A resident at Sedita Towers, a BMHA senior housing property on Summer Street, has been complaining to that property’s manager and maintenance supervisor that lights in the parking lot have been off for months. He became so frustrated that he finally reached out to elected Housing Commissioner Joe Mascia, to see what the problem was.
It turns out that financial mismanagement — at the hands of Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett and Assistant Director Modesto Candelario — has become so bad that the agency no longer has funds to change parking lot light bulbs.
Residents are concerned that the financial mismanagement is creating unsafe spaces and local real estate professionals worry that even poorer upkeep of the property will suppress property values in adjacent neighborhoods. The agency, functionally controlled by Mayor Byron Brown, manages 31 properties across the city comprising nearly 8,000 housing units.
In recent years, the authority spent over $3 million installing a system of surveillance cameras that are largely inoperable at many complexes. Last month, employees of the authority were told to refrain from suggesting to tenants that stoves and refrigerators would be included in future lease agreements.
Making matters worse, Sanders-Garrett has been largely unseen at BMHA headquarters at 300 Perry Street — a peculiar time for an Executive Director to be absent as mismanagement has lead to threats of receivership from federal officials at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Sanders-Garrett’s contract recently expired, and the Board of Commissioners has taken no action on an extension of the contract. The authority has less than two months to implement a turnaround plan.
After the April board meeting, where tenants packed the authority’s board room to the brim with an overflow crowd stuck in the lobby, Sanders-Garrett has instructed BMHA staff to stop using BMHA owned vans to transport residents to the monthly meeting. Her critics say that it is an apparent attempt to suppress resident outrage, but the truth of matter is that minor gasoline costs have become prohibitive.
“The vans are bought and paid for by the Housing Authority not Ms. Sanders-Garrett. They were purchased for the specific use of transporting residents to board meetings,” Commissioner Mascia argues. Mascia suspects that she was intimidated by such strong resident turnout, which could very well lead to her ouster. It’s the first time in nine years that Mascia has seen a board meeting with a standing room only crowd.
“I think it’s great that residents attend all meetings. We are our own voice, and we need to demand accountability from the Mayor — and he should be accountable for putting incompetent people in charge of a $40 million federally funded annual budget,” says Mascia. “I want our meetings video taped and made available online, like they do for the school board. That suggestion went over like a lead ballon.”
In past election cycles, it has been reported that those same vans have been used for electioneering — from transporting volunteers to political events and canvassing efforts, to transporting residents to polling places. Some argue that behavior was in violation of the federal Hatch Act, designed to fight public corruption.
At a cost of $200,000, the authority put in place a system called Kronos. This system identified employees for time keeping purposes, with GPS capabilities that track employees during work hours. Only two of BMHA’s staff — and only their two BMHA vehicles — are exempt from the system’s tracking.
Those employees are Sanders-Garrett and Candelario, who each drive Jeep Liberties on the authority’s dime. Sanders-Garrett had initially asked the board for a Lincoln Navigator, but was rebuffed.
“I think as long as your pay comes from the same pot of money as the rank and file employees, then you should be subject to the same rules lead by example,” says Mascia.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett requested that BMHA’s Board of Commissioners approve purchasing a Cadillac Escalade for her use. That request was for a Lincoln Navigator.