Random gun fire, drug dealing, and group intimidation of residents all took precedence over the otherwise bland agenda planned Monday night for the regular meeting the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. Residents wanted answers. They got excuses.
Anthony Williams a new resident of ARHA's Samuel Madden Homes Uptown development told the Board, "I'm concerned about the shootings in that area. You can't go outside without someone shooting off a gun."
Williams recently moved into the uptown development from one of ARHA's Quaker Hill properties. "These are random shootings. We had one just last night," he said.
"If I step outside my door it's dangerous and I'm very concerned. You really can't even count on it being safe in the daytime. The police need to do more," Williams said.
The answers he got from ARHA Board Chairman A. Melvin Miller and Commissioner Ruby Tucker ranged from suggesting he form a citizens committee to making more calls to Alexandria Police as well as the Mayor and City Council. "You'd have to get your neighbors determined not to live with this. Then the City will back you," Tucker told him.
"We've been trying our best to work with the Police Department and City government at large. When you see or hear something someone needs to call the police. I think that area now has the attention of the police," Miller said.
Williams assured the Board that not only he but also many of the neighbors have been calling the police. "But, they just don't seem to respond very quickly," he said.
When asked by ARHA Vice Chairman, Carlyle "Connie" Ring, Jr., want he thought the major cause of these disturbances where, Williams answered in one word, "Drugs." Ring responded, "That's what I thought you were going to say."
"Where I live, I see it all. I believe a lot of the people causing the problems are coming here from other areas to buy drugs," Williams said.
"One of the things we've found out many times is that the problems are being caused by people who don't live here. But, it's the attraction that brings drug dealers to public housing thinking its a drug area," Miller said.
Commissioner Peter Lawson thanked Williams for coming forward. "You're not the first person to come here on this issue. We have been trying to work with the City. But, fair or not the residents need to get together to decide they are not going to have this. With ARC elections coming up, this should be a prime topic," Lawson suggested.
Alexandria Residents Council, which has a seat on the ARHA Board of Commissioners, is due to elect officers in June, according to Richard J. Blake, the current ARC representative. He announced this in response to a question from Commissioner Carter Flemming who has expressed frustration over the past year about the lack of ARC activity. "When you don't have an active group, it's hard to have an election," Miller said.
Williams also complained about the loitering of large groups of youth on the street with nobody, including the police, seeming to take any action. "Many times they have stood in front of my place and I've had to tell them to move on. But, when there's 15 or more people there a bullet doesn't have a name," he said.
"That area has gone through a variety of changes. It got better for a while. But, now its slipping a lot again," Miller admitted.
WILLIAMS' FRUSTRATIONS WERE BUTTRESSED by Richard Storms, a long-time ARHA resident. He questioned the lighting on ARHA property. "We need more lights on the playground and in the alley ways," he said.
"At two and three in the morning you can hear people taking on the playground and smell the drugs. If there were more lighting they wouldn't congregate. They know they can't be seen, that's why they are there," Storms insisted.
"I've reported the lights being out to both ARHA and the City. Nobody has done anything," he said.
To his complaint, Tucker suggested he call Dominion Virginia Power, "The lights are their responsibility," she said. Storms informed her that he had done that and was told by them replacement would take "three to four months."
"If you light that area up like a Christmas tree it will shine into people's units and then we'll hear complaints about that," Miller responded. "But, if it's on our property we'll get them fixed."
Just when Miller was ready to move into the regular agenda items, Otis Weeks, resident of Ladrey Highrise and former spokesperson for that tenant group, announced, "We also have a drug problem right here." Ladrey Highrise on Wythe Street is the site of ARHA Board meetings.
In addition to drug dealers entering Ladrey, Weeks said, "We also have street walkers coming in here. It comes from tenants bringing unauthorized people in. When we have a complaint we bring it here to the Board but the problem keeps on."
In response to these complaints William Dearman, executive director, ARHA, turned to Mike Wiser, ARHA attorney, to explain some of the difficulties they face in dealing with the various criminal problems. Wiser rarely attends Board meetings.
"People see things and are willing to bring them to the attention of management. But, they are not willing to testify in court and that is the problem I face on a regular basis," Wiser said.
"The judges also realize that public housing is often the housing of last resort for many people. If they put someone out for breaking the rules that will be it," he said.
"It's not a matter of someone being untruthful. It's just that there is not enough evidence," Wiser said.
When asked by Lawson if there was a clause in ARHA leases defining who can live in a given ARHA unit, Wiser explained that a tenant can have a guest live in the unit, who is not on the lease, for no more than 15 days per year. Lawson asked Wiser for a recommendation. He had none.
Finally, Dearman announced that a meeting was scheduled with tenants, police, and ARHA representatives at the Charles Houston Recreation Center on Wythe Street for April 26. "However, its not open to the public because we want everyone to be able to speak freely," he said.
WHEN IT CAME to the regular agenda Lawson once again expressed frustration over the fact that ARHA staff had received only two bids for an independent public accounting service to perform the annual audit. He also question retaining the same firm that had been performing the service for the past several years.
"It has been my experience that it is good to change auditors periodically. That way a fresh set of eyes gets to look at the figures," he said.
Derek McDaniel, ARHA finance officer, suggested that ARHA not change auditors this year because of all the changes that have taken place in ARHA's financial department. He also noted that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was requiring all housing authorities to go to zero based budget beginning this year.
One of the reasons given by staff as to why they only received two bids was that other firms indicated they had not had enough time to develop a bid. Dearman announced the bids were sent out at the beginning of April for return by April 18.
In his report to the Board on this agenda item, Dearman noted, "The contract held by the current auditors has expired. At the October 2005 Board Meeting staff was authorized to advertise an RFP for Independent Audit Services." His recommendation was that the Board stay with their present auditing firm, Dooley and Vicars L.L.P., at least for this year.
Lawson raised the same concerns about the lack of multiple bids when it came to a vote allowing staff to enter into a contract for financial consulting services for the Quaker Hill buyout. He asked if any progress was being made by staff to solving the problem of getting only single bids on so many proposals. Dearman's answer was, "We're working on it."
The meeting ended with the Board once again going into executive session to discuss "Personnel, Legal and Real Estate Issues." It is the closing item on every ARHA Board of Commissioners agenda.