DiNapoli: Audit Exposes Significant Management Issues With Tonawanda Housing Authority

New York –- (RealEstateRama) — An audit of the Tonawanda Housing Authority (THA) has revealed inappropriate computer usage, inequitable tenant and applicant treatment, and high vacancy rates in public housing, according to New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

“The actions of certain Tonawanda housing authority employees are shameful,” said DiNapoli. “Management showed contempt for the neediest applicants and seemingly gave preferential treatment to others. For years, the authority has not operated in a fair and equitable, efficient or transparent manner and has not been fulfilling its duty to provide low-cost housing to this community.”

The authority, located in the city of Tonawanda in Erie County, manages a 257-unit apartment complex that consists of four main apartment buildings. DiNapoli noted both the longtime executive secretary and bookkeeper retired last year after approximately 25 years of service at the THA. The audit focused on the period prior to these retirements.

While examining tenant applications and existing tenant files during their fieldwork, DiNapoli’s auditors found hostile notes describing personal judgments of the respective applicants using vulgar language apparently made by THA staff. Also, during audit fieldwork, authority staff made derogatory statements regarding a tenant’s personal hygiene and asserted their preferences toward applicants who paid or would pay fair-market value rent.

Meanwhile, the THA maintained a consistently high vacancy rate (33 percent vacancy rate for senior housing and 9 percent for non-senior housing as of March 31, 2016). The March 2016 vacancy report provided to auditors indicated that the average vacancy period was two years, with three units remaining vacant for over eight years. As a result of these openings, the authority deprived eligible applicants of affordable housing and annually lost potential revenue that ranged from approximately $72,000 to $117,000.

The authority also fell short in its responsibility to provide adequate and safe low-rent housing for qualified individuals. DiNapoli’s auditors identified both tenants and tenant applicants that were not treated in a consistently fair and equitable manner, resulting in questionable application rejections and potential preferential treatment to others.

When questioned about the vacancies by the THA board of directors, the former executive secretary and bookkeeper often did not respond to requests for additional information, and at times the executive secretary provided inaccurate and unsubstantiated information.

In addition, auditors found the waitlists maintained by THA showed a variety of questionable practices. This included the bookkeeper failing to update six of the nine authority waitlists for a six-month period; several applicant appointments that were not called in waitlist order; and two applications that were omitted from the waitlist.

THA also failed to consistently conduct required background checks, credit checks and income verifications for all applications.

As a result of the audit, DiNapoli recommends the THA take immediate steps to ensure the board receives appropriate information, in a complete and accurate manner, so it can effectively monitor authority operations.

Additionally, the Comptroller recommended that officials adopt and implement written policies and procedures that address key components of the THA’s housing occupancy operations, including:

  • Uniform treatment of prospective tenant applications, background and credit checks, waitlist management, rent rate calculations, annual tenant application updates and income verifications;
  • Reapplication and hearing procedures for tenants with rejected or cancelled applications;
  • Maximizing apartment readiness and apartment showing protocols; and
  • Board monitoring and oversight of the housing occupancy operations and staff.

In a corresponding review of the THA’s information technology (IT) assets, auditors found major deficiencies in the authority’s IT security and instances of unacceptable computer usage.

For example, authority employees used computers to access multiple websites of a personal, nonbusiness or otherwise high-risk nature, including pornographic, social networking, auction and shopping.

Furthermore, auditors found indications of previous malware infections, and continued suspicious activity on the authority’s computers. These deficiencies could have compromised the personal, private and sensitive information of tenants maintained by the authority.

DiNapoli made a number of recommendations to the authority regarding its IT operations, including:

  • Ensure authority computers are not infected with malware and verify that any unauthorized software programs are removed;
  • Adopt a breach notification policy and implement a process for analyzing infected computers and determining the extent of incidents that occur;
  • Confirm all authority computers are running up-to-date antivirus software and are frequently scanned for viruses and other malware;
  • Adopt and enforce a computer and internet use policy that defines appropriate and prohibited activities when using authority computers and other IT assets; and
  • Provide IT security awareness training to all authority employees at least annually.

The THA board chairman and the current THA executive secretary agreed with the audit findings. A copy of the full audit report can be found at: http://www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/audits/publicauth/2017/tonawanda-housing.htm

For access to state and local government spending, public authority financial data and information on 130,000 state contracts, visit Open Book New York. The easy-to-use website was created to promote transparency in government and provide taxpayers with better access to financial data.

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