CANTON Britnee Allen’s rental house and new job at the Stark Metropolitan Housing Authority are glowing examples of an agency success story — or the fruits of favoritism from the top.
On one hand: Using her government-funded Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8), the unemployed single mom moved her family from Orrville into the Plain Local School District and a house on 41st Street NW the Housing Authority had recently purchased.
Then in short order, Allen landed a newly-added Housing Authority position that pays almost $40,000 a year — which enabled her to abandon her housing subsidy and pay $800 monthly rent herself.
“She’s self-sufficient now; that’s part of our mission,” said Herman Hill, Housing Authority executive director.
“A hand-up, not handout,” Allen echoed.
That’s all feel-good stuff.
But on the other hand: Hill knew Allen personally. Their now seventh-grade sons, both currently living in the Plain school system, played together on an Ohio Phenom Academy travel basketball team in 2017, and have played against each other since. And that house Allen leases on 41st Street was the only one purchased last year by the Housing Authority.
Some former and current Housing Authority employees said they believe Hill used his position to give Allen special treatment.
Last month, an anonymous letter was sent to at least some of the Housing Authority’s five appointed board members — advising them to dig deeper into circumstances surrounding that house, among other matters.
Board members did not respond to messages and requests seeking comment for this story.
Hill, who’s headed the agency since 2013, said his assistance to Allen did not violate any rule or policy. He added he’d do the same for a stranger, and pointed out other public housing or Section 8 voucher residents do or have worked at the Housing Authority.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
Right house, right time?
The Repository has reviewed agency documents related to the purchase of the house last summer and Allen’s hiring last fall. — including internal office emails — which all are public records. In addition, interviews were conducted with Hill, Allen and many others with knowledge of the situation.
Veda Davis, who’d worked at the Housing Authority for more than 30 years, said Hill was abnormally hands-on in leasing the house to Allen and in getting her a job.
Davis, most recently director of asset management, said it was clear to her and others the house was purchased specifically for Allen, so she could lease it from the Housing Authority.
An agency manager told Davis of an odd conversation she had with Allen when Allen moved into the house in September.
“The resident told the manager that she had already been in the unit …. because she had picked it,” Davis said.
Davis was fired this month for an unrelated matter.
Hill and Allen both deny Allen selected the house. They said it was simply a matter of a house becoming available in the right neighborhood at the right time. They do, however, differ, in recalling how Allen was notified the house was available to lease.
Allen said she heard through “word-of-mouth.” Hill said he’d, in fact, directed a staff member to contact her because he knew she wanted to move from Orrville to Stark County.
“There’s no doubt about it; I knew her,” Hill said.
He said Allen had approached him at a basketball game more than a year ago. Hill said they spoke a few more times after that about using her voucher from Wayne County in Stark, which is permitted.
“I stayed in touch with him from time to time and he referred me to a couple Stark County landlords whose properties were in unsafe neighborhoods,” Allen explained. “I asked him to contact me if he became aware of any decent properties in safe neighborhoods.”
Hill, who has coached youth basketball, said neither the house nor Allen’s job have anything to do with basketball. Allen, whose son is one of the state’s higher-rated players for his age group, said she and Hill had no discussions related to basketball.
The Housing Authority’s bread and butter is public housing, not buying and renting single-family homes.
It has 2,544 public housing units subsidized by federal Housing and Urban Development funds. In addition, the Housing Authority oversees Stark County’s Housing Choice Voucher program (Section 8), a HUD program that pays private landlords who lease to low-income tenants.
In both programs, tenants pay only a portion of rent out-of-pocket, depending on income and household size.
Hill lamented the fact that too few landlords, outside of cities, accept Housing Choice Vouchers. Agency statistics show the bulk of the 1,473 vouchers in use in Stark County are in Canton.
A much smaller piece of the agency’s activity are houses like the one Allen is leasing — but Hill said the Housing Authority intends to buy more like it in the future.
For now, the Housing Authority owns only 17. None are part of its public housing stock. Many were inherited from now-defunct Freed Housing, a nonprofit created by and later disbanded by the Housing Authority.
Although, it’s only a fraction of the agency’s endeavors, it’s not uncommon for housing authorities to own or manage market-rate rental homes or apartment buildings because it’s viewed as an extension of its mission to provide a variety of affordable housing.
The Stark Housing Authority’s written strategic plan does, in fact, include a desire to buy more single-family homes for non-public housing.
But it hadn’t much pursued the goal.
At least until last summer.
A real estate company was asked to locate houses on the market. Hill said he and Development Director Ashley Wright visited eight before buying the house on 41st Street NW in July.
The deal moved quickly.
In early July, Hill directed staff to put up $1,000 in earnest money on the three-bedroom bungalow, with attached garage. In the weeks following, Hill was included on most internal email strings with updates on subsequent inspections, garnering a board resolution to buy it, as well as evolving plans for minor repairs and mold remediation.
After closing on the $98,900 purchase at the end of the month, Hill directed staff to get all the utilities turned on as soon as possible.
The purchase contract required the seller to spend $2,000 to install central air conditioning. And Hill said the agency spent less than $10,000 on repairs, so in the end the net cost of the house was still slightly less than the $109,000 that it was appraised for.
Typically, the Housing Authority — like any private landlord — would place an advertisement to rent the newly-acquired house. Hill said he instead advised staff to contact Allen.
“I didn’t want to go through a process of advertising … when I knew I had someone who was interested,” he explained.
Allen and her children moved into the house in September. She was without a job. Hill said she entered a HUD-funded family self-sufficiency program, which led to her agency job two months later.
“That’s the whole idea … because now she’s paying full rent,” Hill added.
Davis, the recently-fired employee, said Hill asked staff in October if Allen had applied for an open and posted housekeeping manager job with the Housing Authority.
She hadn’t, but Allen lacked the college degree normally required for that level position. Shortly after that, Allen and another woman were hired for new quality assurance positions.
“But basically doing a housekeeping manager’s job,” Davis added.
Hill said Davis is simply trying to stir up trouble. He’d demoted her before firing her. He said he believes she wrote the anonymous letter, part of an effort to embarrass him.
Davis said that’s not true.
Hill, an executive director, oversees 130 employees and an annual budget of $32 million. Davis said she wasn’t the only Housing Authority employee who wondered why he was so intimately involved in all the details of buying the house on 41st Street NW; making sure it was leased to Allen and her three children; and guiding her to a job.
“It was unusual,” Davis said.
On her application to the Housing Authority, Allen noted Hill had referred her for the quality assurance post.
No public housing money
Hill said the fact he knew Allen is irrelevant because the result fits the Housing Authority’s mission: “To provide eligible residents of Stark County with decent, safe and affordable housing. Contributing to nourishing neighborhoods by working in partnership with the public and private sectors.”
“We want to put people in stable neighborhoods,” he said.
Besides, Hill said he’s further vindicated because money spent to buy the 41st Street NW house wasn’t federal public housing dollars. It was discretionary money from the agency’s central office account, which is funding it gets from money it receives to run the federal programs, as well as revenue collected from non-public housing rentals.
Hill said the agency can rent non-public houses, such as Allen’s, to whoever it chooses. He said it’s black-and-white because HUD provides no subsidies for those units.
“We’re basically a private landlord for those … doing it legally like any other private landlord,” he said.
It’s also true HUD doesn’t subsidize the non-public houses. HUD did not respond to a request for comment about whether anyone had lodged a complaint with the department over the 41st Street house.
However, it may become a little more gray when you consider those 17 non-public houses, including Allen’s probably wouldn’t exist if not for their ties to the Housing Authority.
And those house tenants often have Housing Choice Vouchers. That means HUD tax dollars get paid to the landlord — the Housing Authority — in the form of rent subsidies.
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