Burns: JHA board needs to take stand on public housing transformation plan

Calls for resolution in support of downsizing, against building elsewhere

EBENSBURG, Aug. 1 – Saying it’s a simple request to fulfill on behalf of a concerned public, state Rep. Frank Burns wants the Johnstown Housing Authority board of commissioners to approve a resolution guaranteeing any “transformation” of public housing will include downsizing from 1,900 units -- and that any new units will not be built elsewhere in Cambria County.

Burns, D-Cambria, made his request in a letter to JHA board Chairman Charles Arnone, noting that Arnone – along with fellow commissioners David Vitovich, Angela Reed, Darlette Haselrig and John Slezak – are the ones directly responsible for operating the JHA and charting its course.

You as a five-member board - not executive director Mike Alberts, not HUD, not Johnstown city officials and certainly not consultant Matt Ward- are in charge of public housing in Cambria County.

“You set policy and approve all contracts. You have the power to say what will and will not happen under any JHA transformation plan - including the power to decide if there will be any transformation plan at all.

“It’s time for you, as a board, to take a stand and let the public know what direction you intend to take this $50 million initiative should you get that HUD money. You can easily do that – and let the public and HUD know your intentions – by passing an official resolution stating the parameters of any transformation.”

Burns said the collapse of a single ceiling at the Prospect public housing complex has morphed within months into a controversial mass evacuation of that 110-unit community; the possibility of a far-reaching complete redo that includes the Prospect, Oakhurst and Coopersdale public housing complexes; pursuit of a $500,000 HUD planning grant as a precursor to getting a $50 million HUD housing implementation grant; solicitation of support from  Gov. Josh Shapiro for that effort; and the recent revelation that Mark Pasquerilla-affiliated consultant Matt Ward has been the point man on interactions between the JHA and HUD.

“Nowhere in that mix have we heard much if anything, from the board members who have ultimate say on what happens at the Johnstown Housing Authority,” Burns said. “They should be front and center in steering this ship, not napping or playing cards below deck as someone else mans the helm.”

Burns said HUD emails he obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request made crystal-clear that, “HUD provides funding, conducts program monitoring, and provides technical guidance on HUD programs and regulations to the Johnstown Housing Authority … And we can clarify that we don’t own any of the housing or directly manage it.”

Burns said those emails effectively debunked the position put forth by one JHA board member who said, “HUD calls all the shots.”

Burns said his prior request that the JHA discuss the potential impact of an “equity plan” being promoted by Biden administration has gone unheeded. In it, Burns pointedly asked, “Would any HUD-funded new or replacement housing be constructed in Johnstown, where all its (JHA) major family public housing communities such as Prospect are currently located, or could they be built in municipalities outside the city, such as Westmont, Upper Yoder, Richland or Ebensburg?”

Assessing the goal of his most recent letter, Burns provided this further illumination:

“The JHA board of commissioners, who are unpaid public officials appointed by the city, have autonomy and could put this to matter to bed simply by stating, ‘As part of any transformation plan, we are going to reduce the number of public housing units to a specific number, and we are going to build them at these locations.’ They don’t – and shouldn’t – need a task force or anyone else to tell them what to do.

“These five people are the ones running the Johnstown Housing Authority, and they shouldn’t be hiding behind a task force when it comes to determining what needs to be done – and where they intend to do it.”

Since February, Burns has called for the JHA – which has five times as many public housing units as comparably-sized cities – to tear down excess public housing to match true local need.