The writer is chief executive officer of the Omaha Housing Authority.
Nearly three years ago, in January 2011, the Omaha Housing Authority board learned that the financial condition of OHA was built on a house of cards. The board immediately moved to restore the integrity of the agency, with steps that included:
>> Hiring a management consultant well versed in housing authority operations to conduct an assessment of OHA and make recommendations regarding its operations. Several of those recommendations were implemented, and a few are still under review.
>> Launching a national search for a new chief executive officer to lead the agency out of the financial and operational mess. That search resulted in my hiring in July 2011.
In May 2011, U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson instigated a federally funded audit to examine the cause of the financial issues and provide an analysis of the historical causes of the problems the agency was facing. Forensic auditors spent over a year at OHA from 2012-13, reviewed thousands of pages of documents and talked to numerous individuals. Their review covered a lengthy time frame, from Jan. 1, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2012.
Their report was provided to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in April. On Oct. 22, OHA received a summary of the “findings,” or issues that had been uncovered. This audit examined a time frame going back to long before most current board members were appointed and prior to my arrival.
The fundamental finding was that OHA and its affiliated company, Housing In Omaha Inc., suffered significant operational losses from 2005 to 2011. The core cause of the losses lay in striving to meet the requirements of a federally mandated consent decree, known as the Hawkins Settlement. That settlement, from the early 1990s, required OHA to replace housing that was demolished during in the late 1980s. OHA had transferred funds from accounts legally designated for other purposes to meet those Hawkins Settlement requirements.
OHA will have to restore the funds to the accounts from which the funds were moved. We are in negotiations with the federal government to determine the exact amount of improperly used funds and will enter into a repayment agreement once that is determined.
The audit also found issues with the governance of the agency. We will work with our federal, state and local partners to hopefully put into place processes that will address these. The manner, quality and frequency of appointment of members of our governing body are granted to our mayor and City Council under state law. Every signal indicates that the mayor will follow the recommendations in the audit report.
OHA and the larger community must use this audit to fix the problems identified and, in so doing, put past problems behind us so that we can move forward and be the agency this community and its residents deserve. As the report indicates, the current board and staff are making headway in fixing the problems that predated most of them.
While OHA still faces challenges — including reductions in federal dollars, an increasingly aging housing stock, more regulations from HUD and a smaller workforce — we are living within our means, engaging in fruitful partnerships and achieving greatly improved performance objectives.
So that past mistakes will not be repeated, the board, staff and I are carefully reviewing the findings and recommendations of the recent audit. Over the next 30 to 60 days, OHA, HUD and the Mayor’s Office will be executing a Recovery Plan Agreement that strictly mandates performance standards for OHA.
Part of the recovery plan under discussion is a commitment from the mayor that her office will appoint board members with the expertise to serve the interests, as indicated in the forensic report, of “the entire community and further OHA’s mission.”
In early 2014, the board and staff will engage in a strategic planning initiative to lay out a long-term strategy and vision for OHA. The next 24 months will be a crucial time. We ask the Omaha community for patience and support as we move forward to a building a strong and vibrant agency that this community and, most importantly, our residents deserve.