Commissioners of the Joplin Housing Authority are assessing how to correct a failing score received from the agency's last federal audit.

Executive Director Matt Moran told the board at a meeting Monday night that the low score is related in part to a high tenant turnover rate plus extra down time for some units that have to be repaired after they are damaged by tenants.

Though the authority received high scores for the overall condition of its low-income housing units and the handling of its bills and finances, a low score for property management gave it a substandard rating for management issues, according to a letter sent by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the board. The authority had 65 turnovers of its 275 rentals during the 2018 audit year.

The HUD letter advised the board to take immediate action to identify the sources of the deficiencies and implement plans to sustain a higher score. The authority has received some lower scores than usual during the last five years, but the 2018 score was the lowest.

Housing agencies that are partly funded by HUD are evaluated each year on a scale of 100 points. The Joplin agency received a score of 37 out of 40 for the condition of its property based on HUD inspections and a perfect 25 points for its finances. But its management score was only 12 points, resulting in the substandard rating. The bulk of the reduction was because of occupancy, and there also was a deduction of points because of the amount of delinquencies or uncollected rental debts.

"Generally, when a public housing agency becomes management substandard, it has failed to maintain an acceptable occupancy level in its developments," the HUD letter states.

Identifying the issues that contribute to that can involve evaluating the agency's waiting list and tenant selection, assessing tenant intake policies to see if that process can be expedited, and assessing occupancy policies and practices to try to reduce the frequency of tenants moving out.

"There are different reasons for vacancies," Moran told the board, and some of them are beyond the control of the agency. He said the authority works with tenants who fall behind on their rent in an effort to keep them from moving out because the objective is to help people stay. But after several weeks of being delinquent, the agency must ask a tenant to move out or use eviction. There also are tenants who encounter health issues that require them to move to other types of living arrangements.

"We really need to get our vacancy numbers down," Moran said.

Another factor is that some tenants cause extensive damage that takes time to repair, preventing a quick turnaround of those properties.

Board member Coco Berry said it appears that making repairs is keeping some properties tied up. She said another maintenance person should be hired to prepare vacated units to speed up the placement of those on the waiting list.

The board agreed to review the budget for adding a position and discuss that option at the next meeting.

Moran said that the issue related to the bad debts may require a change in accounting to reduce the time before they are written off the books because some rents are uncollectible.

Commissioners reviewed details of a reply letter the board will send to HUD. It outlines the issues the authority has faced and the steps the board will take to raise its score during the upcoming audit year.

Moran said that more staff training is needed to place applicants faster in order to reduce the vacancy rate.

While the properties offer units that are in nearly new condition when they are rented, laundries, access to the city trolley service and some have ongoing social opportunities, the board will consider if there are other amenities that could reduce vacancies.

The board authorized a letter outlining the steps it will take, including future consideration of adding a maintenance or carpentry position, to be sent to HUD in reply.

Moran told the board he did not know what steps HUD would take next. He said one possibility is that HUD representatives might visit the properties to make a further assessment.

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