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Ex-housing authority chief denies rent claims

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The Hudson Housing Authority has decided to hold off on rehabilitating or replacing Bliss Towers.
September 13, 2018 11:45 pm Updated: September 14, 2018 03:17 pm

 

HUDSON — The former Hudson Housing Authority executive director is denying claims he failed to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent from tenants at Bliss Towers.

Jeffrey First, the former executive director of the housing authority, requested copies of financial records dating back more than a decade in response to allegations from the authority’s Board of Commissioners that he failed to collect rent from tenants. First, who served as executive director of the authority for more than two decades, retired in December 2016.

First filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the documents and sent a letter to the housing authority in response to comments made by commissioners that were published in the June 14 edition of the Register-Star.

First’s request includes financial documents dating back to 2003 — a decade after he initially took over as executive director, Hudson Housing Authority Board of Commissioners President Alan Weaver said at Wednesday’s monthly meeting.

Weaver read a portion of First’s letter at Wednesday’s meeting.

“Please be advised that this exercise involves allegations that were made attacking my integrity, capability and reputation at a public meeting that were blatantly false and nonetheless published in the local newspaper without opportunity for rebuttal,” according to the letter.

First has a legal right to request documents from a publicly-funded agency under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, said Michael Bruno, an attorney to the authority’s board of commissioners.

Bruno is working to respond to First’s FOIL request, he said.

First left unfinished projects at Bliss Towers, Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Randall Martin said, adding he wants to respond to First’s freedom of information request by asking him why the projects were not completed. Martin did not say what the unfinished projects are.

Board members can contact First to ask questions, but he has no duty to answer them because he is not a housing authority employee, Bruno said.

Neither Hudson Housing Authority Executive Director Tim Mattice nor any members of the Board of Commissioners have contacted First about the alleged back rent or unfinished projects, First said Thursday.

At the commissioners’ June 13 meeting, Mattice reported the housing authority lost $750,000 while failing to collect back rent over the past 15 years — more than 15 times that of two similar-sized housing authorities over the same period.

Bliss Tower’s rent losses have averaged between $15,000 and $30,000 each year for the past 10 years, Mattice said June 13.

Bliss Towers, which includes what is referred to as the “high rise” and the “low rise,” off Second Street in the city, is controlled by the Hudson Housing Authority — the local arm of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Those claims are not true, First said.

“If it had been that much, HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] would have stepped in,” he said Thursday.

First did not know offhand how much the authority lost in back rent, he said, but that was his purpose for requesting the financial records.

Authority board member Peggy Polenberg cited First’s administration for failing to collect back rent.

First, who was the executive director of the authority for more than two decades, retired in December 2016. First receives a post-retirement pension and health insurance benefits, Mattice said.

“He [First] would just allow anybody to live here and they would be allowed to live here forever and they’re gone,” Polenberg said at the June meeting.

Polenberg’s claim is not true, First said.

“We attempted to collect the rent every month,” he said. “Obviously, you are going to have tenants that are going to get into arrears. I probably took at least 50 tenants to court every year. City court has all the records.

“I probably only evicted three because I was more inclined to enter a payment agreement with the tenants rather than evict them.”

The authority’s annual revenue comes from three main sources: $750,000 from tenant rent; $140,000 in federal subsidies from U.S. Housing and Urban Development; and $200,000 from a capital fund.

“The loss of revenue definitely impacts our ability to have good positive cash flow,” Mattice said June 13. “Certainly, it affects our cash flow and our ability to generate operating reserves and a safety net down the road.”

First’s policy for collecting delinquent rent was to begin the eviction process a month-and-a-half after tenants failed to pay their rent, he said. The court gives the tenants the opportunity to plead their case and negotiate a payment agreement between the tenant and the authority.

First estimated he evicted three tenants per year while he served as head of the housing authority, he said Thursday.

“I was more inclined to enter a payment agreement with the tenants rather than evict them,” First said. “If you evict them, you are probably not going to get the money.”

Under Mattice’s policy, tenants have five days after the first of the month to pay their rent. If the rent is not paid, renters are notified by letter they have 14 days to pay. After 14 days, a notice is sent to an attorney and the eviction process begins, Mattice said June 14.

The Hudson Housing Authority was audited by the state comptroller’s office and HUD in 2015 — the last year First served as executive director.

Both audits concluded no negative findings, First said. The comptroller’s only concern was a missing credit card receipt from three years before the audit. First could not recall Thursday what was contained on the receipt.

“The staff and I worked long and hard to take a run-down public housing project that even HUD was thinking about putting into receivership and turn it into a healthy thriving neighborhood,” First said.

To reach reporter Amanda Purcell, call 518-828-1616 ext. 2500, or send an email to apurcell@thedailymail.net, or tweet to @amandajpurcell.

*Editor's note: This story corrects an earlier version. Jeffrey First, the housing authority's former executive director, evicted three tenants per year during his tenure, he said. An earlier version of this story stated First evicted three tenants total.