HUD Forces Martin’s Resignation, Progress Continues for Housing Commission
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Sept. 30, 2015)
As residents and officials continue to struggle with undoing the mess left by former Executive Director Debra Wilson of The Ferndale Housing Commission, a new challenge has come up: finding someone to replace a Commissioner that had been brought in because of his expertise to fix the problems.
HUD, The federal organization that oversees funding and regulation of housing programs like the FHC, has been butting heads with the Commission after a change in leadership occurred. For years the FHC carried on with unsavory practices that only became exposed after the Executive Director was caught stealing medication from the rooms of residents in the program. After basic rights violations and instances of administrative retribution were exposed by The Oakland County 115 News, a thorough review of the FHC took place by HUD, exposing many problems with policies and actions that impacted the day to day lives of residents.
Though the FHC is an independent organization, Ferndale City Council is responsible for appointing the residents that serve on the board that oversee the programs. When it became clear that changes needed to be made, Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter made two appointments to the commission. One commissioner’s term had ended and another resigned. Longtime resident and activist for many causes Ann Heler and Ferndale Mayor Pro Tem Dan Martin stepped in to lead the way in healing the organization.
However, HUD quickly responded that Martin could not serve on both boards, citing a conflict of interest. HUD officials have mandated that Martin resign, under threat of freezing of finances for the organization.
Ferndale City Attorney Dan Christ found legal precedents for Martin’s position on the commission, based on the size of Ferndale’s population and situations in other cities where officials did double duty.
After meetings between the attorneys and even outreach by Congressman Sander Levin, it became clear that if Martin were to stay on it would be a costly legal fight.
HUD has already made the determination that the FHC must return over $150,000 in funds they were inappropriately billed to HUD by the former director. Even without the ramifications of Wilson’s actions, the economic challenges with the program that serves senior citizens, low income, and disabled people are daunting. So Martin stepped down.
He was required to resign by October 1, which he did after finishing out Wednesday’s meeting.
Martin read his resignation letter which stated:
“Today I am required to share some news that pains me but is necessary to the continuing function of this commission. HUD has held for several months that a City Council person cannot serve on the Housing Commission. The City has received legal opinion, from counsel whom I trust and respect that their decision is a misinterpretation of the regulations for a city the size of Ferndale it is appropriate for me to serve on the commission. We have reached out to our Congressional office and have been well represented in our position, however Detroit HUD will not budge. I have been assured by Detroit HUD that this is nothing personal, and I have no reason to doubt that, however their failure to respond to my outreach to resolve this and other issues has created a significant barrier in our work to address the needs and concerns of the Ferndale Housing Commission. In addition, the Detroit HUD will freeze payments to the housing commission if I do not cease and desist serving as a commissioner and president of this board.
I believe that we’ve accomplished good things here over the past few months to the benefit of our residents. Even better initiatives are in play. A stronger partnership between the City and the commission has had clear and lasting benefits. I am willing, and very much want, to continue to serve in this role. I have developed a deep affection to the residents and a passion to address the flaws in the public housing system. Good cities must have diverse and adequate housing for all income levels, whose residents should be treated with respect and dignity.
What I am not willing to do however, is to continue this fight resulting in distraction from the real issues we have been addressing. I am not willing to add further financial strain to the housing commission and fighting an extensive court battle that, while I believe we would win, needs to be putting those resources elsewhere. I am not willing to put revenue that the Detroit HUD is holding over our head at risk.
Therefore, based on my respect for the housing commission and the city of Ferndale, and most importantly our residents whom we serve, I am resigning my position on the commission, in lieu of mounting up continued legal fees in fighting this miss led direction that Detroit HUD continues to pursue.
That being said, I am not going away. As I stated, I believe passionately that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I will work with the mayor and city Council to ensure that my replacement has similar passion. There is much healing to be done. We must be mindful of tactics promoted by any group or individuals that work against that.
Thank you for the honor of working with all of you. I’m very excited about what we can do next.
As stated, I am deeply disappointed and troubled by the actions of many in this work, but we can get better. I look forward to working on resolution regardless of my title or role. This is Ferndale, and we are candidly better than we have been treated. I would encourage all residents to walk with our neighbors and treat housing opportunity with the energy and respect it deserves. “
HUD spokesperson Gina Rodriguez was asked why HUD policy was opposed to having a city official also serving on the Housing Commission, and the concern is over potential conflicts of interest. She passed along an excerpt from the Annual Contributions Contract and the Cooperation Agreement.
The Annual Contributions contract states “Neither the local authority nor any of its contractors or, or their subcontractors shall enter into any contract, subcontract, or arrangement in connection with any Project or any property…any member of the governing body of the locality in which the Authority was activated, or any other public official of such locality or localities who exercises any responsibilities or function with respect to the project.”
The Cooperation Agreement also address the potential for conflict, stating “No member of the governing body of the Municipality or any other public official of the Municipality who exercises any responsibilities or functions with respect to any Project during his tenure or for one year thereafter shall have any interest, direct or indirect, in any Project or any property included or planned to be included in any project, or any contracts in connection with such Projects or property.”
A letter to Congressman Levin obtained by the Freedom of Information Act elaborates on the concern. Field Office Director Michael Polsinelli wrote “In this case, the City Councilperson is a member of the governing body of the Municipality, who is charged with removing members of the board, by also sitting on the FHC board he or she has an interest in every project of the FHC. This reasoning is not unique to the FHC or the City of Ferndale. HUD made this same determination across the State numerous times. This is not a determination based on State law, rather on the contractual obligations that come with continued funding by HUD of the FHC under the terms of the ACC and Cooperation Agreement.”
As Martin moved on from his seat, Heler was moved up to the President position, and the Mayor of the City is responsible to make an appointment.
Mayor Dave Coulter gave a statement via email. “Dan has been a huge asset on the Housing Commission board and has already helped accomplish much of the initial findings from the HUD report. I also know his commitment to issues of fair housing isn’t changing, just his formal role. That commitment remains true of the city, too, and we’ll keep working to do our part to make sure these Ferndale residents are treated with respect and fairness,” Mayor Coulter said. “In the meantime, if there are residents with experience and interest in serving on this or any other city board, they should get an application from our website or the City Clerk.”
Martin, Heler, and three commissioners who had not been replaced from the previous board, have been working for months to address the lengthy report issued by HUD after their inspection of the organization.
Tackling a laundry list of problems from work order turnarounds to customer service, charges to residents for repairs, financial policies, etc, the Commission was able to respond every single complaint that HUD had. At Wednesday’s meeting they voted on the final language of the report that they are sending back to the organization. When asked if there were any issues that they were unable to address form the original review, Martin said “We’ve responded to the best of our ability. I’m comfortable with what we’ve sent. It will be up to HUD to review and let us know if they have any concerns.”
In addition to the challenges in their relationship with HUD, The commission has been trying to maintain a relationship with the advocacy group that continues to come to meetings. Detroit Eviction Defense had been holding protests at the FHC office on Whittington due to the mistreatment of residents, and the former Executives Director’s refusal to meet with attorneys for clients who felt they had been wronged by the organization prior to Wilson’s arrest.
When Wilson, was arrested, Detroit Eviction Defense ramped up their efforts at shaming the organization.
While the advocacy has kept attention on the issues, it has also somehow got awry. At the Sept. 16 meeting members of Detroit Eviction Defense used swear words during public comment, raised their voices, interrupted commissioners attempting to do business, and raised their voices when commissioners returned from closed session. They were upset that the meeting had been moved to accommodate a resident BBQ, and proper notice had been posted. Yet the move brought back memories of when they had been locked out of meetings and been denied public comment under the previous commission.
“It felt like we were going backwards,” said one of the group’s members who declined to give her name.
The group came late to the last meeting and admits they were angry and loud. And residents too recalled being upset.
“I had one resident text me that she was scared,” said Commissioner and resident Carole Morency. “We want everyone to be heard and to feel safe when they come here.”
Because of the disruptions, Ferndale Police were on hand for the Wednesday meeting and Commissioner Heler had documentation of the disruption added to the minutes for the previous meeting.
“What does it say about transparency having the police here if people do not feel comfortable to speak?” said David Mitchell of Detroit Eviction Defense. However, members of the group spoke with Martin and Morency after the meeting and everyone agreed that moving forward is important.
“I hope they will continue to be involved in a positive way,” Martin said of the group.
Moving forward there is still plenty of work to be done. Among the issues is looking at the replacement of the former Executive Director. When Wilson left, commissioners voted to move Emily Vickey into the interim position. This move unsettled residents and activists who have had unpleasant experiences with Vickey when she worked as Wilson’s assistants. Vickey’s role in locking people out of public meetings, writing up residents who had tried to hold resident meetings, closing down the common areas such as the library after residents were trying to organize for their rights, lying to the commission about previous inspections and reviews, going against a commission vote to revise a voucher policy and continuing to try and remove a resident involved in litigation, and being openly disdainful towards residents and visitors have left many wondering if true change would take place.
“You can change policy all you want, but nothing has changed once the meetings are over. There are more smiles, but they still act the same way, they just smile while they do it,” Mitchell said.
Now that the response to HUD is complete, the process for an Executive Director search formally began with the Commission voting to begin assembling a search committee. The City of Ferndale has offered their human resource specialist’s expertise to help with the process. Martin thanked Vickey for her service, noting that she served during a challenging time, and that she would be eligible to apply for the position.
For more information on the investigation and the resulting changes, check out the Oakland County 115’s timeline of stories at https://oaklandcounty115.com/2015/07/17/timeline-of-ferndale-housing-commissions-struggles-and-progress-2/.
HUD Forces Martin’s Resignation, Progress Continues for Housing Commission