Former Pittsburgh housing authority board member denounces agency’s leadership
A former board member of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh has excoriated the agency’s customer service and management and says new leadership is needed at the agency. Such extensive public criticism by a former board member is unusual.
Tammy Thompson, executive director of anti-poverty organization Catapult Greater Pittsburgh and an HACP board member from 2020 to 2022, was especially critical of the agency’s customer service and management of its Section 8 program, which subsidizes rent for low-income tenants who rent privately-owned units. She made her remarks in a local podcast video posted online last month.
“They're not getting their calls answered. They're not getting their emails answered,” Thompson said, of people who need assistance from the agency. “People are showing up in person trying to see somebody and literally being told, well, 'I'm not the person' or 'there's nobody in that department right now' or 'so-and-so who was on your case, they're not here anymore.' The reason that you're not getting your phone calls answered and the reason you're not getting your emails answered is because they can't keep people employed. …And there's something going on down there that makes people walk off that job, that makes people leave."
The housing authority manages more than 2,200 public housing units throughout the city and provides oversight of more than 600 mixed-finance units. More than half the agency’s residents — more than 5,000 families — live in privately owned rental housing through the Housing Choice Voucher (commonly called Section 8) program. Under the program, tenants pay a portion of their income in rent and landlords receive a federal subsidy to make up the rest. Landlords have long complained about red tape and delays in the program, but Thompson said HACP’s inefficiencies and staffing problems in the program have reached crisis levels.
“The lack of communication. The weeks and months without getting their phone calls and emails answered. The months and years that people are waiting to get their rental payment. That's why we're losing units,” Thompson said — referring to landlords who have stopped participating in the program — in a follow-up interview with WESA.
In recent years, HACP has undertaken major redevelopments of its properties in the North Side, Hill District, East Liberty and Larimer. The authority has also faced criticism from tenants and housing advocates for poor conditions in some of its older properties such as Northview Heights.
Critics have also claimed HACP has been more focused on development efforts than on effectively running its Section 8 program. A former administrator of HACP’s homeownership program filed a complaint with the state over what she called “gross negligence and misconduct,” PublicSource reported last month.
An HACP official acknowledged serious customer service and other problems have plagued the Section 8 department, and were exacerbated by the pandemic, though she disputed that any landlords had waited years to receive payments. She said recent new hires and a bump in federal aid have helped, and she said the agency is in the process of trying to turn the department around.
“We're really … in the phase of trying to move forward. And that's what we're doing,” said Michelle Sandidge, HACP’s chief community affairs officer.
HACP last month touted a ten percent bump in its voucher funding, saying it plans enhancements for the program such as incentives for landlords like a $1,000 new landlord bonus, additional payments for recent renovations, and improved customer service.
“We will be ramping up our staff and simultaneously working to train new and existing staff on how to provide an exemplary customer service experience,” Executive Director Caster Binion said in a news release. “We have experienced high levels or staffing turnover within the last year and will be seeking to fill critical positions and to improve lines of communication between staff and landlords and staff and clients.”
Thompson said a major frustration during her time on the board was a vote last year to renew Binion’s contract through March 2025 with no discussion; she was the lone ‘no’ vote. Binion was made interim director of the agency in 2012; he became executive director in February 2013, and the HACP board has voted to extend his contract several times.
Housing Authority board members are appointed by the mayor, but city officials have limited control over the agency, which is federally funded and subject to rules and regulations from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency’s budget last year was about $180 million.
A Gainey transition team report released last year was highly critical of HACP and recommended a total overhaul of the agency. That report also asked board members to resign, saying Mayor Ed Gainey should have a chance to appoint board members that would reflect his vision and priorities for the agency, rather than letting members appointed by the previous mayor serve out their full terms. Gainey’s chief of staff, Jake Wheatley, has since joined the board.
Thompson said the housing authority's issues are systemic.
“The reason the housing authority has been able to get away with this so long is because as a society, we don't care about poor people."