Federal agency investigating Atlanta’s AIDS and HIV housing program

A letter from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the head of the city’s federally-funded Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program said the program for low-income people living with the virus overcharged rent, failed to spend its funds, and funded substandard housing, among other problems. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the May 29 memo through an open records request.

The city's troubled housing program for people living with AIDS and HIV is being investigated by the enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

HUD’s Departmental Enforcement Center, or DEC, requested inspection reports, audits, expenditures, budgets and other information in recent months for the city’s $23 million Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS program (HOPWA), according to city emails obtained by the AJC through an open records request. A team of investigators also spent more than three days at City Hall reviewing records and speaking with officials.

The DEC has the power to issue administrative sanctions, including blocking the city from doing business with the federal agency.

“They are HUD’s prosecutors,” said Orlando Cabrera, an attorney at Arnall Golden Gregory and a former assistant secretary at the federal agency. “If there’s a matter they sent the DEC to, it’s pretty serious.”

City spokesman Michael Smith did not reply to requests for comment.

HOPWA subsidizes rent, program administration costs and other services for people with living with AIDS and HIV. The city administers the program for areas across north Georgia. HUD contacted the DEC about conducting a review in July, said agency spokesman Joe Phillips. It is expected to conclude in October.

Emails show the DEC inquiry includes the city’s dealings with the former HOPWA contractor Living Room, a nonprofit that filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy Sept. 17. The city, which provided 90% of the nonprofit’s revenue, ended its contract with the agency in July after accusing it of providing shoddy housing, failing to properly address a data breach, potential nepotism and other problems.

The nonprofit sued the city, saying it held up its funds as retaliation against its former executive director. He rejected a former city official's sexual advances and proposed Living Room take over HOPWA administration, the suit said. The former official denied the allegations. The controversy threatened to leave some 250 Living Room clients homeless.

An attorney who represents the Living Room declined comment for this story.

Daniel Driffin is co-founder of the nonprofit THRIVE SS, which works to improve the health of black gay men living with HIV. He has criticized Atlanta’s federally funded Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program and hopes an ongoing inquiry will get to the bottom of problems there. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM

Rebirth Housing head Todd Mitchell, which received federal dollars through Living Room to provide housing for HOPWA clients, said he was interviewed in July as part of the DEC investigation. He said the city falsely accused him of wrongdoing in its efforts against the Living Room, and said he told investigators about the tactics the city used against the nonprofit.

Mitchell said he hopes that the investigation helps HUD understand that the city should no longer administer the program.

“When you have someone in the city having a vendetta on a company and abusing their power that way, and using whatever they have to take down that individual or entity, it’s appalling,” Mitchell said.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms proposed moving HOPWA to Partners for HOME, a nonprofit the city started to manage federal funds for its anti-homelessness efforts. HUD must approve the transfer, a spokesman for the federal agency said.

City critics said they are eager for the DEC investigation to get to the bottom of the HOPWA program troubles. For years, the program paid providers so late that nonprofits had to borrow heavily on lines of credit and pause taking on new clients. This took place even as the city failed to spend tens of millions of federal HOPWA dollars.

Advocates and providers for the HIV-positive community said they have been shut out of discussions about the program and have faced retaliation for pointing out its weaknesses. They want transparency.

“I hope we will clearly find out what is happening to millions of dollars for people who need it the most,” said Daniel Driffin, co-founder of nonprofit Thrive SS, which works to improve the health of black, gay men living with HIV.

Our reporting

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in June that 250 people with HIV or AIDS were at risk of being evicted from subsidized housing, following the city’s failure to transmit federal funds to a nonprofit provider. Subsequent reporting revealed long-standing disputes between the city and housing providers and raised questions about the city’s management of the $23 million Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS program. The AJC has now learned that the city’s management of the program is under federal investigation.

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