How far can $1 million go to fix long-over-due building maintenance projects?
Just ask Delores Calloway, resident of Camptown Gardens and president of the tenant's association.
The public housing complex in Irvington, New Jersey, is in desperate need of repairs. There are holes in the ceilings due to water damage, electrical wires hanging out and rusty pipes showing through. Sometimes rats fall through the ceiling in the community room.
Walking down into the basement where Calloway's office is located, there is a strong smell of must, with water on the floor under the latest leaking pipe, piles of debris where the ceilings have caved in and a dead mouse laying at the bottom of the stairwell. She said this used to be a space for kids, but the neglected maintenance has made it unusable.
"This is reprehensible that people have to live under these conditions," Joe Epps, Camptown Gardens resident said.
The complex houses a variety of people, from families to the disabled. A blind man lives in an apartment where mold creeps up the walls, and he cannot use the toilet in his unit because the plumbing needs to be fixed.
"He have a leak in there. His toilet isn’t working. He has to pee in a bucket. And then when you look around he has spider webs all on top of the ceiling. The refrigerator is busy," Calloway said. "For him to be a blind man he needs some help. It’s supposed to be a safe environment place to live in and it’s not."
The over 600 units at Camptown Gardens is managed by the Irvington Housing Authority (IHA), which receives funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In March, HUD's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released an audit questioning $1.2 million dollars spent by the authority between 2014 and 2016.
HUD OIG found IHA had spent over $90,000 on ineligible items, including Costco memberships, AAA memberships, an award dinner, gift cards, flowers, a salary advancement, golf and banquets.
On their website, IHA published pictures of a 2014 golf outing at the Metuchen Golf and Country Club in Edison, NJ. The photos appear to be a fundraiser for breast cancer awareness and attendees can be seen eating from a buffet.
Of the amount questioned, $1.1 million was in unsupported costs, including meals, out-of-state travel and services procured that were possibly unnecessary.
The audit mentioned restaurant bills from surrounding towns that the former executive director David Brown was reimbursed for, and sometimes without supporting documentation. The authority claimed the meals were for business meetings, but some of the receipts that were provided were outside of business hours and there was no proof of who attended.
There was also a 2015 Florida conference authority employees had attended, but some of the courses at the Florida conference were also available in New Jersey. And again, there were no documents provided to HUD OIG to support the travel or conference.
Since April 2016, HUD OIG has found over $8 billion in funds that could have been put to better use or were questioned in programs and operations that receive funding from HUD across the country, according to a compilation of HUD OIG reports Circa looked at.
And though IHA is only a small fraction of the mismanaged funds, there are real life implications.
A seven-member board of commissioners oversees the finances and operations of IHA. They also appoint an executive director to manage the day-to-day operations of the public housing complex. HUD also oversees IHA, which is required to report the physical and financial conditions, like current assets, economic viability and debt, to the department.
In the past, residents have been afraid to speak up about the dismal conditions for fear of retaliation, according to Kathleen Witcher, former commissioner and Vice President of the Irvington NAACP.
"The tenants associations probably should not feel intimidated. The residents themselves should have voices. Many times, they were told if you speak up, or there was some inclination to explain to them they may be evicted," she said. "Many times the people came and they needed a repair or something. They might be ridiculed just for making a complaint by some of the commissioners."
But fear wasn't the only issue. The authority has also had a history of financial problems. In 2010, after the Public Housing Assessment System (PHAS) score from HUD's Real Estate Assessment Center labeled the authority as troubled, HUD OIG conducted an audit of the authority where they found $2.4 in mismanaged funds.
And again four years later, the authority received another troubled PHAS score, which continued until 2016, while in 2015 HUD's Departmental Enforcement Center said if the current spending continued for IHA, they would be bankrupt in about 5 years.
And now in 2017, the release of another HUD OIG audit, which Witcher said she was almost too terrified to read.
"I kept reading the details of this current OIG report and looked at no-bid contracts, and looked at no documentation for expenditures. I looked at expenses for Costco, and awards, and for dinners, and for flowers, and I, most disappointed. Most disappointed because these things don't have to happen," she said. "And the question would be to the commission board members. If you know this is a troubled authority, it's not going away."
Moving forward, Witcher said more oversight of the authority's activities needs to happen in order for things to change, including HUD's regional offices.
"On the federal level, they probably don't have enough people working. That's always a complaint for federal level agencies, but they need to have. They need to have more people that would come in and maybe sit with this unit of people, the commissioners, the tenants. Let's thrash things out, see how we can get these things going straight," she said.
But some changes have already started to be made. Brown was fired five days after the draft of the audit was given to IHA, and HUD says they are going to be working with the authority to hep with their financial problems.
"HUD is working closely with the Irvington Housing Authority and the City to improve performance and created a comprehensive plan that, with proper commitment by all parties, will get the IHA out of this status, to be able to address their management, physical and governance problems and be removed from a Troubled Designation by the Department of HUD," HUD said in a statement to Circa.
Irvington Mayor, Tony Vauss said that he holds no responsibility for IHA or the board of commissioner's actions, but found the audit "concerning," while also voicing his support for helping the authority.
"With respect to the IHA grounds and facilities, the Township of Irvington has always stood ready to help the IHA. It is my hope that a resolution can be reached between HUD and the IHA that allows the residents to have the clean, safe housing they deserve. To the extent that the Township is allowed to assist, we will endeavor to do so," he said in a statement.
Neither Brown nor IHA responded to Circa's multiple requests for comment.
Residents say they are hopeful that conditions at the complex will start to improve, especially after the board fired Brown.
"I'm not saying that they cannot improve on that, and I'm hopeful with new people in place and perhaps with more input from HUD that the local office and maybe even DC, that we'll be able to do that," Epps said.
And Calloway seems to agree, "There is so much stuff going on in this housing authority that’s not right, and I’m hoping we are supposed to be going under a new administration, I’m hoping things get better."