HUD to test handhelds in housing review

The Department of Housing and Urban Development this month launched a program that will rely on handheld computers to revolutionize the management of the nation's 14,000 public housing developments nationwide.Under the Public Housing Assessment System (PHAS), HUD plans to outfit contracted public housing inspectors with 100 to 120 handheld computers to test how the computers can be used in inspecting public housing units and to grade how well local public housing authorities are managing the units. The test will involve 2,000 public housing units and 2,000 Section 8 publicly assisted housing units. If the test is successful, HUD plans to expand the program nationwide next year to inspect 24,000 developments— including 14,000 public housing developments and 10,000 Section 8 units— and grade 3,400 authorities. HUD could not estimate how many hand-held computers would be bought for the inspectors next year.HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo described PHAS as the most comprehensive evaluation system for public housing authorities since the authorities were created by the Housing Act of 1937. "We want a fundamental, systemwide reform," Cuomo said. HUD created the $1 million computerized system in less than a year. Under PHAS, housing authorities will be graded on the physical environment of the units, their financial condition and the effectiveness of management. PHAS officials also will survey public housing residents about their satisfaction with the properties. The physical inspection will use the handheld computers to assess the condition of the public housing inventory. "It's going to set the tone for the way inspections are done in this nation in the future," said Donald J. LaVoy, acting director of HUD's newly created Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC).Inspectors will carry the computers on-site and check building exteriors, common areas and security, grading each according to these categories: no observed deficiency, observed deficiency or not applicable. Inspectors will use the handheld computers to access descriptions of the rankings as well as images of typically observed deficiencies. Inspectors then send the data via the Internet to REAC, which will use the data to compute numerical housing performance scores for the housing authorities. HUD created two other centers— the Troubled Agency Recovery Center and the Enforcement Center— as part of the housing reform program. HUD will reward good performers with more freedom from HUD regulations. Authorities that receive poor scores will receive help from TARC to improve performance. If a troubled housing authority fails to improve after a year, the Enforcement Center can ask a judge to appoint an authority receiver, who would assume management of the housing authority. The agency also can request civil and criminal sanctions against troubled authorities.

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