TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s Affordable Housing program, a troubled department in county government on and off for decades, is again under fire for improperly spending more than $1 million in federal grant money.
The grant, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was meant to rehabilitate poor, blighted neighborhoods. But a recently released report by HUD’s Office of Inspector General accuses the county of expanding target areas — the neighborhoods where grant money could be spent — to include middle- and upper-class neighborhoods.
The inspector general is recommending HUD make the county show evidence it spent the money correctly, or pay back more than $1 million in Community Development Block Grant funding — money used primarily for code enforcement in block grant target areas.
“At this point HUD will be the decision-maker,” said Marta Rivera Metelko, spokeswoman for the Inspector General’s office, which is separate from Housing and Urban Development. “They will look at our findings, work with our audit team and decide whether to accept our findings.”
Officials at the Jacksonville HUD office could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The report says the county commission in 2003 drew target area lines for purposes other than helping poor residential neighborhoods. For example, it says, the commissioners sought to use federal funds to replace impact fees normally paid by developers. Impact fees cover sewer, water and roads that serve subdivisions.
Commissioners also used the money to make sure rural areas received their share of federal funds, the report said — so money meant for deteriorating urban neighborhoods flowed to largely rural, vacant land.
In addition, the report said, the commissioners used the money to respond to complaints from homeowners who wanted to ramp up code enforcement in neighborhoods that did not meet HUD’s definition of low-to-moderate-income.
“To qualify these areas, many of the CDBG target areas were expanded as much as possible to include sections that would not have otherwise qualified on their own by ‘averaging in’ low- and moderate-income areas with those that were not,” the report said.
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County officials strongly disagreed with the report’s findings, saying all the target areas were established according to HUD regulations, and were included in the county’s yearly reports to the HUD office in Jacksonville.
These areas, where tens of millions of federal dollars were spent, were created in 2003 using economic and income data from the 2000 census, the county said in its response.
Since that time, the county says, HUD has not questioned the target area boundaries.
What’s more, county commissioners made sure they did not include so-called Developments of Regional Impact in the target areas. These are developments so large they have an economic impact on surrounding counties.
“I believe this report is weak and unfounded,” said Paula Harvey, Hillsborough County director of Affordable Housing. “A lot of it is based on conjecture by people who had nothing to do with the administration of this program. I think it’s a terrible report from the perspective that it’s not based on fact.”
Tom Scott, who served on the county commission in 2003 when the target areas were drawn, said the commission did create zones where developers were not required to pay impact fees.
The idea was to spur development in economically depressed neighborhoods, some of which corresponded with Community Development Block Grant target areas, Scott said.
“I know that we had expanded to the Gibsonton area, that it was designated a no-impact-fee zone to spur the growth in that area,” Scott said. “But as I recall, that had nothing to do with HUD and development in those areas.”
Other county commissioners who were on the board in 2003 either did not return phone calls or declined to comment.
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The Gibsonton-Riverview area was one of the target areas where the county has spent Community Development Block Grant money in its “Fight the Blight” campaign. Code enforcement officers, sometimes aided by the sheriff’s office and Animal Services, bring dumpsters to a run-down neighborhood and clean up trash and graffiti. They also cite property owners for building code violations and demolished abandoned buildings.
The HUD report, dated July 7, was done after a “public complaint” to the Inspector General’s Office of Investigation. Two auditors from the inspector general’s office reviewed affordable housing department records and questioned employees in the code enforcement department.
The auditors reviewed census data used in 2003 to create the target areas and found that six of the nine areas included census blocks that did not meet the low- to moderate-income percentages called for in HUD regulations.
In addition to the accusations that target areas were improperly drawn, the report faulted the county for having weak management and accounting controls, and for failing to monitor the Community Development Block Grant program properly. This resulted in the county charging the federal program for clean-up and demolition work in run-down neighborhoods that should have been paid out of property taxes, the auditors said.
Also, salary costs charged to the federal program were not allowed under HUD regulations.
“We found instances where CDBG-funded code enforcement officers corrected violations or performed work outside the CDBG target areas without adjusting their time sheets accordingly,” the auditors said.
Harvey disputed those findings, insisting that under her tenure the program has been properly monitored. Harvey took over Affordable Housing in late 2010 after the last scandal in the department had triggered internal and external investigations and the resignation of the director.
In 2007, HUD made the county pay back $2 million because the county had not committed all the money to housing projects by HUD’s Oct. 21 deadline. Months later, the affordable housing director, Howie Carroll was demoted, and later resigned. “It was in trouble when I got here in 1996 and it was in trouble when I left,” former commissioner Tom Scott said, referring to affordable housing. Scott pushed to create an Affordable Housing Advisory Board that makes recommendations on housing to the county commission.
Harvey, a longtime county employee who previously worked as a zoning administrator, said she was aware of the housing department’s troubled history. That’s why she put in stronger financial controls which she maintains are still working.
She challenges the HUD inspector general’s report.
“I can tell you when I first came down here I was scared to death because this department had a terrible history,” Harvey said.
“I couldn’t afford to let happen to me what had happened to people that preceded me and I was not going to let it happen.”