Chester Spirit: Free at last! After 20 years, Chester Housing Authority returned to local control

Free at last! After 20 years, Chester Housing Authority returned to local control
By Ruthann Alexander, Chester Spirit
January 7, 2015
Original Article

The Chester Housing Authority (CHA), after 20 years under control of a federal court judge, has been released from its receivership and, according to federal court Judge Norma L. Shapiro, has earned the privilege of self-determination.

To be sure, CHA has come a long way since a late 1980’s lawsuit filed against it for deplorable conditions under which many residents lived. The suit led to a takeover of the authority by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). When HUD was unsuccessful in producing needed changes, it asked Shapiro to assume oversight herself in June 1994.

In lifting the receivership, Shapiro cited “dramatic improvements” over the years that include safer property conditions, a better voucher program and housing authority staff members serving on national industry boards.

Specifically, CHA has received 95 percent ratings from recent HUD inspections. Its Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly called Section 8) received high performance ratings for the past seven consecutive years.

Also, due to CHA’s efforts to keep properties in safe conditions with few accident claims, its insurance company has recognized it for a low-loss ratio.

Additionally, Executive Director Steve Fischer and general counsel Maria Zissimos both serve on national industry boards.

Furthermore, CHA board members are required to participate in intensive training “to add to their credentials and qualifications to oversee a housing authority;” the most recent being last year.

The termination, dated Dec. 31, 2014, keeps the current CHA governance intact with Board of Commissioners members Sheila Church, Tonya D. Warren, Catherine A. Feminella, Sheridan D. Jones, Jr. and Roderick T. Powell.

Fischer, who has been in charge of the agency for nearly 10 years, is under contract through 2018. He said losing the federal court’s oversight may be a milestone for the agency but when asked what it all means to the operation, he said, “Hopefully not a lot, but it does pirouette into our new phase.”

He explained the termination of the receivership means the judge relinquished control of the agency’s board to the city’s mayor and that means Mayor John Linder will have the option to renew or replace board members as their terms expire over the next five years.

Fischer said there are things the CHA feels good about, and there are things they are sorry ever happened.

“We’ve been transformed from an awful organization to a high performing one,” Fischer said. “We’re so pleased that Judge Shapiro’s satisfied with our performance to take this action.”

A press release issued to announce the action indicates the final line of Shapiro’s order implies she is not cutting off from the CHA completely, stating, “The court will retain jurisdiction over this action to enforce its terms and conditions.”

For Fischer, Shapiro is one of the greatest people he has ever worked with and is glad she will still have an eye on CHA.

“We’re looking forward to the opportunity to continue providing quality services to the residents of Chester that need us,” Fischer said.

Shapiro, in the press release, also credits former Judicial Administrator for Development Robert C. Rosenberg, for overseeing the rebuilding of CHA’s older housing sites and Fischer for fulfilling all of the court’s requirements.

“Significant progress has been made to transform the CHA into a functioning housing authority, providing decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings to families of low income,” Shapiro said.

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