PORT ANGELES, Wash. – Participants in a housing program in Clallam County have accused the organization running the program, Peninsula Housing Authority, of supplementing its budget at the expense of the low-income families in the program.
The Mutual Self Help Home Building Program helps low-income families build homes they will eventually own, and as part of that program, the Peninsula Housing Authority charges a fee for tool rentals and storage.
Under this homeownership program, the USDA would back a mortgage for participants’ first home and the Peninsula Housing Authority would help them build that home by managing the project and providing technical assistance.
“The way it was described was, it’s for people like us, low debt, low income,” said Cody Slack. “You just gotta put a little sweat equity into it to get it.”
Slack, his wife Alicia, and eight other families signed up to build what’s now the Pendley Court Estates.
Each family was required to put in a minimum of 32 hours of work a week until all of the homes were built.
To help with overhead, the USDA sent federal dollars to the Peninsula Housing Authority. The Pendley Court project was funded, in part, with a $518,896 grant.
Grant funding wasn’t the only way Peninsula covered its costs.
“They say, ‘Oh, you are going to pay X amount of money for tool rentals fees per month,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, okay, that sounds reasonable.’ I just didn’t take into account that each family was paying that much per month at the time,” Slack said.
A mandatory $225 monthly tool rental and storage fee outlined in the Slack’s labor agreement, would cover the costs of a very specific list of tools maintained by Peninsula and used to build the homes, putting the Housing Authority on track to receive $24,300 from the Pendley Court families in 12 months.
The fees charged were under market value, but according to records provided by the USDA, it was also anywhere from 7 percent to 89 percent more for tool related fees than any other housing organization in the state offering this same program charged.
“It just seemed ridiculous,” Slack said.
“Also, every time we had to buy a new blade for the saw or any little replacement parts like that, we were charged extra,” added Alicia.
The cost wasn’t the only concern.
In a letter obtained by KING 5, the Pendley Court families wrote the housing authority complaining that over a quarter of the tools they had paid for were never provided or were not in working order.
“What they told us is, if we fight it, that will delay the process, and they won’t give us the keys to the house,” Slack said.
When KING 5 asked Peninsula to indicate how tool lease and storage income had been used and what tools had been repaired or purchased, Peninsula provided a stack of receipts, many of which were for expenses the Slacks’ Peninsula issued budget and labor agreement indicated were already being covered through other fees.
Housing Authority Executive Director Kay Kassinger declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview.
In an email, Kassinger explained that tool lease income “is used primarily to purchase and maintain tools. If available, other program needs can be supported.”
Kassinger added those other needs may include “personnel salaries.”
“It ticked us off pretty bad,” Slack said.
Kassinger added that the lease agreement said the “tools may be made available to the group” but that there were no guarantees. Then she asked, “If they didn’t have what was needed, how did they build their homes?”
“Some groups take care of the tools, and other groups don’t. It is a never ending challenge to teach them to respect and take care of them,” Kassinger wrote.
Kassinger also mentioned that because the Pendley Court Families finished in 11.5 months instead of 12 months, they paid less than was initially budgeted in fees.
“You have no idea how important this program is to our rural community,” Kassinger said.
KING 5 brought the concerns expressed in the Pendley Court families’ letter to the USDA’s State Director of Rural Development, Mario Villanueva.
“We are looking for good program management and fairness,” Villanueva said. “From this discussion, I think you can be sure we are going to be looking at that.”
Under the new presidential administration, Villanueva is no longer the state director.
However, before Villanueva moved on, the USDA investigated.
While it said it didn’t find Peninsula had directly violated the terms of its USDA contract, the USDA did determine that it needed to clarify its own rules to hold housing agencies to a higher standard.
A spokesperson for the USDA said going forward organizations like the Peninsula Housing Authority will be required to be more specific and transparent about what certain fees are for and how that money will be used.
The USDA also took the opportunity to clarify with housing agencies statewide that organizations cannot double dip, using grant money to buy tools and then charging a fee at the same time.
Copyright 2017 KING