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Residents call for action as situation at IHA properties worsens

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Years of mismanagement haunt the Indianapolis Housing Agency and hurt those it serves. Now a community calls for action as the situation worsens.

At a recent public IHA meeting, residents spoke about security issues, violence, bug infestation and broken air conditioning at properties owned by IHA.

Nate Ray said it’s unacceptable.

“We might be poor, but we are human,” Ray said.

A plethora of problems came to light in recent months. A public letter signed by 25 community leaders demands immediate action from the city and IHA.

Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana Executive Director Amy Nelson said they’ve received a steady stream of calls about IHA properties and problems with vouchers. She said more transparency is needed.

“As to the extent of the problems that are within IHA and being able to effectively do their business and what is being done to correct those problems,” Nelson said.

A lack of communication because of severe staffing shortages is a primary problem. Michael Booth heads the tenant organization at Barton Towers. He said he has failed to get ahold of help for residents.

“We have so many issues, and I don’t get any answers, so I’m asking too for communication,” Booth said.

The public letter also calls for an extensive search for a new director. Marcia Lewis has served as IHA interim executive director since John Hall left earlier this year.

At the meeting, she said she was fully aware of the issues at the properties. She made a recent trip to Blackburn Apartments where she spent 20 minutes picking up trash.

“I was embarrassed by how people who look like me are treated,” Lewis said, “I’m sorry, that’s all I can say, but I’m one person.”

Lewis said there are currently only four maintenance people for 1,600 units.  Properties, including the Barton and Lugar Towers, have recurring issues. Lewis said she asked the city for help and will give $250,000 to hire maintenance directly.

She said on any given day, she receives 25 citations from the board of health.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the city of Indianapolis said it is committed to open communication with residents and will launch a nationwide search for a new leader.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has several audits of the agency underway. Lewis said the IHA estimates it is about $10 million in debt.

“I’m trying to keep HUD at bay, to keep them from taking over this agency,” Lewis said.

In recent years IHA left behind money by not applying for HUD grants. In recent months IHA has outlined ways to move forward. It is considering selling off its properties and becoming a voucher-only agency. Nelson said it comes with its own issues as many landlords discriminate against voucher holders.

“If they are going to sell these buildings and move some of those residents onto vouchers then IHA needs to be doing a better job of running its voucher program to make it something that landlords want to participate in,” Nelson said.

The public letter also calls on IHA to open a centralized call-in for maintenance issues and publish updates and reports for residents to pursue.

“At the end of the day, they are accountable to the people who live in their units and use their vouchers, and they need to get more information out so people know what is going on,” Nelson said.

IHA provides housing to 600 residents at its properties and has 9,000 voucher holders.

Current clients have an average household income of about $13,000 per year with 80% designated as extremely low income.

Contact WFYI city government and policy reporter Jill Sheridan at jsheridan@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @JillASheridan.

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