Delaware County Daily Times: Judge terminates receivership of Chester Housing Authority

Judge terminates receivership of Chester Housing Authority
By Vince Sullivan, Delaware County Daily Times
January 5, 2015
Original Article

A federal judge terminated the nearly 25-year receivership of the Chester Housing Authority on Dec. 31, saying that the appointed leaders of the agency have made significant progress in helping to turn it around.

Judge Norma L. Shapiro issued an order Dec. 31 that returns control of the housing authority to its appointed Board of Commissioners, a move that came after a year of planning. The receivership began in 1990 following a federal lawsuit filed by several residents of housing authority properties who claimed the authority was not providing adequate housing. Many housing units were in disrepair and unsanitary, and the governing body had been overwhelmed by corruption.

Shapiro appointed a receiver in August 1994, whose title was changed to judicial administrator for development in 2005, and until the end of 2013, Robert C. Rosenberg had been guiding the housing authority’s turnaround. Executive Director Steven A. Fischer was appointed in April 2005 and will remain in that position throughout the term of his contract.

In November 2013, Rosenberg gave his final report to Shapiro and said upon assuming his role as receiver in 1994, he had never seen such deplorable living conditions anywhere in the developed world. In her order, Shapiro praised the work of Rosenberg, Fischer and the rest of the housing authority administration team, saying their efforts have enabled the receivership to end.

“The court finds that terminating the Receivership is fair, adequate, and reasonable,” the order reads. “(Rosenberg) has performed in an excellent manner and satisfactorily concluded his duties.”

Since the receivership began, the housing authority has undergone significant changes in its operations. Many of the authority’s properties have been renovated or replaced since the lawsuit.

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

Shapiro pointed to recent inspections that resulted in very high ratings, reduced insurance cost attributed to improved safety and the excellent performance of the housing authority police department. Members of the board of commissioners, consisting of city residents appointed to staggered terms by Shapiro, have undergone intensive training in the last year, according to the order, to add to their qualifications to oversee the housing authority.

The housing authority is home to more than 20 percent of the city’s renters in its more than 2,300 units of subsidized housing. More than 800 of those units are public housing scattered over 10 different developments, while more than 1,500 are part of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. The housing authority also supports about 100 homes that have been purchased through first-time homebuyer programs.

While control has passed from the courts to the board of commissioners, Fischer said day-to-day operations of the authority will not be impacted.

“There’s no plan for anything to change,” Fischer said Monday evening. “The group of Chester citizens that have been serving as the board will continue to do the same. It will be a seamless transition.”

Fischer, who has served as the housing authority’s executive director for nearly 10 years, said the more than two decades of court oversight have resulted in marked improvements.

“We came in here 20 years ago and turned around an agency that was floundering,” Fischer said. “And now it is much better.”

Chester Mayor John Linder said the end of the receivership came unexpectedly on New Year’s Eve, and he and city council are working to determine exactly what their responsibilities will be.

“First of all, it’s a great thing for the city,” Linder said Monday night. “The housing authority has shown significant accomplishments over this long period of time.”

As mayor, the authority to appoint new members to the board of commissioners will be his. The commissioners consist of five city residents, including one housing authority resident, that are appointed to terms ranging from one to five years.

“I’ve still been digesting the major responsibility we have as a city,” Linder said. “We’ll be looking at the full breadth of that responsibility as we progress into the new year.”

It’s been so long since the city had any involvement in the oversight of the CHA, Linder added, that many people are unfamiliar with the procedures.

Linder said he intends to discuss the city’s role, as well as the court’s, with Shapiro in the coming weeks. The order specifies that the court will retain jurisdiction over the housing authority to ensure Shapiro’s orders are carried out.

“I appreciate her feeling confident enough to hand it over,” Linder said.

Fischer felt the same way.

“We’re all proud here of the satisfaction she’s expressed about the job we’ve done,” Fischer said. “It’s hard to find someone that’s done more for Chester in saving this housing authority than (Shapiro). To have her vote of confidence is the highest honor.”

The court-appointed members of the board of commissioners are: Catherine Feminella, who will serve a five-year term; Sheila Church for four years; Tanya Warren for three years; Sheridan Jones for two years; and housing authority resident Roderick Powell for one year.

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