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Under new management, La Joya Housing Authority focuses on recovery agreement

The La Joya Housing Authority is under new management.

Executive Director Ruben Villarreal left on Oct. 7, when his employment contract expired. Rather than replace him, the La Joya Housing Authority board approved a management agreement with the Kenedy Housing Authority, which fired all the remaining employees last week.

Chairman Jaime Gaitan said the board approved the management agreement to show the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that La Joya is serious about turning around the troubled housing authority.

“And, to be honest with you, I think we should have done this a long time ago,” Gaitan said.

HUD designated La Joya “troubled” in April 2019, when the housing authority received just 54 of 100 points on the Public Housing Assessment System.

“The failing score is due to the Authority spending more than it earns, poor rent collection, and below average occupancy of units,” according to a July 1, 2019, letter from HUD. “The La Joya Housing Authority has a history of corrupt management and poor oversight by the Board of Commissioners.”

Villarreal, the former mayor of Rio Grande City, became the executive director that September.

The housing authority had been through four executive directors in four years. The board had been paralyzed by infighting. And important documents, including meeting minutes and budgets, had been lost.

“It was extremely challenging,” Villarreal said, adding that he needed to rebuild the organization from scratch while learning to navigate the HUD bureaucracy.

The La Joya Housing Authority approved a recovery agreement with HUD in October 2020. Under the agreement, the La Joya Housing Authority promised to address problems identified by auditors and meet certain HUD benchmarks.

HUD, however, became concerned the La Joya Housing Authority wasn’t complying with the agreement.

During an inspection in April 2022, the La Joya Housing Authority received 18 of 40 points on the HUD Physical Assessment Sub-System. The La Joya Housing Authority also had problems with occupancy and failed to meet deadlines for submission of financial information.

“The LJHA’s performance since Fiscal Year Ended (FYE) December 31, 2018, demonstrates it consistently remains not ready, not willing, and not able to fulfill its mission,” according to a May 5, 2022, letter from HUD. “Because of the failure to comply with the recovery agreement, this letter serves to formally advise you that the Authority may be at risk of default.”

Villarreal said the pandemic caused some delays, but the La Joya Housing Authority completed audits for 2019, 2020 and 2021. The La Joya Housing Authority also paid more than $200,000 in unpaid taxes and fixed other problems identified by auditors.

“I do want to emphasize that the staff that was there did an extraordinary job,” Villarreal said.

Gaitan, though, said the board remained concerned Villarreal wasn’t making progress on the recovery agreement.

“Ruben had a tendency when we asked him something about a specific area, he would go into an explanation about all kinds of stuff, kind of beating around the bush,” Gaitan said. “And not getting into the meat and potatoes of what we asked.”

The board decided not to renew Villarreal’s employment contract, which expired on Oct. 7.

After meeting with HUD, the board approved a management agreement with the Kenedy Housing Authority.

Cristi LaJeunesse, the executive director of the Kenedy Housing Authority, also served as executive director of the La Joya Housing Authority from October 2018 to July 2019.

LaJeunesse fired the four remaining La Joya Housing Authority employees and brought in a new management team. She’s also talking with HUD about the recovery agreement.

“I’m excited for the direction that we’re going to be able to go for the agency,” LaJeunesse said. “I can tell you there’s a whole lot of work to be done.”

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