Ask a dozen local residents about the Johnstown Housing Authority, and it’s likely that some common themes will emerge:
• The authority advertises to lure tenants from other areas.
• Most public-housing tenants are “outsiders” arriving directly from places such as Philadelphia and New York.
• Anybody can get into public housing, and at any time.
Officials insist that all three assertions are false. And they now are beginning to respond publicly after such rumors have persisted despite the existence of few – if any – hard facts supporting them.
“It’s just not what they think it is. Most of that stuff out there is just not so,” said Althea Jeffers, the authority’s management director.
‘Take a picture’
Of all the rumors regarding the housing authority, advertising – the idea that the authority purchases billboards or newspaper space to lure tenants from larger metropolitan areas – may be the most prevalent.
“I know what the perception is. We’ve battled it for years,” said Susan Frommell, the authority’s occupancy director.
Frommell issued a challenge to those who say they’ve seen billboards promoting Johnstown Housing Authority in other places.
“You take a picture of that sign,” she said.
“We don’t advertise,” Frommell added.
“We never have outside of this area.”
Financial documentation supports her assertion. As of late last year, the authority had spent just $8,432 on advertising in 2011; detailed statements showed local purchases such as ads in football programs and public notices in The Tribune-Democrat.
The authority does not even maintain a website promoting its properties.
And a consistently high occupancy rate in Johnstown’s public housing also would seem to negate the need to recruit tenants from elsewhere.
“We do have a waiting list,” Frommell said. “We’ve been maintaining a 98-percent occupancy rate.”
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‘Bottom of the list’
Maria Bynum, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said she has never heard reports of Johnstown Housing Authority – or any Pennsylvania housing authority – using billboards to recruit income-eligible persons from other cities.
She said she’d heard a few instances of housing authorities in other states taking the unusual step of advertising available apartments in newspapers.
But to her knowledge, its not a practice that has been undertaken by local authorities.
Many authorities in Pennsylvania have lengthy waiting lists and a hearty local demand for public housing, Bynum added.
While word of mouth may play a role in bringing some public-housing applicants from outside the area, that still doesn’t mean they’re stepping off a bus and directly into an apartment in Johnstown.
Officials argue that those who promote the “outsider” idea ignore the fact that locals have a big advantage when applying for public housing.
“Applicants who live or work in Cambria County or are scheduled to work (here) are given preference,” Frommell said.
“You’ve got to be a (Cambria County) resident, or you’re going to rotate at the bottom of the list.”
‘Aren’t enough units’
Public housing admissions lists for September, October and November – the latest such statistics available – support that claim.
Of the 74 new tenants accepted over those three months, 62 came from Johnstown. Another nine had Cambria County addresses. Only three applicants – one each from Delaware County, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J. – were from outside this area.
Administrators say the authority’s mission is to provide safe, affordable housing to those with low income. And they believe there are plenty of residents already living in this area who fit that bill.
In the Johnstown region, “there is a need,” said Dan Kanuch, authority executive director.
He cited the long waiting lists for public housing, lists that can keep a family waiting for an average of three months to get an apartment.
“To me, that tells me there aren’t enough units to handle the economically depressed people out there,” Kanuch said.
Frommell confirmed that “the majority of our residents are extremely low-income.”
But she noted that income is far from the only factor officials consider when examining applications for housing.
“We are picky,” Frommell said.
‘Going to be denied’
If an applicant has been a public-housing tenant elsewhere, a HUD database will provide background information – including whether that person owes money or was evicted.
Johnstown police provide criminal-background checks. And the authority’s strict policy dubbed “one strike” governs not only current tenants but also those who are applying for housing.
For example, if an applicant has any illegal-drug activity in his or her past, “you’re going to be denied – period,” Frommell said.
Registered sex offenders also are denied, as are those with “a recent history of criminal activity involving crimes to persons or property and/or other criminal acts that affect the health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents,” the policy says.
The authority is under no pressure to bend rules and approve applicants in order to fill apartments. In an average month, Frommell said, there are 80 to 100 applications for public housing but only 30 families moving out.