Lax oversight or pressure to look the other way? Grand Jury must investigate LHCDC
After more than 16 months of researching Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corp. — its missing audits, its deteriorating, unsanitary housing for low-income residents and its failure to abide by regulations governing the use of public funds — I’ve come to the conclusion that only the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury can thoroughly investigate the many questions that remain unanswered.
The city of Lompoc, the County of Santa Barbara, and even the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — the source for millions of dollars of federal funds LHCDC received — have something at stake if a comprehensive investigation is undertaken into why the oversight and monitoring of this public benefit nonprofit was so faulty. You could say they each have skin in the game.
It will take an entity with the authority and power of subpoena to force facts out of the shadows LHCDC has been allowed to operate in for far too long. It will take the power of subpoena to penetrate the protective shield still preventing a serious inspection of its financial records, and investigate the reasons it was permitted to fail to comply with regulations and contractual obligations for so long. It will take the power of subpoena, and the independence of the Grand Jury, to obtain the testimony of current and former city and county employees, elected officials and LHCDC Board of Directors to uncover the truth.
There is much that needs to be uncovered:
• Why did the nonprofit continue to receive funds after it failed to submit required annual audits? Was it lax oversight, incompetence, or was pressure applied to ignore the missing audits?
• Why did the city approve a loan to refinance an LHCDC low-income housing property in 2005 that allowed LHCDC to pull out $500,000 in cash for its own use when it was two years behind in audits at the time, a fact a city councilwoman noted for the record when she voted no?
• Why did the county approve a refinancing of a low-income housing property in 2008 that had failed to achieve its mandatory affordability certification required by law because LHCDC failed to provide the necessary data? Were county supervisors informed the housing property was noncompliant with federal regulations before they were asked to allow LHCDC to take $472,000 from the refinancing? If not, why not? Was it lax oversight, incompetence or was pressure applied to ignore the noncompliance?
• Why did the city and county allow LHCDC to stop complying with mandatory requirements to provide annual data on its rental rolls and tenant income eligibility for rent-restricted housing? Was it lax oversight or was there pressure to look the other way?
• Why did the city allow LHCDC to ignore repeated requests to improve conditions at its low-income housing properties that were observed during city inspections? Why were funds intended to remove blight allowed to create blight?
• Did LHCDC’s Board of Directors fail their fiduciary responsibility to oversee the use of public funds by the organization and monitor the performance of LHCDC staff? Did they know conditions at some properties were in violation of state building, health and safety codes? Did they know tenants complained of having no heat, no working oven, inoperable smoke detectors, mold, sewage problems and other unhealthy and unsanitary conditions?
• Did a county employee inappropriately mix her dual positions as assistant to the 4th District Supervisor and as president and vice president of LHCDC Board of Directors for many years? There is documented evidence that the employee conducted LHCDC business on county property, during workday hours, while using her county title. Did the mixing of roles contribute to the failure to enforce compliance with regulations by county staff?
All these questions, and many more, need answers. Accountability for using public funds designated for a community purpose — to provide decent housing for low-income residents, shelter the homeless, reduce blight and expand economic opportunities — is not a trivial matter. Nor is it a matter of politics, or personalities or campaigns. Our community has been ill-served by LHCDC and by those who looked the other way when regulations and requirements and missing audits were ignored. We’re still being ill-served by those who seek to sweep LHCDC and issues of oversight and accountability under the rug.
For our community’s sake, we need the members of the Grand Jury to provide the independence, perseverance and authority to unravel the facts of this tangled, convoluted mess that is still shrouded in too much secrecy. It could happen again if we don’t seek accountability and answers in our own back yard.