The Fairfield Housing Authority, after being in a state of flux when the last executive director left after about a year and a half on the job, compounded by a budget deficit and money owed to the town for payroll processing, the agency has hired Carol Martin to take the helm.
While serving in that full-time job in Fairfield, Martin also continues as the part-time director for the Westport Housing Authority.
Martin, a Fairfield native with platinum-blonde hair and blue nail polish, works three full days and two half-days in Fairfield and two half-days in Westport. She is paid $75,000 a year for the Fairfield position and $55,000 for the Westport job.
"We feel very fortunate to have an executive director with Carol's experience," said FHA Chairwoman Carol Landsman, "especially since she's been in the housing authority and building business for many, many years."
And so far, Landsman said, the two-job arrangement is working, adding Martin puts in whatever additional hours are needed if problems arise.
Martin will tell you that her work in Fairfield, where she oversees two senior housing projects and the federal housing voucher program, began about a month before she officially started in April. "I was vested in knowing as much as I could," she said.
Her first step, Martin said, was to ask for the FHA's financial statements. "I sort of had to assess what's the best course of action to get us started, because we were clearly spending more money then we were taking in, either through allocations or rent," she said.
Money allocated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to go toward housing vouchers was being used to cover shortfalls in expenses at Pine Tree, a 38-unit complex where rents had not been raised in years.
"That money's supposed to go to landlords," Martin said. "This problem predated by predecessor. It's been probably over seven or 10 years that this has been happening, maybe even further back."
The FHA problem, she said, apparently was that "there wasn't anyone who wore a CFO hat, and somebody has to."
Martin also said she found it "was pretty clear" that the housing authority was overstaffed. In fact, she said, "staffing was well beyond anything the housing authority could afford at this point."
There were five employees working for the FHA, though not all of them were full-time.
Having also worked at housing authorities in New Haven and New Britain, as well as Westport, "My rule of thumb is that I don't want to raise rents or lay people off," Martin said. "I had to do both."
But cutting expenses wasn't enough. "You can't just cut expenses or just grow revenues," she said. "You have to be smart about it. My job was to make smart expense cuts and not reduce the performance and quality of the housing authority. Our sole purpose is to serve human beings; if we're not doing that it doesn't matter if our budget is balanced."
Making the decision to lay off three employees was difficult, Martin said, particularly in the current economy. "I really was left with no choice," she said.
The base rents at Pine Tree were raised from $150 to $300, though those increases are being phased in for current residents. Martin said a request has been sent to HUD to increase rents at Trefoil Court, the 30-unit housing complex around the corner, but since those units fall under the housing voucher program -- once known as Section 8 -- rent increases won't affect those residents.
The housing authority has also hired Millennium Real Estate Management to oversee both Fairfield complexes taking care of collecting rents, property management, bookkeeping and eligibility certification. The company will be paid 5 percent of the rents collected, and $36.50 per housing voucher per month.
Base rents at Pine Tree are $300 for an efficiency unit and $310 for a one-bedroom apartment. At Trefoil, base rents are $639 and $698, respectively.
"We've projected that it will save us money," Martin said, "but we don't really know until we have 12 months under our belt." She said most housing authorities with fewer than 100 units can't make the numbers work to pay for a big staff because rents are about one-third of the market rates. "It's just not a full-time job to be a property manager or project manager," she said. "These are elderly units, property maintenance is not a full-time job for anybody. We're a place where our expenses should be relatively low."
Another goal of Martin's is to increase the number of housing vouchers issued by the FHA. Under the program, eligible residents receive a rental subsidy paid directly to the landlord by the housing authority. The housing authority is then paid an administrative fee from HUD based on the number of vouchers it has issued.
"About six or seven years ago, we were receiving $1 million in section 8 funds, now we're barely getting $800,00" Martin said. "My goal is to get it back up to $1 million, though it's going to take a couple of a years."
HUD sets a ceiling on the rents, based on the region in which the housing authority is located. For Fairfield, that means the Bridgeport region, which Martin said really doesn't take into account the higher market rate rentals in town. "It looks like we're roughly in the neighborhood of $250 to $300 less than we need, in my opinion," she said.
The housing authority has also begun looking into the possibility of adding a second floor to some of the units at Pine Tree, in an effort to increase housing opportunities.
Martin said competitive grants would be sought to redevelop the aging complex, adding that if the units are to be renovated, it doesn't make sense to spend about $15 million and not increase the housing stock.
"We want to respectfully increase the density," she said. "We're not talking about an eight-story building. We're sort of the odd man out, we're surrounded by two-story houses."
Martin is also dealing with repaying $64,751 to the town, money owed from when the town issued payroll checks for FHA employees, despite the fact that the FHA is not a municipal entity. She said a payment agreement with the town has not yet been executed.
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