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Conviction of A.J. Jefferson at South Delta Regional Housing Authority a victory for all

March 7th, 2012 Comments off

A.J. Jefferson — Photo by Bill Johnson/Delta Democrat TImes

Everyone should be pleased that the law worked in the case of A.J. Jefferson and the South Delta Regional Housing Authority …

A federal jury has convicted the director of the housing organization on charges of intimidating witnesses in a federal investigation.

No sentencing date has been set.

>> READ MORE …

How is Jefferson just now being put on administrative leave?

August 5th, 2011 Comments off

A.J. Jefferson was placed on administrative leave this week, following her arrest … You can read the complete story here …

My question is … how did it take three years for the South Delta Regional Housing Authority Board allow Jefferson to stay on the job after the story below ran in the Delta Democrat Times?

Maybe now is the time to investigate the board to find out how it could allow these actions to go on after they had been unveiled by the local media.

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Housing authority director’s tactics questioned by community, homeowners

By JOSHUA HOWAT BERGER joshberger@ddtonline.com | 8 comments

LELAND – It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday and a hundred-plus homeowners are gathered at the Leland headquarters of South Delta Regional Housing Authority.

South Delta’s executive director, Ann “A.J.” Jefferson, is pacing the floor with authority. She is dressed in short jeans and a black jersey with a purple number 19 on the front. Jefferson is a big woman, with a big afro and big, tinted glasses, and she has a way of filling the room when she speaks.

“You all gotta help us maintain your community,” Jefferson is telling the assembled homeowners. “That’s why you’re here today. You know, it’s not about no one person. It’s not about South Delta. It’s not about you. It’s about all of the Delta community.”

A sense of community, however, does not seem to be what’s brought most of these homeowners here this rainy Saturday morning.

The homeowners have been summoned by letter for a meeting about maintaining their property. They are participants in a South Delta program that helps low-income families in the six counties South Delta serves – Bolivar, Humphreys, Issaquena, Sharkey, Sunflower and Washington – buy their own houses.

It’s a long drive to Leland for many of them, and from the anxiety with which they gather at the sign-in sheet, it’s clear why they’ve made the trip: The penultimate sentence of the letter they received reads, “Anyone not attending will be fined.”

That threat, it turns out, will be the first of several.

During the meeting, South Delta staff member Angela Brady tells the homeowners she’ll be inspecting their property inside and out. If she finds any unresolved problems, she says, South Delta will fix them – and then send the homeowner the bill.

Jefferson takes it one step further, threatening to kick out homeowners who don’t meet South Delta’s maintenance standards.

But what gets to the woman near the front of the room is Jefferson’s call for the homeowners to maintain not only their own property, but their entire neighborhood.

As Jefferson delivers her talk on community to the neatly arranged rows of residents, the woman near the front ventures a thought.

“Ma’am,” she says, “I don’t think that’s fair, really. Because I keep my property up. She keeps her property up. But the people down the street don’t keep their property up. … That’s not my responsibility.”

“You have to make a decision on how and what way you want your community,” Jefferson tells her. “If paper and stuff is being put in my community, I go down the street and I clean up.”

“You do?” the woman asks.

“Yes, I do,” Jefferson says.

“Then come on down and clean up my property,” the woman says.

The moment is indicative of the resistance Jefferson has encountered as she works to revitalize South Delta. Jefferson took the executive director job in September 2006, and has turned heads in recent months as she’s charted an ambitious new course for the agency.

South Delta Regional Housing Authority is a government entity created in 1976. It was established under the state’s public housing statute, and receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The agency has always had a bold mission: to provide decent, affordable housing to anyone in the region who needs it. Jefferson, a 25-year veteran of the public housing world, has a bolder mission still: to do away with public housing projects that concentrate and isolate poverty, and instead give poor people a chance to live anywhere they choose.

Few would dispute the desperate need for quality affordable housing in the Delta. And few would dispute the importance of eradicating the crime-ridden ghettoes to which the region’s poor are often confined.

Yet Jefferson has been a source of controversy in recent months as South Delta has begun moving into wealthier neighborhoods and demanding more things of its residents.

As South Delta has upset some new neighbors and leveled threats at some long-time clients, many in the region have begun questioning the scope of the agency’s mandate.

The scrutiny has led to allegations that Jefferson has abused her position both to intimidate those who challenge her and to profit inappropriately from her job.

It has also raised concerns about the propriety and the legality of some of South Delta’s recent work.

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The tension between South Delta and the Leland Historic Preservation Commission had been building for several weeks before the commission’s July 21 meeting – though many of those involved would only realize this in retrospect.

Both sides seem to agree that there were two sources of friction.

The first dispute was over South Delta’s obligation – or, A.J. Jefferson maintained at the time, the absence thereof – to follow the city’s ordinance on preserving the historic district.

The second dispute arose from a letter written to a member of South Delta’s board by historic district resident Kenneth West, the dismayed neighbor of a property recently purchased by South Delta.

The March 2000 ordinance that created the preservation commission requires property owners in the historic district – which comprises downtown Leland and the area along Deer Creek – to get a “certificate of appropriateness” from the commission before changing exterior features such as building facades or landscaping.

Hebe Splane, the chair of the commission, says she told Jefferson about the ordinance after South Delta violated it – apparently unintentionally – by cutting some trees at one of its new properties, 205 N. Deer Creek Drive W.

Nevertheless, according to Splane, South Delta then proceeded to cut more trees at another of its properties, 201 N. Deer Creek Drive W., without seeking the commission’s approval. Technically, this offense is punishable by a misdemeanor conviction, a $1,000 fine and a three-year moratorium on further work at the property.

(Jefferson didn’t respond to questions from the Delta Democrat Times about the accuracy of Splane’s account.)

Around the same time, Jefferson became aware of a letter from West to Howard Sanders, the Washington County appointee to the board that oversees South Delta.

West’s letter expressed his belief that South Delta’s purchases in the historic district violated the preservation ordinance and would have a detrimental effect on property values.

Jefferson penned an outraged response, which she had South Delta employees hand-deliver to the members of the preservation commission. Jefferson says she believed at the time that West was a member of the commission. (For the record, he is not.)

“You would think that in 2008, people have learned the lessons of Mississippi’s horrid past,” Jefferson wrote in her reply.

“The letter is direct and not subtle in its attack on the very core of the goals and mandate of SDRHA to provide affordable and first class housing for the clients that it serves,” Jefferson continued. “It is not a mandate that perpetuates the age old stereotypes those less fortunate should be constricted to marginal housing.”

These disputes, with their weeks of buildup, finally unwound in a flurry of words at the July 21 commission meeting.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Jefferson interrupted the proceedings and accused the commissioners of racism and bigotry. As Splane tried to correct the misimpression that West was a member of the commission, and to explain that nothing in the preservation ordinance prevented South Delta from buying property in the historic district, Jefferson said she refused to let the commissioners demean her.

“Do not interfere with our contractors,” she concluded. “That is a violation of federal law.”

As the minutes describe it, Jefferson then stormed out of the meeting with an entourage of South Delta employees behind her.

“I was just so astonished,” says Commissioner Daryl Lewis. “She just barreled right through. She didn’t let anyone get a word in edgewise.

“We were fully prepared to work with her,” he added.

“I almost don’t know what to say,” says Splane. “We didn’t have any idea that there was a problem.”

After a separate meeting between Jefferson, Splane and Mayor Barbara Brooks, a self-described ally of South Delta, Jefferson agreed to follow the rules of the historic district.

But at another public meeting last week – this time at South Delta headquarters – Jefferson again lost her temper after Splane told her the historic commission had investigated the effect of low-income housing on property values.

As Splane tried to share the results of that investigation with Jefferson – the commission had found a study concluding that low-income housing does not have a significant effect on property values – Jefferson railed against what she called the inherent racism of the question.

“Just because a person makes less than somebody else doesn’t mean they’re worth less,” Jefferson said.

Then she left the meeting, again.

“OK, I’m done,” she said. “Meeting’s over with. I’m getting upset.”

“This is racism, pure and simple,” she said later in an interview. “You can’t judge a person based on whether they’re poor or rich.”

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When the homeowners’ meeting is over, the attendees trickle outside into the rain.

Many of them don’t sound happy about what they’ve just heard.

“That was stupid,” one woman says. “They forgot about those grants they mentioned last time. … Everybody was supposed to get a grant to fix their houses up.”

Another woman looks at the maintenance clause in her deed and says she knows she’s responsible for keeping her house up.

But demanding her presence at a Saturday morning meeting and threatening her with a fine is another matter, she says.

“They don’t have that authority,” she says. “I don’t appreciate them talking to me no kind of way.”

The participants in South Delta’s homebuyer assistance program are, for the most part, like any other homeowners. They hold the deeds to their houses. They are the registered owners at the tax assessor’s office. They pay their property taxes. They have homeowners’ insurance. And they signed off on a maintenance clause essentially identical to that in any residential mortgage.

The difference is that they have bought their homes from a government-run housing authority. Instead of making loan payments to a bank each month, they write their mortgage checks to South Delta.

The interest rate on new contracts is currently about 5 percent, with a down payment of about $2,500.

According to Jefferson, this deal means South Delta homeowners have a special set of obligations – especially since South Delta is trying to expand the program to neighborhoods such as Deer Creek.

“We hold the mortgage to this property, and you gotta keep it up. Simple as that,” she says. “If we don’t do this – make sure they take care of their property – then people like Hebe (Splane) is gonna win.”

This is the core of Jefferson’s mission. To realize her vision of fully integrated neighborhoods – where poor blacks are no longer ghettoized in decrepit public housing projects, and rich whites no longer the exclusive proprietors of beautiful homes on Deer Creek – Jefferson believes she must overcome perceived adversaries such as the Leland Historic Preservation Commission with the sheer power of community she sees in the South Delta homeowners.

It’s not a vision shared by everyone. South Delta is currently being sued by at least one participant in the homebuyer assistance program over a dispute related to South Delta’s interpretation of the maintenance clause. And a growing number of community members who aren’t South Delta clients have begun questioning how much South Delta’s recent property purchases will really improve the community.

Because South Delta does not pay property taxes, some residents worry its current buying spree will diminish municipal budgets. At its discretion, South Delta can make “payments in lieu of taxes” to city coffers.

But South Delta board members say those payments don’t usually equal the reduction in tax revenue.

Records at the Washington County chancery clerk’s office currently show 23 properties registered to South Delta that have been purchased since October 2007 – in effect, taken off the tax rolls.

That’s in addition to the 20 properties that the agency already owned in the county.

The figures may turn out to be even higher. Jefferson says South Delta has started using “fronts” to buy property so that sellers will agree to a fair price.

“People jack up the price if they know you’ve got federal money,” she says.

Jefferson refuses to disclose how many properties South Delta plans to buy in the coming year, again citing the problem of sellers raising the price.

The Delta Democrat Times requested information about South Delta’s budget and operations, and its five most recent fiscal year audits – which South Delta has told HUD are available for public review.

Jefferson referred the request to South Delta’s attorney, Paul Mathis. Mathis did not respond.

According to the Web site fedspending.org, South Delta received $6.4 million for Section 8 housing programs in fiscal year 2007. Jefferson says South Delta uses rents from Section 8 tenants to buy new properties and rehabilitate them.

Beyond that, she has declined to discuss South Delta’s operations.

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When Jefferson moved to Leland from St. Louis, she bought a house on Deer Creek Drive, taking out a loan from Bank of America for $118,750, the chancery clerk’s records show.

Jefferson then got approval from South Delta’s board to move into a South Delta-owned house. She sold her home at 203 N. Deer Creek Drive W. to South Delta and moved to another South Delta property on Feltus Boulevard.

Of all the concerns that have been raised over Jefferson’s leadership of South Delta, perhaps the most serious of all arise from allegations that she has made inappropriate personal use of the agency’s resources.

Some have questioned whether Jefferson should have sold her house to South Delta.

They have also questioned whether she should be living in a house owned by the agency, and on which it pays no property tax.

Jefferson did not respond to inquiries about her salary. But in 2004 – the last year for which records were available through channels other than South Delta (the agency used to have a non-profit arm whose tax returns are public) – South Delta’s executive director earned $108,502.

That is well above the income bracket public housing programs typically target.

South Delta board members say they feel the arrangement is appropriate. But Bolivar County appointee Robert Gray acknowledges the agency has a lack of available housing.

“I can’t say that there’s enough to go around,” he says.

Board members did not approve of another perk that Jefferson has allegedly allowed herself: use of South Delta employees to do maintenance work at her home.

Earl Lewis lives near Jefferson’s old house on Deer Creek Drive. He says three or four truckloads of maintenance workers used to arrive in South Delta trucks to do yard work and other chores at Jefferson’s house.

“They did yard work, poured concrete, put in air conditioners, painted it inside. They even done the flower beds,” he says. “That was going on all the time.”

Other neighbors at both her new and old houses tell similar stories.

“I’d see them when I’d leave in the morning, and when I’d come back in the evening they’d still be there,” one man said. “And when I came home for my lunch hour, they were there then, too.

“And it wasn’t just a few days,” he added. “It was for extended periods of time.”

Jefferson did not respond to questions about her personal real estate transactions with South Delta.

Nor did she respond to the allegations that she improperly used South Delta workers to maintain her house.

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Despite the controversy that has surrounded her tenure at South Delta, Jefferson says she feels the large majority of the region’s residents support her mission.

As for the rest, she says she’s a fighter, with a mission that’s worth fighting for.

“We’re gonna have some people that disagree with us,” she says. “But we’re not gonna stop because of how they feel.

“We know we’re gonna run into obstacles with some of them. But we’re not gonna let that stop us.”