The state Senate voted 34-1 Tuesday for Rep. Rickey Hardy’s bill to make affiliates of housing authorities subject to the state’s public records law. The only dissenting vote came from Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans.
Hardy says once Gov. Bobby Jindal signs HB 188, the law is retroactive, meaning affiliates of housing authorities that have developments under way will have to immediately open their books. For the purpose of the public records law, he says, these affiliates will be considered public bodies. Hardy anticipates full support from the governor: “It’s not a bill to open his office, so he won’t have any problems with it."
Affiliates of housing authorities are defined as any corporation, entity, partnership, venture, syndicate, or arrangement in which a local housing authority has an ownership or governance interest of less than a majority. The affiliates team up with housing authorities to secure low-income housing tax credits for development of single and multi-family projects, but until now the public had no access to their records — including who is involved and whether there are any conflicts of interest, who is profiting and if any federal funds are being misspent. For the only such venture complete and operational in Lafayette, St. Antoine Gardens, an independent auditor last year found that the Lafayette Housing Authority improperly used as much as $1 million of Section 8 and other funds for repairs, upkeep and an employee’s salary. “The public has a right to know who is spending their money and how it’s being spent,” says Hardy. “It’s just good government policy.”
It’s anticipated that the books of Villa Gardens Housing Corp., the developer of Villa Gardens, a federal tax-credit subdivision on Patterson Street near Alice Boucher Elementary, will be open for public review. Villa Gardens, like St. Antoine, consists of single family homes. Residents qualify to purchase the homes after renting them for 15 years. It’s unclear what impact the legislation will have on Cypress Trails Apartments, a $10 million development at Sophie and Moss streets, or Villas at Angel Point, another Patterson Street affordable housing project that’s only recently come to the public’s attention. The LHA was initially involved with both, but the developers kicked the LHA out of Cypress Trails once the feds starting investigating, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — which took over the LHA in the wake of its scandals — asked that the housing authority be removed from Villas at Angel Point. Richard Becker, a Lafayette attorney who does the legal work for all of these developments, has a pending request with state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell for an opinion on whether information on Cypress Trails Limited Partnership is a matter of public record.
Contacted Thursday afternoon, AG spokeswoman Sharon Kleinpeter said she was looking into whether an opinion on the matter has been finalized.
One sentence of the 1997 state law had exempted affiliates by virtue of their association with housing authorities, shielding these affiliates’ paper trails from public scrutiny: “Affiliates of housing agencies shall not, by virtue of their affiliation with such local housing agencies, become subject to the laws of this state applicable to public agencies and their governing bodies, including but not limited to laws pertaining to public disclosure of records, open meetings, minimum wage rates applicable to government contracts and employees, if any, procurement of goods and services, and laws relating to public employees.”
Along with his victory Tuesday to expand the state's sunshine law to these controversial low-income housing deals (the House unanimously backed the measure in May), Hardy played a key role in helping to expose potential corruption in the LHA, his efforts leading to multiple investigations including ongoing probes by the FBI and HUD inspector general.