City-rooted HUD official pays a visit

STEUBENVILLE – Ray Keyser used to walk every day to the Maryland Market.

“My mother and stepfather lived on Rosswell Avenue, then Ridge Avenue and Oregon Avenue so I know the hilltop neighborhoods. I think I walked every inch of the hilltops when I was growing up. And I know the neighborhoods have changed since I was a kid,” Keyser, the acting director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Cleveland field office, told the Hilltop Community Development Corp. members Thursday night.

Keyser said he drove to Steubenville from his Cleveland office Thursday night to urge residents to engage people living in public housing or Section 8 voucher rental housing.

“Get to know them and make them part of the neighborhood before they are reached by the drug dealers from out of town who want to teach them how to deal drugs,” said Keyser.

“I do believe Steubenville has a unique drug problem. You have a lot of larger cities within easy driving distance of Steubenville. But we have not seen significant evidence that public housing is making the problem worse. The question I ask is are we at HUD doing everything we can to make sure we are not being used for dealing drugs. Have we solved the problem completely? No. Will we? Hopefully so,” stated Keyser during the 90-minute meeting with 25 hilltop residents, Steubenville City Manager Tim Boland, three City Council members, Police Chief Bill McCafferty and former U.S. Drug Enforcement Special Agent Jim Mavromatis.

“We all need to coordinate with the police department. Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority Executive Director Joe Costantini has put together an excellent proposal to provide information to the police and to proceed with eviction procedures of criminals. I read the Herald-Star online every day and a couple of months ago I saw someone had been arrested at a Rosswell Avenue house for drug activity. I checked our voucher housing list and saw we had voucher tenants on the left and the right side of that house but not where the guy lived. In another case I got a call from a JMHA resident who said she had been assaulted. I called Joe and within hours he called me back to say they were working on the eviction of the offender,” related Keyser.

“We are working on some things that have not been made public. And my sense is Joe and his team are doing things that are making a difference. We really need residents here to engage the issues as a nonprofit group. Your group is the kind of grassroots action we need to make a difference. I was pleased to see the JMHA board has agreed to pursue a nonprofit affiliate to make a difference. We have got to get to the people in public housing or a housing rental voucher program and show them they can have a better life. There are businesses who want to help. We need to find ways to invest in the people who live in the public housing. They need help with their housing but they also need a helping hand from us,” Keyser continued.

Costantini said the JMHA has 800 Section 8 allotted vouchers for Jefferson County and 650 of those vouchers are currently in use.

“Probably half to two thirds are on the hilltops in Steubenville,” he said.

“We have been very engaged in the Steubenville community since my first meeting last August with U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson. Your congressman has made it very clear he wants us to be engaged here. And for me it is a personal issue because I am from Jefferson County and I care about this community,” stated Keyser.

“I am really encouraged by what you have said tonight. There are a lot of issues dealing with JMHA. Our problem we see is independent housing without security. The other problem I see are soft hearted landlords who don’t want to evict someone doing something wrong,” responded Laura Sirilla, president of the Hilltop CDC.

Keyser said he has seen landlords who refuse to accept Section 8 tenants as well as landlords who do a really good job.

“But you do have a few bad apples. As long as they are getting their money that’s all they care about. I have been reading in the newspaper that the city is working on new legislation regarding building maintenance codes and I am encouraged by that. Some problems can’t be solved on the federal level but can be dealt with by local leaders,” said Keyser.

“I do believe we have a problem. From what I have read the Edison Local School District can’t pass a levy. Students from Edison are moving to other school districts. Steubenville has a very good school system. So for JMHA, Steubenville may be the best place for public housing and voucher rental housing. I would like to see less concentration of public housing in Steubenville. I know JMHA is counseling Section 8 housing applicants to look at other neighborhoods and communities,” remarked Keyser.

“If you see a problem at a public housing unit or a Section 8 rental property, call Joe at the JMHA and tell him about it. They will check it out. They are following their protocol,” Keyser told the residents.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna told Sirilla to be vigilant in her neighborhood.

“You are not helpless. Always look around at what may be going on. Anything you see can help the police. City Council is starting to enact legislation to address the issues. The city is very serious about dealing with this issue. Be assured there is a serious commitment by the city to do something,” stated Villamagna.

Fourth Ward Councilwoman Angela Suggs warned the residents, “there are no silver bullets. As Ray said we have to get to the people first. We have to educate the people. We need to work with the young males in high school. We see an excellent graduation rate for young males in high school but our college graduation for young males is terrible. We have to get to those young men before the drug dealers get to them.

Following the meeting Keyser said he has told Johnson’s congressional staff that he will work around the congressman’s schedule to arrange a stakeholders’ meeting in Steubenville.

“I asked for a delay to allow the JMHA staff time to deal with their occupancy issues. My letter to Congressman Johnson that cited JMHA has fallen short on certain performance metrics used by HUD to gauge the effectiveness of a public housing agency’s financial management and leasing activities are connected to the occupancy levels. The finances at JMHA are in good order. I was referring to the financial aspect of lower than required occupancies,” Keyser said.

“We were two-hundredths of a point below a passing score and we plan to appeal their score because we believe there are reasons why we should have passed,” Costantini said at the Wednesday JMHA board meeting.