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Budget Ax Falls Hard on Housing Authority

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For years, federal money that could have gone to fix crumbling public housing units has gone instead to operating the Charlotte Housing Authority (CHA) or paying for social programs to help people get out of public housing. Now, to catch up, CHA officials are proposing a balanced budget that slashes 51.5 positions -- about half of which are actually vacant -- and potentially cuts some funds from the aforementioned social programs.

The cuts are in response to an expected $1.8 million gap in funds from the federal government and one-time expenses that hit the authority at once, like the $232,000 it spent to move to site-based management, which should save the agency money over time. And it would barely begin to address what could add up to $25 million in renovation needs that have been building over the years as CHA chose between running its public housing operations and paying for renovations.

CHA was depending on a federal Hope VI grant that fell through to pay for renovations to Piedmont Courts, the price tag for which could come to $12 million. The price of renovating Belvedere Homes, which was built in the 1950s, will likely come to $7 or $8 million, says CHA modernization manager Cheryl Campbell. And Strawn Apartments needs about $6.2 million in renovations. At the same time, CHA must pay for upkeep on the remainder of its 2,800 units.

That's where CHA gets stuck. As it stands, CHA's budget is funded solely with dollars from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. While some members of CHA's board want to reach out to city or county government for more funding, various snafus over the last few years have caused a lack of trust in the agency's ability to steward its money.

Last year, an operations review of CHA done by an outside agency showed poor stewardship of housing moneys, lax internal controls, missing supplies and a lack of compassion and accountability to superiors among CHA employees who dealt directly with the public. Many of the changes the agency is making are in hopes of convincing members of local governments to help with funding and renovation costs to public housing. But first, say some board members, CHA will have to bring its own $14.2 million budget in line and keep it out of the red.

"We still have a long way to go." said board member Kip Kiser, the agency's toughest critic. "But it's a start." *

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