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WHA, CHFA and money

The Wallingford Housing Authority, and its residents, are in trouble.

The authority is running out of money.

The property manager for the housing authority, Renee Dobos, said that the authority wouldn’t have enough money next year to perform all the tasks required, based upon foreseeable revenues.

She said that the housing authority’s proposed budget has a shortfall of about 19%, or $337,355. If the Town of Wallingford had a deficit that was proportionately as big, it would amount to about $27,000,000. That would be a disaster.

One housing authority commissioner characterized the problem as “systemic” — meaning that the problem may be beyond the control of the housing authority to fix in the long run. The prognosis, therefore, is grim.

One possible solution to these fiscal woes would be to use housing authority reserves to fix the housing authority deficit.

But Dobos said, “We don’t have reserves.” Ouch.

To mitigate the situation, the housing authority commissioners recently decided to pursue past due rent more aggressively, and to be less forgiving with tenants who fall into arrears. They will be evicted more quickly. Another measure they discussed was an increase of $30 in the base rent for new tenants. But Dobos said that the proposed 2014-2015 budget already contemplates that rent increase.

Vacant units, which do not produce rent, add to the problem, too, and the WHA has 18 vacancies. These units are not ready for tenants because they need to be renovated. This is an old, nagging problem that the commissioners and property managers haven’t been able to solve.

The housing authority commissioners also discussed a cut in staff. That would mean, however, that the WHA would have fewer employees to maintain the grounds and keep units in good repair. As a result, the residents’ quality of life would suffer.

It would also mean that rental income would be lost, because the WHA wouldn’t have enough staff to promptly renovate apartments after tenants moved out. Because empty units don’t produce rent, commissioners correctly said that layoffs would be counterproductive.

Another idea the housing authority commissioners kicked around to address the problem was to have the part-time property manager further reduce the time she spends managing the property, then cut fees for that service, to save money. That could be a recipe for mismanagement, waste, and more problems. It’s not a long-term solution, and it’s risky in the short term.

Are there any ideas left? The commissioners, as a last resort, want to take their problems to the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA) and ask for money. Would that work? When asked by the reporter for the Record-Journal whether the CHFA would help, a spokesperson for the agency ducked the question and said that the CHFA could provide “guidance and suggestions.” Ominously, she said that budget cuts aren’t easy. There was no mention of cash. The commissioners hope to set up a meeting to plead their case.

Whether or not the CHFA comes to WHA’s rescue this year, there’s the year after and the year after that. Subsidies can be addictive, as the state probably knows, and it might be wary. Maybe that was why one commissioner said the CHFA won’t just write a check, and Dobos said that CHFA will likely force cuts. State-imposed budget cuts, however, could be the first step in a long, slow slide and the eventual demise of the Wallingford Housing Authority.

The issue is whether the housing authority can ever be self-sustaining again. If so, what specific measures would assure a turn-around? If the housing authority cannot survive without a reliable subsidy, where does that subsidy come from? The federal government? The state? The town? That’s a difficult conversation but it needs to start. Or, does the Wallingford Housing Authority, after a frank self-assessment, “turn over the keys” to the CHFA?

Mike Brodinsky is a former town councilor, chairman of the School Roof Building Committee and host of public access show “Citizen Mike.”

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