have requested $270,000 in reimbursements from Orange County for failing to inspect federally subsidized housing, including exterior doors and first-floor windows that don’t lock and electrical problems that are fire hazards.
The problems “occurred because the [Orange County Housing] Authority failed to provide current and consistent training and a complete quality control review to its inspectors,” according to an audit by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Unless the housing authority improves its inspection program, the auditors wrote, HUD will spend more than $48 million over the next year on Orange County housing units that are in "material noncompliance" with federal standards.
One of the audits looked 7 percent of the 1,154 Orange County housing units funded by the federal Housing Choice Vouchers program. The program is aimed at helping “low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market.”
Of those 80 housing units inspected, more than half "were in material noncompliance with HUD standards,” the audit found. “For those units, the Authority’s inspectors failed to report 229 deficiencies that existed when they conducted their last inspections.”
The $270,000 payment is meant to reimburse the federal government for payments it made for the substandard housing that was discovered.
But members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, who have final say over making the payment, are taking issue with the audit and have so far refused to pay the fine.
The payment was on the supervisors' agenda Tuesday, but it failed to garner the required four out of five supervisors’ votes. Supervisor Todd Spitzer voted against it and Supervisor Andrew Do was absent.
Despite his vote, Spitzer didn't comment on the audit Tuesday. The only supervisor who did comment was Shawn Nelson, who depicted the audit as penalizing the county for tenants storing too many things in their homes.
“This is ridiculous,” Nelson said. “We don’t have the manpower to go marshal through these people’s places all the time.”
He compared the county failing the audit to parents failing an audit because their kids didn't clean their rooms.
However, auditors reported conditions that went beyond a simple lack of cleanliness. They reported finding dozens of “conditions that jeopardized the security” of housing units, including “windows and doors on the first floor that do not lock,” “electrical problems or conditions that could result in shock or fire,” and “conditions that presented an imminent possibility of injury.”
Among the specific issues that the fine addresses is the county's alleged failure to monitor contractors who perform some of the inspections on the housing units.
Of the 21 housing units auditors looked at that were supposed to have been inspected by contractors, "12 were in material noncompliance with HUD standards,” the audit found.
A county staff report, meanwhile, says that “no tenants have been harmed by conditions noted as deficiencies” and that the county has since fixed the sub-standard housing issues found by the auditors.
“Comprehensive training plans have been developed for both new and existing inspection staff, nine of whom attended off-site training in April 2016. Quality control desk procedures have also been updated,” the county staff report states.
Nelson asked the county’s legislative director to contact local Congress members to seek
a rule change on the issue. “We shouldn’t be sending money back. There should not be a penalty," he said.
This year's HUD findings aren't first time Orange County was found to have failed in its public housing duties.
In 1989, HUD's inspector general found that Orange County "misspent money intended to rehabilitate housing for poor and low-income residents, causing some people to live in unsafe or unhealthful conditions," according to the LA Times. County officials at the time adamantly disputed the findings.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article inaccurately referred to the federal government's payment request as a penalty and/or fine. Federal officials confirmed after the article was published that it was a "request."
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.