STEUBENVILLE - A federal investigation into alleged criminal activities in public housing and Section 8 subsidized rental housing was launched Monday during a meeting between U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, and local officials.
Jefferson County Commissioner Thomas Graham handed Johnson a letter requesting a congressional investigation and related documentation detailing alleged drug activities, murders, shootings and domestic assaults.
"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," said Johnson following the meeting.
CALL FOR PROBE — Jefferson County Commissioner Thomas Graham, left, delivered a request for a congressional investigation into local public housing to U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson during a meeting with local officials Monday. Steubenville Mayor Domenick Mucci, right, also discussed issues with Section 8 housing assistance at the former Fort Steuben Hotel during the 30-minute meeting. - Dave Gossett
"I am a results-oriented guy. We need to give serious consideration to these issues. I will stand with and beside these local officials on this issue. My office will be involved. And there is a sense of urgency surrounding these issues. We will be moving forward on this," Johnson said.
"When the last shooting happened down there children were outside playing. Our concern is someone is going to be hurt. The Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority is not taking steps to stop the activities in the public housing apartments and not allowing us to help them," stated Steubenville City Manager Cathy Davison.
"We have concerns that JMHA will send us a letter with names of people doing alleged illegal activities without starting the eviction process. Based on 2002 HUD rules, they can start the eviction process. But the agency argues against that. The executive director says their hands are tied by federal regulations. They are not taking steps to remove the alleged criminals and are not allowing us to help them," Davison said.
Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority Executive Director Joe Costantini said he "welcomes the congressman's help in resolving some of our our code issues."
"There are federal regulations that impede us in dealing with some of these issues. The only way we can get rid of a tenant who is accused of illegal activities is to evict them. We have to give a tenant a 30-day notice under the federal regulations and then the state clock starts. We also have a funding issue for security. We are getting painted more and more into a corner. But if we can get relief from the federal regulations that would be good," continued Costantini.
Davison gave Johnson a letter from a JMHA employee listing "known drug activity on JMHA property, copies of police investigations at the Earl Rodgers public housing apartment complex and an April 23 letter to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan from Steubenville Mayor Domenick Mucci, who wrote residents of the Fort Steuben Apartments "are living in fear."
According to Mucci, the city's Fair Housing Practices Commission held an informational meeting at the former hotel that is now privately owned by a New York company and used for federal subsidized Section 8 housing.
"Residents 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," stated Mucci.
Mucci told Johnson the Fair Housing Commission and the city have requested HUD to conduct a complete on-site review of all of the facilities' management practices, policies and procedures.
"We have also asked for HUD to meet with the residents on site so concerns can be heard and for an inspection of the facility to determine if the building and site complies with HUD standards.
City resident and retired Drug Enforcement Agency supervisor Jim Mavromatis told Johnson unemployment is playing a role in drug activity.
"The city and county have taken steps to address the drug problem but are limited by manpower and resources. I am very familiar with these type of activities across the country. We dealt with issues like this in public housing in east Cleveland. We clearly need something to come from the top," said Mavromatis.
"City Police have partnered with the sheriff's office and the Ohio Highway Patrol. But our overtime budget is almost completely spent because of these crimes and investigations. Our local economy is getting a little better, but the criminal activities are getting worse. We see more and more people coming to the city to live in public housing. And we have public housing residents coming to our City Council meetings asking for help," related Davison.
The Monday meeting with Johnson came three weeks after a shooting incident at the Earl Rodgers public housing complex in the city's South End that saw men in a passing vehicle exchange gunfire with two men sitting on an apartment porch.
City officials met last week with the JMHA board of commissioners to discuss the alleged criminal incidents in public housing.
A statement released by Costantini following that meeting said the JMHA will continue to maintain its "one-strike-and-you're-out policy for screening and eviction for criminal activity in public housing, and will continue to work closely with City Police to address drug-related criminal activity in its properties. JMHA residents who have knowledge of any criminal activity are encouraged to report it to the police and to the authority."
"I see an engaged city administration which is doing their jobs. I will stand alongside the city and support city leaders to remedy this situation," said Johnson.
First Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto, who also serves as the city representative on the housing authority's board of commissioners, said the city has "more than its share of public housing. We need to see the public housing spread around among other communities. This is taxing our city resources."