A member of the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ governing board is accusing the agency and Mayor LaToya Cantrell of seeking her removal because she is too strong an advocate for tenants.
Sharon Jasper — a longtime housing advocate who Cantrell appointed to the HANO Board of Commissioners in 2018 — got word of her removal on Oct. 26 in an email from Cantrell. Jasper believes the move was illegal, as Cantrell did not initially provide a reason for the dismissal as state law requires. Now, Jasper has filed for an appeal of the termination.
On Friday, Cantrell’s office provided Verite with a document accusing Jasper of “neglect of duty” and “misconduct in office,” but did not respond to an inquiry into the exact nature of those accusations.
In an interview with Verite, Jasper said she has been “targeted” by HANO Executive Director Evette Hester because her zealous tenant advocacy has bothered the agency’s administration. She said she frequently tries to assist HANO tenants who say they live in substandard housing and have trouble getting an agency response, including by making visits to their homes and taking photos to bring back to the administration.
“I seem to be the only one that sits on that board that speaks out concerning the residents or tries to assist them,” she said. “And guess what? They don’t like me.”
Cantrell’s email came one day after a HANO board meeting that was attended by a number of people with complaints about the condition of their rental homes. Several were tenants of Columbia Parc, which replaced the St. Bernard public housing development. Others lived in smaller, privately owned affordable properties that are federally subsidized under the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8.
“It was filled with a lot of residents with a lot of complaints,” Jasper said of the October 25 meeting.
The Section 8 program provides federally funded assistance to low-income residents to live in privately owned rental properties. It is by far the largest federally subsidized affordable housing program in the city, with more than 18,000 vouchers in use, compared with about 2,200 publicly owned housing units, according to recent HANO statistics. HANO is responsible for administering the program in the city, including by inspecting Section 8 properties to ensure they are well-maintained and safe, though it has been criticized in the past for the quality and pace of its inspections. In 2019, the agency fell so far short of its goals that it hired a private firm to manage inspections.
Jasper said several of the attendees at the October meeting said they had previously complained about substandard conditions at their homes and had received little help from HANO staff.
Verite obtained a video of the meeting taken by W.C. Johnson, of the group Community United for Change, who has since publicly criticized Jasper’s pending removal.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, one public speaker — a tenant in a Section 8 property — became upset while trying to tell the board about substandard conditions of her home, including cracked windows and persistent roach and rodent infestations.
The woman at several points angrily called out Hester and other members of her HANO staff by name. Later in the meeting, board member Isabel Barrios said she felt that some attendees were intimidating those staff members.
“One young lady got up and was talking about how she had made several complaints and had talked personally to Evette Hester and nothing came of it,” Johnson said. “Evette Hester turned her head in the other direction.”
The video shows the woman becoming upset and pacing around the room. She was then escorted away from the speakers’ podium by HANO Police Department officers. Johnson’s camera remained pointed at the podium, so his video does not show what happened after the woman was escorted away. But at that point, the meeting devolved into yelling, including the public speaker demanding to be allowed to gather her belongings before being taken outside.
At one point, a voice clearly identifiable as Jasper’s appealed for calm.
“You want to be heard? You’re not going to get heard like this. You want to get heard? Calm yourself down,” Jasper said.
After the public comment period, the board recessed. According to Jasper, once out of public view, HANO Executive Director Evette Hester accused her of encouraging the woman to attend and create a scene. Hester did not respond to a request for comment.
Jasper was appointed to the board as a tenant representative and said she sees it as her job to advocate for Section 8 tenants. She said she encourages residents with problems at their homes to attend board meetings, but that she did not know the woman who spoke in October. She added that she has previously butted heads with Hester over her work with tenants, which has included making personal visits to Section 8 properties and gathering pictures of mold, mildew, leaks, infestations and other problems to show to HANO administrators.
After one such visit, she said, Hester accused her of “crossing the line.”
“Crossing the line?” Jasper said, pointing out that not only is she a tenant representative on the board, but she is also president of HANO’s Housing Choice Voucher Program Resident Council.
The day after the meeting, Jasper received a brief email from Cantrell.
“I hereby remove Sharon Jasper from the Housing Authority of New Orleans, effective immediately,” it read, followed by instructions to contact a member of Cantrell’s staff with any questions.
It appears that the removal letter may have violated state law, which says that mayors can only remove housing authority board members in the middle of their terms for “neglect of duty, misconduct in office, or conviction of any felony.” Jasper’s term expires at the end of next year. When mayors request a removal, they must provide members with grounds for termination.
When Verite asked the Mayor’s Office about the letter and pointed to the law, Cantrell’s office produced a second letter, dated Thursday, Nov. 17.
“You are hereby removed from the board of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, effective immediately, due to ‘neglect of duty’ and ‘misconduct in office’ as cited in Louisiana Revised Statute 40:537(A)(1),” it read.
Asked on Friday to explain specifically what Cantrell was alleging, her communications staff did not respond.
Cantrell has previously come under criticism for her management of HANO board appointments. In 2018, she removed affordable housing advocate Andreanecia Morris from the board, likewise without explanation. And recently she has come under fire over her appointment of New Orleans Police Department Officer Jeffrey Vappie, a member of her security detail. A recent Fox 8 investigation found that Cantrell has spent a significant amount of time with Vappie at the city-owned Upper Pontalba apartment building, including when Vappie was on the clock.
Jasper’s appeal hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 29 at 11:30 a.m. in the City Council chambers. State law allows board members appealing their removals to remain on the board until the resolution of the hearing.
Note: The story has been updated to correct the date and time scheduled for Jasper’s appeal hearing. An earlier version of this story said the hearing would be held in late December.
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