis we're in," Marshall insisted.

DEARMAN COUNTERED that ARHA has been doing everything it can to entice landlords including advertising. "We're not opposed to any suggestions or ideas. We welcome them if you have some," he said.

Ring moved for approval with a second by Commissioner Judith Seitz. It passed 7-1, with Marshall voting against it. After the vote she demanded that the record show specifically she voted against because "this is a wrong decision."

On a note of harmony, the Commission heard from Alexandria Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Stephen W. Rideout. He explained the agreement that has been reached by ARHA and the court to use some of the Section 8 money to help fund the court's program of Family Reunification.

Judge Rideout said, "The court becomes involved when children are abused or neglected. The object of this program is to get families back together in their own home after rehabilitation."

Dearman also used the Monday's meeting to introduce ARHA's new Director of Finance, Belle Sewoum. She joined the staff on May 6 after having served as Chief Financial Officer and Town Treasurer for Bladensburg, MD.

A resident of Annandale, Sewoum had been in her previous position since 1996, according to Dearman. She was chosen from a field of three finalists. The position has been vacant since the resignation of Rick Koffernaus in November 2001 after only three months on the job.