The Housing Authority of the City of Little Rock, known as the Metropolitan Housing Alliance, is the largest public housing agency in Arkansas and assists thousands of low-income citizens of Little Rock. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
The Little Rock board of directors appointed two new members to the governing board of the city’s federally-funded public housing authority Tuesday.
The five-member board of commissioners at the Housing Authority of the City of Little Rock, known as the Metropolitan Housing Alliance, now has a quorum of three members and can conduct business at its regular meeting this month.
The new members are Bruce James, a professor and administrator at Philander Smith University, and Karen Buchanan, who has served on the board of the Downtown Little Rock Community Development Corporation. They join Kerry Wright, whom the city board confirmed to the MHA board in March of this year.
Two seats on the MHA board remain open due to a pending lawsuit from two former commissioners, city attorney Tom Carpenter said.
Lee Lindsey and Leta Anthony were the chair and vice chair of the MHA board until the city directors removed them Sept. 26 with a 6-2 vote. The ouster came while the board’s management and spending behaviors have been under scrutiny from both the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
On Friday, Lindsey and Anthony sued the city and Mayor Frank Scott Jr. in Pulaski County Circuit Court, calling the removal vote “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” and claiming the city violated their right to due process.
“The format of the hearing improperly shifted the burden of proof upon the Commissioners in an inquisition format in which they had to prove their innocence,” Sylvester Smith, the attorney representing Lindsey and Anthony, wrote in the complaint.
Court documents filed by Smith say Lindsey and Anthony are suing in their “official capacity as housing commissioner[s].” Responses filed by Carpenter do not include this title.
Later on Friday, Smith asked Circuit Judge Cara Connors for an injunction to prevent the city board from appointing new MHA commissioners. Smith wrote in court documents that Lindsey and Anthony’s removal “is subject to be quashed and overturned via judicial review.”
“The appointment of proposed replacement commissioners could potentially lead to Plaintiffs’ cause of action being moot,” Smith wrote. “More critically, it would cause confusion concerning the legality of the actions of the replacement commissioners.”
Connors granted the injunction Tuesday. Carpenter then filed a request for Connors to postpone the injunction until after the case’s first hearing at 9 a.m. on Oct. 31.
“At this point, the executive director cannot even make certain necessary expenditures, and that means that the residents of MHA properties, who by definition are quite vulnerable, cannot properly be served,” Carpenter wrote in his filing.
Later on Tuesday, Connors met with Smith and Carpenter to discuss next steps, and the three reached an agreement that the city could appoint two new MHA commissioners and leave two seats open in case the ousted commissioners’ removal is overturned, Carpenter said in an interview.
On Wednesday, Connors denied Carpenter’s motion to stay the injunction, according to court documents.
MHA is Arkansas’ largest federally-funded public housing agency and provides rental assistance to about 8,000 low-income people.
Multiple reports from HUD in the past few years have pointed out red flags in MHA’s financial and management practices. An Aug. 9 report from HUD labeled MHA “troubled” after surveying its physical condition, financial condition, management and use of its capital fund.
It was the second time since 2017 that the agency received the “troubled” label overall, and HUD had consistently considered MHA’s management subpar in annual reviews of the agency from 2011 to 2018, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in 2021.
Anthony Landecker, HUD’s Little Rock field office director, wrote in an Aug. 16 letter to the MHA board that its failure to submit required financial information to HUD in a timely manner contributed to the poor assessment results.
Additionally, HUD requires annual third-party financial audits from public housing authorities. As of September, MHA still had not provided a local accounting firm with the financial documents required to complete the fiscal year 2019 audit.
Carpenter said Sept. 26 that MHA’s noncompliance with HUD’s auditing requirements was “inefficiency at best” but could be considered misconduct.
The audit was delayed in 2021 when now-former MHA executive director Nadine Jarmon accused the board of widespread misconduct. HUD’s Departmental Enforcement Center said in April 2022 that it was “unable to substantiate the allegations” in Jarmon’s complaint, but the DEC had already been reviewing MHA’s contracts and financial documents and found that MHA failed to comply with federal, state and its own purchasing rules for years.
HUD also flagged several “potentially disallowed” spending decisions by MHA in a Sept. 1 report from the Quality Assurance Division within the Office of Housing Voucher Programs.
Scott asked the entire housing board to resign in September in light of the two recent HUD reports; Lindsey, Anthony and Wright all refused. Commissioner Branndii Peterson resigned upon request, and Commissioner Louis Jackson had already said he planned to resign.
According to Arkansas law, a local governing body may remove a housing authority board member “for inefficiency or neglect of duty or misconduct in office” with a majority vote. MHA employees asked Scott twice, in 2020 and 2021, to remove the housing authority board; Scott did not move to do so either time.
The city board voted to keep Wright on the MHA board at the Sept. 26 meeting that removed Lindsey and Anthony.
The city board confirmed James and Buchanan in a voice vote with no dissent or discussion. Terms on the MHA board last five years.
Scott declined to comment on why the city chose James and Buchanan from the pool of 12 applicants, but he said the city should choose from the remaining applicants if Lindsey and Anthony do not get their seats back as a result of their lawsuit.
Three members of the city board of directors did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
James also could not be reached for comment. According to his application for the MHA board seat, which the Advocate obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, James wrote in his cover letter to the city board that he has an “unwavering commitment to community development.”
“I firmly believe that strong communities are built on a foundation of accessible housing, equitable opportunities, and a shared commitment to growth and prosperity,” James wrote.
Buchanan said in an interview that she hopes her tenure on the board is “productive” and she anticipates “a learning curve” as she adjusts to her new role.
“I hope I’m able to be a part of finding the solution and just try to help families that are in need of housing assistance get adequate housing as soon as possible,” Buchanan said.
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