Kenner housing agency hopes to end vacancy woes

“If you bring someone in here in 90 days, I’ll be honest with you, they will fail. It’s going to cost us some money to get out of this ditch.” Richard Murray, Kenner Housing Authority interim executive director

The Kenner Housing Authority’s long-running struggles in getting vacant units ready for market could be resolved by next month if an ambitious rehabilitation plan by the Kenner Housing Authority’s interim executive director is successful.

Richard Murray told the authority’s board of commissioners this week that he expects to have about 97 percent of the authority’s 139 public housing units available for rental by the end of June. That would be a huge improvement for an agency that has often had a vacancy rate of more than 30 percent for years, despite a lengthy waiting list for apartments.

The authority has been unable to rent many units because of their poor condition, including some damage that dates to Hurricane Katrina. The current vacancy rate is about 20 percent, Murray said.

For years, a parade of executive directors has discussed repairing units, but little progress has been made. Bids have been requested, but units have remained vacant or dilapidated. The failure to get them up to snuff has been flagged by federal and state auditors in several reports.

Murray plans to bring in maintenance workers from the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority — where he is the executive director — to make repairs to deficient units. Murray said Kenner will save thousands by using those maintenance workers and reimbursing the East Baton Rouge agency.

“I’ll be honest, you all will get this on a real reduced rate,” he told commissioners.

Repairing the units in a cost-effective manner is important because the authority could lose federal capital projects money previously allocated through a stimulus grant, Murray said. He told the board that due to inactivity, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could take back more than $550,000, according to the audit. Murray is working to halt that process, but he said it is still possible.

“There were a lot of things that were not done, and it may cost us a lot of funds,” Murray said.

In addition to approving the renovation work, commissioners finalized the authority’s agreement with Murray to continue to manage the agency as it tries to rebound from financial mismanagement so dire that a HUD takeover has been contemplated. Murray was recommended by HUD’s New Orleans branch office to help Kenner in its recovery.

Kenner’s authority will reimburse the East Baton Rouge authority for all hours Murray spends in the city, which officials said amounted to about 20 hours per week. Kenner also will pay Murray a $5,500 monthly “management fee.”

He said the deal is a good one because it also covers staff members he brings from East Baton Rouge Parish to assist in the recovery.

Murray’s agreement runs for about six months, although the city could retain him longer. Commissioners asked him to stay on and help them hire a new permanent director, but they acknowledged that given the authority’s poor condition it’s unlikely someone will be hired soon. Murray said the authority needs time to get its financial house in order, and then a new director can begin fresh.

“If you bring someone in here in 90 days, I’ll be honest with you, they will fail,” said Murray, who also is looking to hire an accountant to examine the authority’s deplorable financial system. “It’s going to cost us some money to get out of this ditch.”

In addition to 139 public housing units, the Kenner authority also manages about 1,300 housing vouchers. The authority has been beset by turmoil in recent months, although many of the problems have been discussed for years.