FORT MYERS, FLA — Hundreds of you have seen the series of stories we've done on the Lago Del Sol apartments in Fort Myers, mostly featuring a Southwest Florida mother named Charlisa Hood.
That mom was forced to move out of that complex because her apartment had failed back-to-back public housing inspections. And it was determined that the complex management was at fault for those failures.
Due to those failures and the fact that the complex didn't get things fixed, the Housing Authority for the City of Fort Myers (HACFM) claims that in late April they gave Ms. Hood notice that she would need to move out by May 31st because they were ending their housing contract for that apartment.
A few weeks later, Ms. Hood says she got a housing voucher to move somewhere else. But that time frame left her with about two weeks to find a new place for her and her kids to live.
She told FOX 4 earlier this week that she didn't find a new place in time and is now living in a local hotel, with her kids.
"It's better, but it's hard. The better part is because we outta there is because we're not in a place of our own," she said.
We've seen your questions about the state of the apartments there and what the HACFM is doing about it.
And we have questions too.
FOX 4 has called and emailed the organization's Executive Director and her assistant multiple times.
So far, our requests for interviews have been canceled due to "family emergencies" or busy schedules and lately, they've just been ignored.
The Housing Authority has yet to agree to a face-to-face interview with FOX 4, but they did answer some of our questions via email:
FOX 4: What happens internally at the HACFM if a unit fails once? Is it flagged? Take me through the process before we get to a second inspection.
HACFM: The answer to this question requires a little background. First, the owner of the property must enter into a federally mandated agreement called the Housing Assistance Payments Contract, commonly referred to as a HAP contract. This document can be easily found online by searching through HUD forms, using “HUD-52641” in a search on Google. The terms of this HAP Contract control how the federal assistance will be applied to the unit and what obligations are placed on the Housing Authority, the tenant, and the owner.
As stated in the HAP Contract, the owner and tenant are responsible for several things including, but not limited to, making sure the unit complies with the Housing Quality Standards, commonly referred to as the HQS. Some of the HQS requirements fall on the Owner’s side of the ledger and some on the Tenant’s side. In regards to the owner’s obligations, the main purpose of the HQS is to hold the owner accountable to maintain the unit to meet certain standards, so the family can live in a safe and well-kept home. In return for this, the owner is entitled to receive federal dollars in the form of rent subsidy for that unit.
As stated in the HAP Contract, “The PHA shall not make any housing assistance payments if the contract unit does not meet the HQS unless the owner corrects the defect within the period specified by the PHA and the PHA verifies the correction.” See, Part B, p3(d). Thus, once HACFM is notified that a unit has failed the HQS inspection, a written notification goes to the owner and tenant, specifically stating what was causing the HQS failure, who is responsible for fixing it and a deadline in which to remedy the problem. The time period in which to remedy varies, but usually the notice gives the owner or tenant 30 days to bring the unit into compliance. Additional time is also given, when the owner/tenant can show a good faith effort to come into compliance and reasonable basis for requested extensions. Assuming this is an owner’s violation, once the applicable time period has run for the landlord to cure the failures, a follow-up inspection is scheduled for the unit through a third-party inspection company, which is where your question ends.
FOX 4: Is it normal to cease rent payment after back-to-back failures?
HACFM: As referenced above, the HAP Contract expressly states “The PHA shall not make any housing assistance payments if the contract unit does not meet the HQS unless the owner corrects the defect within the period specified by the PHA and the PHA verifies the correction.” See, Part B, p3(d). Therefore if the Owner fails to timely cure the HQS violations after the second inspection, after being given an opportunity to cure, then it is contractually mandated that rent payments cease.
FOX 4: Is the HACFM allowed to step in, legally, if a landlord asks for full rent payment of a tenant whose unit has failed inspections? In Ms. Hood's case, it was clear why the apartment failed and who was at fault, and yet Lago Del Sol has continued to harass her and ask for a full rent payment even though they were sent a letter from your office saying she didn't have to pay the full amount. Is that legal? If not, can HACFM step in? If so, have you done so in Ms. Hood's case?
HACFM: In order to properly address this question, we must first explain the process of how HAP rental payments stop being paid to the Owner and also, what opportunities and instruction is given to the Tenant on how to move forward. During the process leading up to a termination of a HAP Contract (i.e. stopping rental payments to owner), the owner and tenant are both receiving multiple notifications from HACFM regarding the inspections and what must be done to fix the problems. Once a decision is made that the Owner is no longer entitled to HAP Payments, the Tenant receives written communication, as well as phone calls, as to what happens next and more importantly, what the tenant must do in vacating the unit.
Since the unit is no longer legally permitted to receive a federal subsidy, pursuant to Federal law, the tenant must vacate that unit, unless the tenant wishes to remain there and pay market rent. In Ms. Hood’s case, she was sent a written notification, on April 29th 2021 that explained that the unit was no longer able to be used with her Section 8 Voucher and that she needed vacate the unit by June 1st, 2021. If the tenant failed to vacate by that date, the tenant is now personally responsible for staying there; however, if she had moved out of the unit timely, the owner would have had no recourse against her for vacating the unit early.
It is very important to note, like all section 8 voucher holders, the responsibility to find a suitable unit to rent, is always an obligation of the voucher holder, not the PHA. This is because that the PHA does not have any control over or any ability to create housing. The entire Section 8 Voucher system is dependent upon the private market, i.e. individuals in the community willing to rent their homes to voucher holders. That being said, the PHA uses every resource it has at its disposal to help the voucher holder find a new unit to move into; however, this is sometimes very difficult, especially when the housing market inventory is low and demand is high (such as the current existing housing climate).
In Ms. Hood’s case, she decided to remain in the unit after the time period had run for her to vacate, triggering her obligation to pay the rent moving forward. It is unknown what was the ultimate reason why Ms. Hood elected to remain in her unit, but sometimes this can be because a multitude of reasons, including but not limited to, the tenant just not wanting to move out of the unit because she likes the area, not being able to find another unit that accepts Section 8 vouchers, or finding a suitable unit that accepts Section 8 vouchers, but the tenant simply not liking where that unit is located. Unfortunately, if the tenant does not take action to timely move out of the unit and find a place to move to that accepts her voucher, there is nothing more HACFM can do to assist her with that owner and the rent the owner claims is now due.
*Please note that Ms. Hood had moved out of the Lago Del Sol apartment complex on May 31. She also provided FOX 4 with a copy of her notice to vacate the apartment that was sent on May 19, 2021.
FOX 4: I understand that you are terminating your contract on that unit, but will the HACFM consider terminating its overall contract with the complex considering how they've treated this tenant?
HACFM: HACFM only has individual contracts; however, we continually review landlords and their program participation.
FOX 4: Is the HACFM investigating to see how many other units that received housing vouchers are in the same or worse condition?
HACFM: HACFM conducts regular inspections of its units that receive federal assistance. It also conducts special inspections, when a tenant or other concerned individual notifies HACFM that there may be a problem unit that needs to be addressed.
FOX 4: Are you able to tell me the number of units that have failed at least two inspections at Lago Del Sol over the last two years (2019-present)?
HACFM: 2019 -2021 (171 inspections completed. 111 passed inspection and 56 failed once. 11 units failed twice and 4 no-shows (tenant unavailable). The results of the units that failed twice are as follows: 2 reinspection’s passed, 6 failed- contract in abatement 6/1/2021, 1-pending abatement, 1-terminated HAP Contract, and 1-tenant left the program.
*Please note that the HACFM initially told FOX 4 that these numbers were only attributed to 2019. They later told us that those numbers were instead for 2019-2021.
FOX 4: What message do you have for other Lago Del Sol tenants who receive housing assistance and say they're also living in conditions that fall below HUD standards?
HACFM: HACFM respectfully requests that if any tenant, whether at Lago Del Sol or not, feels that the owner of the property is not complying with its obligations under the HAP Contract to please notify HACFM immediately, so hopefully the issue can be properly addressed. Do not be afraid to communicate those concerns with us and more times than not, HACFM can work with the Owner to fix the problem and make your living situation much more enjoyable and better for their family.
Does the HACFM help clients find housing? Ms. Hood tells FOX 4 she fears she'll be homeless come Memorial Day because she hasn't found a place to live that takes vouchers and can accommodate her and her children.
HACFM has access to a database of houses that have previously notified HACFM of their willingness to accept the Section 8 Vouchers as well as additional resources. The current problem we and Lee County are facing is that there is a shortage of available inventory, especially in the more desirable locations to live. Notwithstanding the above, HACFM is ready, willing, and able to assist in making referrals to Ms. Hood, and all other voucher holders that are in need of finding a location to move their family to. Just please understand that HACFM has no control over the available inventory for the tenant to select from and sometimes the options don’t fit all of the tenant’s wants and needs. We would encourage anyone seeking housing to review our available public housing waiting lists on our website. www.hacfm.org [hacfm.org]. Currently, our public housing waiting list is open for future tenants to apply.
FOX 4 wants to hear from you. Are those answers enough? Should the housing authority be doing more? Or are you a public housing tenant who is dealing with similar issues? You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send FOX 4 reporter Rochelle Alleyne a Facebook message here.