A federal official has told the Decatur Housing Authority board to change its executive director search plan that would've given internal candidates priority seven months after the authority staff was accused of discrimination.
Meanwhile, the board refused to meet with Decatur's City Council about the settlement of the discrimination complaint, and the council canceled the meeting scheduled for Thursday at Ingalls Harbor Pavilion.
The Housing Authority also issued a statement Tuesday saying it hasn’t had any success getting Black residents to move from Westgate Gardens to the predominantly white Summer Manor and Jordan-Neill apartments.
The Decatur Housing Authority agreed to a settlement this summer with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in which it will pay a $200,000 fine that will be distributed to Westgate residents because of alleged discrimination in the three apartment complexes, which are for low-income senior adults.
A compliance review letter issued March 25 by HUD said "staff at the Decatur Housing Authority repeatedly engaged in discriminatory practices that denied housing to elderly black applicants who sought units at both The Towers (Summer Manor and Jordan-Neill) and Westgate Gardens."
The letter noted that 94% of tenants in The Towers were white and 100% of tenants at Westgate, in Northwest Decatur, were Black. The settlement also included a plan to remedy the problems.
Housing Authority board chairman Albert Ridgeway said Tuesday that “Vivian Dowdy of the HUD office in Birmingham” told him last week the board has to change the way it plans to conduct the search for an executive director.
“She told us we aren’t doing it (a search) right,” Ridgeway said.
At Ridgeway’s vocal insistence, his board voted 3-1 on Oct. 1 to accept applications from all candidates through Oct. 19, but to interview internal candidates first and interview external candidates only if an internal candidate wasn't selected.
However, Ridgeway said the “Birmingham HUD office told us we need to accept applications from internal and external candidates at the same time and pick the best candidate.”
Board member Ruth Priest argued in the Oct. 1 meeting that the board should accept all applicants at the same time and interview the most qualified regardless of whether they are existing employees or newcomers. Ridgeway was vocal in pushing for internal priority.
Ridgeway insisted internal priority would follow existing board policy even though a new board policy handbook with no internal hiring priority is under review and board Attorney David Canupp told him the board could change policy at any time.
“The new policy handbook hasn’t been approved by the board,” Ridgeway said.
HUD spokesman Joseph Phillips could not be reached for comment.
The authority created the executive director position and needs to fill it because the two men who have served as co-directors are retiring. Chief Operations Officer Andy Holloway's last day is Jan. 8. Building Director Jeff Snead's official last day is Feb. 18, but he built up enough leave so his final workday was Sept. 15.
Interim Housing Director Mechelle Dowdy sent an email Tuesday afternoon to City Clerk Stacy Gilley to inform the City Council that the Housing Authority board did not plan to attend Thursday’s planned meeting.
“DHA has ensured that the board members are aware of your invitation,” Dowdy’s email says. “I am not aware of any board members who plan to participate at this time. DHA will be issuing a public statement in the near future regarding several of the matters that have been in the news.
“In addition, I would remind you that our monthly board meetings are an opportunity for anyone to comment or raise concerns, in a public forum with the entire board present,” she continued.
The Housing Authority board meets at 5 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month in Jordan-Neill.
Ridgeway said COO Andy Holloway, who did not respond to emails from the The Daily, made the decision not to attend the meeting with the council.
“We’ll be glad to meet with them, but we can’t meet off this property (Jordan-Neil),” Ridgeway said. “We can’t do it — that’s policy.”
Ridgeway said the council and anyone in the public can attend the Housing Authority board meetings.
Board member Seddrick Williams said Monday he was aware of the invitation and he doesn’t plan attend because the board doesn’t answer to the City Council.
“We had a good relationship with the mayor in the past and we haven’t done anything wrong,” Williams said.
The council on Sept. 28 scheduled the joint meeting at the urging of the Central North Alabama Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
Council President Paige Bibbee said Tuesday she wasn’t surprised the DHA board turned down the request to meet.
“They gave us an open invite to their Zoom meeting, where they said they would answer questions from the public,” Bibbee said.
Councilman Charles Kirby said the DHA board “missed a golden opportunity to inject some public confidence” in the board and the Housing Authority.
“I guess there’s a fear of being out in the open where the public can ask questions,” Kirby said.
Councilman Billy Jackson said the authority board should be willing to meet in public in a place that the public can attend.
“They have an obligation and a responsibility to share their insights on the settlement and how the authority is being run,” Jackson said.
No transfer requests
The Housing Authority continues to deny the allegations, saying in its statement released Tuesday that it agreed to the settlement to avoid the legal fees necessary to fight the discrimination accusation.
“Despite DHA’s fair housing policy, tenants’ individual housing preferences have contributed to unbalanced race distributions across its properties. DHA fully supports taking more affirmative steps to increase racial diversity throughout its properties."
The statement says Black residents at Westgate would receive priority placement on a transfer waiting list and were also offered free transportation to evaluate Summer Manor and Jordan-Neill to evaluate the units there.
“Unfortunately, DHA has thus far received no requests from any Westgate residents to join the transfer waiting list, nor have any residents taken advantage of the opportunity to receive free transportation to evaluate housing at Summer Manor and Jordan-Neill,” the statement says.
DHA advertised for 60 days seeking people who previously applied for housing at Summer Manor or Jordan-Neill over a period of more than three years, and asked them to contact HUD if they felt they had been discriminated against. DHA has received no responses to this program, the release says.
“In order to make real progress in increasing the diversity of its properties, DHA simply must receive help and support from its residents and others within the community searching for affordable public housing. It cannot force its existing residents to move, but continues to do all that it can to encourage integration and to ensure that its units offer comparable, safe, decent, and affordable housing,” the statement says.