STEUBENVILLE - The Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority board said late Friday afternoon they will not allow the housing authority, its staff and residents to become scapegoats in the month-long public discussion regarding alleged criminal activities in public housing in the city.
JMHA Executive Director Joe Costantini and board Chairman Les Zapor issued a press release Friday stating, "the problems the city has recently experienced over the past several months are not a result of anything that JMHA has done or not done."
The press release came three days after U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, formally asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate alleged criminal activity in public housing units in Steubenville.
Johnson's letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan last week also cited Costantini's concerns, "over certain statutes, regulations and policies he sees inhibiting the agency's ability to deter the incidence of drug related and other criminal activity in public housing properties."
And Johnson asked for Donovan and HUD "to provide Mr. Costantini assistance and a clear path forward if federal red tape is hindering his ability to evict tenants engaged in illegal activities."
According to the JMHA press release, "there have been numerous stories in the media recounting allegations by the city of Steubenville that the JMHA is not fulfilling its responsibilities under federal regulations in regard to drug related and criminal activity in its public housing projects. So far we have avoided openly confronting these allegations, but now, since these statements have prompted a formal investigation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, we feel we must respond."
"It has been implied that JMHA does not screen applicants for criminal history. JMHA has been performing criminal background checks on every adult applicant for public housing and Section 8 vouchers for over 15 years. We have used the State of Ohio Law Enforcement Automated Data System for over 10 years, as is required and authorized for housing authorities under the Ohio Revised Code Section 4501(F), which states, 'Ohio housing and urban development agencies shall not access CCH/III through a criminal justice agency. They may apply to LEADS for access for this purpose.'"
JMHA exceeds the federal requirement in performing background checks on applicants for its programs," the press release reads.
"Another allegation is that we do not take steps to evict those residents who engage in criminal activity. From the beginning of 2011 to the present, JMHA has filed 59 eviction actions, including 11 for eviction for illegal drugs or criminal activity. JMHA will always pursue eviction when we have the legal right to do so," the press release reads.
"It has been further stated that JMHA has refused offers of help from the city. We have never refused any help, if it was offered. In fact, we asked for help. In April 2011, at our request, we met with the city manager, the chief of police and members of the narcotics unit to discuss our concerns over activity we were observing even then in the area of Earl Rodgers Plaza," said Costantini.
"JMHA also spends large sums of money each year to provide a security force for our facilities. We are not required by HUD to provide security guards and HUD will not directly fund this service. We have also installed security systems at our facilities for the safety of our tenants," he continued.
"Perhaps most disturbing is the statement that JMHA has had "murders, shootings, domestic assaults and drug activities" on its properties. The city has had murders this year, none of which occurred at our properties. While we acknowledge that our properties have seen their share of shootings, domestic assaults and drug activity, as have many other neighborhoods, the last murder on our properties was in 1996, when JMHA Security Guard Donald Hamann was shot and killed on the property that now bears his name," noted Costantini.
"JMHA does not want an adversarial relationship with the city of Steubenville. This is not productive if we are to effectively address the problems we all face. However, we cannot allow JMHA, its staff and its residents to be made the scapegoat in this situation. The problems that the city has recently experienced over the past several months are not a result of anything that JMHA has done or not done. This is a citywide issue and needs to be addressed as such," Costantini said.
Johnson was asked by city and Jefferson County officials on June 11 to initiate a congressional investigation into alleged drug activities, murders, shootings and domestic assaults in local public housing properties as well as federal subsidized Section 8 housing.
The local elected officials requested the meeting with Johnson following a May 21 shooting incident at the Earl Rodgers public housing complex in the city's South End.
"A federal investigation started today when I came in here. We will review the documentation and we will determine how best to proceed. There is a pretty serious problem and it is not a short list of issues. When you have local officials asking for help, it is a pretty serious matter. We will take appropriate action," Johnson said following the meeting.
In his letter to the HUD secretary, Johnson also noted issues raised by Steubenville Mayor Domenick Mucci regarding the privately owned Fort Steuben Hotel apartment complex.
"Residents have said the 88-unit apartment building is overrun with criminal activity and that they are living in fear. They said management does little or nothing to screen applicants for housing, offering almost anyone who applies a unit in spite of extensive criminal histories. Our local police department has verified this stating that while many landlords contact them for free assistance regarding tenant criminal background checks they have never been contacted by Fort Steuben Management," Mucci told Johnson during the June 11 meeting.