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Travis County bush

Commissioners Court renovates housing agencies

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The story of two struggling affordable housing agencies in Travis County has turned into a stirring tale of redemption.

After years of teetering on the brink – pushed there by leadership vacuums, a dire assessment by the Office of the City County Auditor and controversy over board member travel expenditures – the Housing Authority of Travis County and the Strategic Housing Finance Corporation appear to be back on solid footing.

At least that was the assessment made by members of the Travis County Commissioners Court at its weekly meeting on Tuesday.

The court’s agenda had two items of business related to HATC and SHFC. The first was a briefing by Patrick Howard, the executive director of both entities, on ongoing operations. The second was a question of whether to retool the leadership structure of the two agencies, and it ended with a vote of confidence of sorts in Howard.

His briefing went into exhaustive detail about accomplishments made at both agencies in their shared goal of expanding the supply of affordable housing in Travis County. The list ranged from interactions with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to the re-establishment of resident councils at HATC’s three public housing sites and the launch of a redesigned website.

Howard’s upbeat assessment of the agencies stood in stark contrast to conditions less than one year ago when he first assumed the reins of the organizations.

In June, Howard replaced former Interim Executive Director Melvin Wrenn, who had expected to serve only temporarily but ended up staying on months longer than anticipated and without pay. During Howard’s first month on the job, the county Auditor’s Office issued a report warning that both agencies were close to going broke.

Then, this winter, came news that two board members, including Wrenn, had not properly reimbursed HATC for travel-related expenses. With those members’ resignations and anxieties over the agencies’ finances assuaged, Howard has apparently steered HATC and SHFC into much calmer waters, a feat that drew praise from Commissioner Brigid Shea after Howard’s briefing.

“I’m astonished at how much you’ve accomplished in such a short period of time,” she told him.

While Howard has been leading both agencies, a committee has also been working in the background to determine possible reforms.

County Executive Sherri Fleming, who is head of the county’s Health and Human Services Department as well as a member of that committee, presented a recommendation to change the composition of the separate boards that direct both HATC and SHFC.

HATC, which administers public housing programs and manages properties, is governed by a five-person board, while SHFC, which issues bonds and uses tax credits to fund projects, has a seven-person board.

Fleming told the court that the committee’s recommendation was to streamline the arrangement by limiting the composition of both boards to five people and then appointing the same five to serve on each board.

Current SHFC Board Member Ann Denton urged the court to accept the recommendation.

“Both of these organizations are a tool,” said Denton. “They should be working together.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who also praised Howard for his stewardship of the agencies, asked the executive director for his input on the change.

“I do believe having the composition of the boards being the same will help as it relates to decision-making and aligning goals and ideals as far as the two agencies are concerned,” Howard told him.

After hammering out the details of the transition – which will include asking for the resignation of all current members and then limiting only to them the application process to fill their vacancies – the court approved the item on a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Ron Davis dissenting.

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