Rockland Oaks back in hot water following USDA review

Rockland Oaks back in hot water following USDA review

SCITUATE – The Scituate Housing Authority, the oversight board for the elderly housing project Rockland Oaks, is under scrutiny after reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and Compliance Review regulations found the project on Rockland Road in violation of several federal regulations.

During the Town Council meeting last Thursday, March 14, Councilor Abbie Groves said she was shocked to learn of the serious violations from the federal agency and Rhode Island Housing findings from a Feb. 8 site review.

“I was shocked to read this critical report, to learn about potential improprieties, and to hear of the alleged mistreatment of the seniors and disabled residents,” Groves said.

“There are federal regulations that are not being followed,” she said.

According to SHA Chairman Richard Finnegan, the agency recently initiated contact with the USDA to conduct a management review plan for the first time since 1984.

USDA records contradict Finnegan and indicate that Rural Development, a USDA agency overseeing programs to improve economy and quality of life in rural America, visited Rockland Oaks in November of 2015, and in three-year increments before that for supervisory visits.

Violations outlined in a Feb. 11 report from the USDA include:

• The waiting list not being in accordance with the USDA handbook;

• There is no current budget. SHA is operating under the 2016 budget;

• Neither applicant nor SHA received training on Section 8 housing, resulting in several policies that violate a federal regulation;

• Applicants have not been notified of a completed application being placed on the waiting list;

• No evidence of written renewal notices;

• Annual inspections not in tenant files;

• No maintenance request tracking for tenants;

• Improper tenant selection procedure;

• Personal attacks against tenants from members of the SHA;

• And the project is not being operated in accordance with an approved management plan dated Oct. 18, 2017. Revisions needed to reflect current personnel.

Additionally, the newest resident to move to Rockland Oaks was missing documents in tenant files. The tenant was not confirmed to be age 62 or older, or to have a disability, and he lacks an application or income verification or a record of security deposit, according to the Feb. 11 report.

“The tenant should have been in here years ago. He submitted an application that was not properly submitted,” Finnegan said. Though the new tenant is a few months away from 62 years old, Finnegan said he is disabled.

Finnegan said the SHA will conduct an audit of every residence file to ensure substantial compliance. He denied the majority of the claims, and said the previous management company, Rural Consulting and Management, kept tenant files at a home office in Connecticut and has been uncooperative in returning the files.

The USDA said the Rockland Oaks management plan was last approved in 2017 when the former management company left after more than 20 years working together. The USDA recommended the SHA hire an outside management company to bring the SHA back into compliance.

Finnegan said he is not opposed to the idea of hiring outside management. He is working to comply in the meantime.

Groves said she is concerned with the repercussions that come with mismanaging income verification and tenant applications. She said if an ineligible resident moves in and the management is incorrectly calculating rents, the SHA is responsible for paying back the difference.

“I’m concerned with the alleged gross negligence. I’m concerned as a taxpayer. I’m concerned as a council member for this situation to be allowed to continue as it has over the past two years,” Groves said.

According to Finnegan, rents are calculated based on approximately 30 percent of a tenant’s income, and then subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is given to Rhode Island Housing before paying Rockland Oaks.

Rockland Oaks puts the rent into an operating fund that is used to pay the USDA mortgage payment of $7,211. SHA entered a mortgage agreement with the USDA in 1982 for a purchase price of $914,000. In addition to mortgage payments, the SHA is to deposit funds, in increments no less than $15,000, to a reserve account until it reaches the sum of $300,000.

Groves said during last week’s meeting that funds in the reserve account decreased from $122,887 in June 2017 to $26,722 as of Jan. 31, 2019.

“There have been no withdrawals authorized by this agency,” the USDA report reads.

The reserve account is typically used to complete capital improvements, according to an email to Finnegan from USDA Rural Development Housing Specialist Julie Hanieski. She said that the SHA needs to request reserve funds from the USDA for approval.

Finnegan said there were minor renovations done to the community room, including adding new countertops, new floors and a fresh coat of paint. The money came out of the reserve funds in addition to a $57,000 contract to fix wells.

When Finnegan came to the SHA in 2017, he uncovered discolored well water coming from four working wells on the site that were split to serve half, or 12 units each, of the building. The move, done in October 1995, allowed the SHA to avoid expensive Rhode Island Department of Health Water testing for public water systems, or systems serving 25 units or more.

Finnegan said the SHA is attempting to rework the system to become a public water supply, but may need to dig another well or join the Scituate High School water supply.

He said the water is still discolored, but there is no bacteria present. He said the SHA provides bottled drinking water for tenants.

“I’m here for Scituate. I’m doing my term and trying to make things better here,” Finnegan said.

Though Finnegan did not attend the March 14 meeting, Groves requested a joint meeting between the council, SHA, the USDA, Rhode Island Housing, and the residents.

“I’m concerned for the residents of Scituate, especially the tenants of Rockland Oaks,” she said.

In closing the report, Hanieski said the USDA wants the development to be successful and to continue to provide safe and affordable housing to Rockland Oaks residents.