Leaked memo shows depth of dysfunction in Atlanta’s AIDS housing crisis

Atlanta HIV/AIDS activist Daniel Driffin openly criticized how the city managed its federally funded Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS program, which subsidizes rent for low-income people living with the virus. He and others want the long-troubled program to be more transparent about its spending and policies and to track whether its services are improving the health of the people it houses. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Atlanta HIV/AIDS activist Daniel Driffin openly criticized how the city managed its federally funded Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS program, which subsidizes rent for low-income people living with the virus. He and others want the long-troubled program to be more transparent about its spending and policies and to track whether its services are improving the health of the people it houses. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Just as a crisis in a city of Atlanta housing program threatened to leave vulnerable AIDS and HIV patients homeless this summer, a leaked government memo arrived in the mailboxes of advocates.

The envelope gave no hint of who sent it. But the letter written by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development revealed that the federally funded, $23 million Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA) program was unable to perform basic functions.

Hundreds of lower-income residents with HIV/AIDS, who face health challenges and often discrimination, depend on HOPWA for rent subsidies in safe, affordable housing.

But according to the memo the city had used federal dollars to pay for “substandard” housing for its low-income clients and had overcharged them for rent over four years, HUD found. It had yet to come up with a plan to pay them back. It could not reliably say how many families it helped or how much money it spent on various activities.

It even failed to effectively use free HUD help to get the program on track, the May 29 memo to city Director of Grants Management Karen Carter said.

“HUD remains unsatisfied with the City’s response to previous and newer challenges,” it said, and required the city to come up with a plan to fix the problems.

The memo and the anonymous way it circulated paint a portrait of an AIDS and HIV housing crisis that is far from resolving. Years of dysfunction have damaged the program so deeply that advocates see signs that clients have left the program in frustration. Landlords have grown nervous about renting to HOPWA clients because they are afraid of waiting months for rent payments, an Atlanta Legal Aid attorney said.

LGBTQ community advocates, experts and the city’s own contractors who raised criticisms were given incorrect or incomplete information, or shut out completely, leaving them to ferret it out through leaked memos and other back channels, they said.

In June, nonprofit Living Room, a longtime city contractor that provided housing for HOPWA, disclosed that it could not pay rent for some 250 of its clients because the city was months late reimbursing it for about $500,000 in expenses. The clients' landlords filed for eviction, and the Atlanta Legal Aid Society was swamped with so many requests for help that they set up a special team to respond to them.

The city has since paid Living Room $371,600 but on Tuesday the nonprofit declared bankruptcy.

These struggles are a setback to the region's fight to address the South's high rates of HIV transmission. Stable housing can make a big difference in whether a client receives proper medical care, which research shows can lower a patient's chances of transmitting the virus.

“The city has to go back to basics. It’s creating a program from scratch,” said Daniel Driffin, co-founder of Thrive SS, a nonprofit to improve the health of black gay men living with HIV.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ effort to reboot the program by moving its duties to nonprofit Partners for HOME, which manages the city’s response to homelessness, have been met with skepticism. But Chief of Staff Carmen Chubb pledged transparency going forward during a meeting with providers last week. Councilmember Natalyn Archibong, chair of the city council committee that oversees the program, said the city would not retaliate against agencies that point out HOPWA problems.

“The hope is that as Partners for HOME takes over, it starts rebuilding trust and confidence among organizations to iron out those problems,” Archibong said.

The changeover requires HUD approval, a spokesman for the agency said.

HUD: ‘Growing concerns’

Problems with the city’s HOPWA program were on Bottoms’ radar when she ran her close runoff race for mayor in 2017 against Mary Norwood, who won strong LGBTQ support as a longtime champion of the community’s causes. Payments from the city to nonprofit providers ran so late that some providers had to borrow heavily on lines of credit and stop taking on new clients.

“It makes no sense that they’re on the verge of shutting their doors because they can’t get a reimbursement that they’re due from the city of Atlanta to continue their good work,” Bottoms said Nov. 26 , 2017, during a campaign question and answer session on LGBTQ issues.

The mayor’s stance built good will in the community, said Charlie Stadtlander, who worked as a senior advisor to the campaign on LGBTQ and other issues.

"It made me proud to decide to have supported her because it was an issue that was so important, and could prevent so many needless deaths," Stadtlander said. He has since cut ties with Bottoms over a City Hall hiring controversy and said he is frustrated with her response to the crisis.

Charlie Stadtlander, a senior adviser on Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms mayoral campaign on LGBTQ and other issues, said he briefed Bottoms on serious problems with the city-run Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program during her 2017 runoff election campaign. Bottoms said at an LGBTQ campaign event that she would fix the city’s chronically late payments to providers, which were putting some in financial jeopardy.

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The city's HOPWA troubles continued to mount after Bottoms took office. In March and April of 2018, HUD discovered what it described were "growing concerns" and "ongoing systemic issues" including years of contracting and reimbursement practices that helped result in tens of millions in unspent funds, according to HUD records obtained by the AJC through an open records request.

That November, the city signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to accept HUD’s training and expertise. Yet the problems continued, resulting in HUD’s May 29 memo that said the city had not lived up to the terms of the agreement.

The city issued a written plan to correct its problems. But a copy of the June 12 response that the AJC obtained through a public records request shows it did not include key details that HUD requested, such as timelines for fixing these issues.

A city spokesman did not make Director of Grants Management Carter available for comment. HUD is working on a formal response to the city’s plan, agency spokesman Joe Phillips said.

Signs of progress?

Despite phone calls, letters and home visits the city and its partners have been unable to locate nearly 20% of Living Room clients, according to city figures. One of the 114 people who asked Atlanta Legal Aid for help moved out of state to live with his family because the stress of dealing with HOPWA’s problems was too great, said attorney Stefanie Sparks.

One landlord was so frustrated with HOPWA that Sparks had to negotiate the early termination of another client’s lease.

“It’s a problem with a lot of private landlords,” Sparks said. “They don’t want to have problems any more.”

Yet there there are signs of progress, Sparks and others acknowledged. Of the 202 Living Room clients the city has located, all but 28 are in the process of being moved to new agencies. Partners for HOME staff have met individually with the city’s HOPWA agencies to assess their concerns.

Partners for HOME Executive Director Cathryn Marchman hopes to avoid HOPWA’s prior problems by putting into place a system of checks and balances over policy and funding decisions.Currently, the city divvies up the federal funds on its own.

“It’s so we’re not sitting in an ivory tower somewhere deciding what gets funded and what doesn’t,” Marchman said. The nonprofit is also trying to establish policies that would allow it to reassign the tens of millions in unspent funds to other agencies that need it.

The city also reimbursed HOPWA provider Positive Impact Health Centers, about $500,000 it owed, CEO and President Larry Lehman said. He’s grateful, but the city has a long way to go.

“Do we trust the process? Clearly for the last 10 years or more the process has been very broken,” Lehman said. “And I don’t know what the new process is.”

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 longstanding 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.