'We don't want to displace people,' federal official says of RRHA's alleged rent miscalculations

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Posted at 6:36 PM, Apr 23, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-26 07:59:40-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Federal officials visited Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) Tuesday for a roundtable discussion. Included among the topics of conversation were RRHA's recent eviction freeze and efforts to rectify possible rent miscalculations.

Shaquanna Becoat, a former RRHA resident and current employee in the housing authority's communications office, shared stories of the challenges she faced while living in Fairfield Court.

“It's a very depressing place to be. I'm not going to make this like it's like a walk in the park. It was hard," Becoat said.

She recalled gunshots erupting at her daughter's birthday party one day, but her kids didn't even flinch.

They were used to the sound, she said.

“Of course, my nieces and nephews were scared, but my kids were like warriors at that point. They were able to— ‘It's okay, calm down, let's go into this room, going to get down on the floor.’ And they were teaching their cousins how to react to gunfire," Becoat said.

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Shaquanna Becoat

But Becoat beat the odds, crediting the help of assistance programs, and transitioned to self-sufficiency.

She stressed the importance of residents being in compliance with their lease agreements, so that they can be in good standing and access more opportunities.

RRHA's federal regulators at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently directed RRHA to increase rent collection efforts.

But RRHA has now paused moving forward with evictions, in part because of concerns that tenants' rent calculations may be inaccurate.

“I think it's very important that we put this pause on in order to find out the facts and work with people because we want to keep people housed," said Richard Monocchio, a HUD leader who attended Tuesday's event.

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Richard Monocchio

A recent HUD audit found rent calculation errors in 66% of the tenant files reviewed, 23 out of 35.

That means residents may have been charged rent that does not align with their income.

Monocchio said he did not know the breakdown of whether more residents were being undercharged or overcharged, but HUD's audit directed RRHA to reimburse tenants who paid too much and increase rent for those who weren't paying enough.

“The calculation of rent is an issue," Monocchio said, adding that determining the problems don't just apply to the audited files but to "the housing authority overall."

It's an issue that's caused concern for housing advocates and some councilmembers, in light of more than 100 residents who RRHA took to eviction court in recent weeks and dozens who already received judgements.

“Again, that's why I think it's important to take a pause, because we don't want to displace people that shouldn't be displaced," Monocchio said.

However, RRHA CEO Steven Nesmith is still not sold that HUD's audit proved that RRHA did anything wrong. He maintained that HUD has not produced the case files in question to the housing authority.

"In the audit, it said that some of our calculations were incorrect. Well, then you've got to produce and say, 'in these specific cases.' So those cases weren't given to us," Nesmith said. "If I tell you, 'I think you failed your driver's license test.' Well, what did I do wrong? So, we don't know."

Even so, Nesmith directed quality control reviews of all cases for tenants at risk of eviction and believes those reviews could show RRHA is correct on all its rent calculations.

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Steven Nesmith

And when asked whether he's confident that there were no rent problems for those who already lost their homes, he said, "Yes, because again, our current staff that are specifically charged with doing rent calculations, they are qualified and certified by the national organization by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development that says, 'You are qualified to do rent calculations properly.'"

He added, “The evictions that we've done thus far, I believe that our calculations are correct.”

Moving forward, RRHA is planning to bolster eviction prevention strategies which Nesmith said will provide wraparound support for families in need. For those who are evicted, he said he's partnering with nonprofits to ensure they are placed into a shelter and not onto the streets.

His plan has buy-in from local leaders, including Councilmember Cynthia Newbille, who are also working to implement long-term solutions.

“What are the job opportunities? What are the training opportunities? What kinds of services are needed? So, to have somebody in leadership who's looking and being thoughtful in that way is critical. Because for me, at the end of the day, they're all our families," Newbille said.

Nesmith said that while he's offering compassionate solutions, he also wants to be considerate of families who are paying their rent and may feel slighted.

He said he needs to strike a balance to avoid moral hazard.

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