Burns: Long-awaited HUD emails confirm JHA makes decisions

WJAC inquiries, coverage a hot topic; full-scale review of 900 units sought

EBENSBURG, July 20 – Four days after he sought intercession from Pennsylvania’s two U.S. senators and Cambria County’s congressman, state Rep. Frank Burns finally received a response from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to his three-month-old Freedom of Information Act request.

HUD Philadelphia official Lisa Nowinski explained that the emailed response didn’t arrive June 27 as promised, due to “an issue with the delivery system HUD uses,” which has been reported to her office’s IT department.

Burns, D-Cambria, sought communications and documents that have flowed between HUD and the Johnstown Housing Authority regarding the suddenly evacuated, 110-unit Prospect public housing community.

“If it takes an invisible hand to pry loose this information, so be it,” Burns said. “I see no logical reason why this should have taken so long, when the FOIA law requires compliance within 20 working days. I hope this type of delay doesn’t happen again.”

While much of what was supplied to Burns in HUD’s partial fulfillment of his request was back-and-forth communication between the JHA and HUD, and inspection and geotechnical reports on the Prospect site, it yielded:

+ Sharp questioning by WJAC-TV news director Jim Platzer, who bluntly asked HUD, “Does the JAHA (Johnstown Housing Authority)” answer to you?” and whose other inquiries generated much inter-agency discussion and responses, such as: “HUD provides funding, conducts program monitoring, and provides technical guidance on HUD programs and regulations to the Johnstown Housing Authority,” from Lyn Kirshenbaum, HUD Acting Public Affairs Specialist. Kirshenbaum also wrote, “The news director did ask HUD’s role, which is to monitor performance and fund the housing authorities. And we can clarify that we don’t own any of the housing or directly manage it.”

+ A clarification from Jacqueline Molinaro-Thompson, Director of HUD’s Pittsburgh-Buffalo Office of Public Housing that, “HUD did not order the relocation of residents from the Prospect community. The relocation is the housing authority administration’s decision, which is how these decisions are supposed to be made. The housing authority will develop plans to address the physical issues at this public housing property.”

(That was in response to another inquiry from WJAC’s Platzer, who wrote): “This statement was made today at the Johnstown Housing Authorities monthly meeting. When discussing the forced evacuation of the (Prospect) community, the people who attended the meeting were told the decision was made by you at HUD.
One board member said, “HUD calls all the shots.”

Can you verify that statement as true? Did the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issue the orders to evacuate the property?”

+ WJAC also drew the ire of JHA Executive Director Michael Alberts, who wrote the following to HUD official Jacqueline Molinaro-Thompson: “
WJAC caused a lot of problems yesterday. Residents were just receiving notices yesterday but WJAC found out before they were delivered and posted the information on Facebook. Residents were finding out about the relocation plan from WJAC’s Facebook or text messages from others before they had any information from the housing authority.

“I assume the information was leaked to the media by a school district employee - I spoke with the superintendent yesterday morning to discuss how the relocations will affect bus schedules, etc., and shortly after that, multiple school employees were questioning our staff. WJAC contacted me for an interview and said they were going to go on the air about it at 5:00 no matter what so I provided a short written statement to them, so there was at least something from us. I told them I did not want to answer any questions before our residents had the chance to ask us. After they decided to post the information online much earlier than 5:00, I stopped taking their calls.”

+ HUD’s Jacqueline Molinaro-Thompson wrote on June 26 that, “Johnstown HA is seeking a full portfolio review, focusing on their family communities, totaling approximately 900 units across five AMPs.” In HUD lingo AMP means “Asset Management Project.”

Assessing the totality of this information, Burns said, “I’m glad that HUD confirmed these are all locally made decisions by the Johnstown Housing Authority. It baffles me that the JHA would try to pawn responsibility off onto HUD, when they should know better.

“That being said, I still think HUD needs to conduct an operational audit of the JHA. If its board of directors doesn’t know its role, duties and responsibilities, it’s no wonder they have no records of any ceiling work done at Prospect except blueprints from 1943.”