HTHA denies woman’s discrimination charge

Maryland Lirette
March 4, 2011
Inez Becnel
March 9, 2011
Maryland Lirette
March 4, 2011
Inez Becnel
March 9, 2011

A Houma woman who has been trying to regain occupancy at the Houma-Terrebonne Housing Authority Senator Circle property, claimed before the board of commissioners, with her sister on hand for a second voice, that she was being discriminated against by the agency’s executive director, Wayne Thibodeaux.

Connie Celestin is a former Senator Circle resident who left her home there at the end of 2008 and owed $398.67 to the Housing Authority. This amount included two months of past due rent ($50 each), late fees ($15), municipal court fees ($114.50), and balance on a work order from April 2008 ($139.17).

A $150 security deposit Celestin had paid when she originally moved in was deducted from the charges and left her with a statement that totaled $248.67.

Thibodeaux repeatedly stressed that he was not discriminating against Celestin, and said following the meeting Thursday at Bayou Gardens that he had no idea why Celestin and her adult daughter abruptly left the property in 2008.

Celestin, who suffers from seizure disorder, claimed that she left her apartment at 197A Senator Circle because she feared for her life due to termites. Celestin and her daughter then moved in with her sister. Since then she has gained Social Security money and has attempted to move back into low-income housing.

Housing authority policy specifies that applications with outstanding balances owed cannot be accepted as tenants. Thibodeaux said he explained to Celestin that once she paid the outstanding $248.67 – which both she and Thibodeaux said she had done – she could apply to be readmitted.

Celestin made a claim that Thibodeaux told her she would be placed at the top of a waiting list. As of Feb. 16, Senator Circle had 132 applications on file. Thibodeaux disagreed with Celestin’s claim. Commissioners said Celestin complaining to them was the wrong place for her concern to be voiced.

“My sister is homeless … I would like to find out why she can’t get into Senator Circle,” Ora Celestin said.

Board members Pat Casez, Joe Thompson and Johnny Jeanise all attempted to explain to the Celestin sisters that they had no control over processing individual applications and that is why they have Thibodeaux and his staff as paid administrators.

“We are deliberating on the application,” Thibodeaux said. “Please understand, Miss Celestin has not reached No. 1 on any list even though she alleges that she has. Miss Celestine, in fact went so far as to call Congressman Jeff Landry’s office alleging that she was No. 1 on the list, but we, the Terrebonne Housing Authority, had refused to offer her housing. That is incorrect. … But there has been no decision. I will say, in all honesty to the board, there is consideration to deny, but we have not concluded that we will deny at this point.”

Ora Celestin said she had documents and receipts to back up her claims. Copies of documents that Connie Celestin handed over to the Tri-Parish Times included two letters from the Terrebonne Housing Authority specifying a financial balance owed to the housing authority, a form signed by Celestin authorizing the housing authority to conduct a background check, a community care referral authorization to the LSU Medical Center Neurology Clinic, photocopied receipts from Rite Aid, an application document check list, a money order receipt totaling $250 made out to the Houma Terrebonne Housing Authority and a receipt that stated her debt was paid in full, and a handwritten letter in which Celestin stated her case. These documents all carried February dates.

Celestin also had a letter dated Jan. 20, from the housing authority that read in part, “We are pleased to inform you that your name has reached the top of our waiting list.” The letter also noted an initial interview appointment with the applicant for Jan. 31. There was no written statement that identified formal denial of housing.

Thibodeaux said that Celestin’s meeting with his office was only an interview and not an automatic guarantee of placement. “We are proceeding on her as we would any other applicant,” he said. “Her prior tendency does require that we evaluate it and see if it conforms to what we would invite in as an occupant of the Houma Terrebonne Housing Authority.”

“All she wants is a place to reside,” Ora Celestin said. “Why is she being denied the right to that?”

“The board does not get involved in [day-to-day operations],” commissioner Johnny Jeanise said. “That is why we hired an executive director. He has met with y’all. He is saying some of the statements spoken here are not all honest truth. We do have a policy for outstanding debt collection. That has to be first thing on the list.”

Jeanise explained to the Celestin that all applications and forms go through a process. “This is a housing authority management situation. It is not the board’s.” he said. “This is the first I’m hearing of it, but as a commissioner I cannot get involved.”

“If the decision is made to deny [Celestin] housing, a letter will be sent to you outlining the causes. It will also give you the right to appeal the decision and a process can begin at that point so you can have due process,” Thibodeaux said. “She has not been denied. There is no decision made yet as we speak.”

Occupancy rates for the Houma Thibodeaux Housing Authority are a 93 percent for Senator Circle and 83 percent for Bayou Gardens.

In other business, the three of five commissioners present for this meeting called upon housing authority accountant Allison Patten for an annual visit and financial report.

“I didn’t prepare a formal presentation for y’all, but I believe your financials are doing pretty well,” Patten said to the board. “I would like to point out … that we are funded at 103 percent last year … for operating subsidies. In the coming months, January through March, our subsidies are being cut.”

Thibodeaux stepped in to address the housing authority’s financial picture. “[With] some of the proposals right now in D.C., there is about a 43 percent proposal of cutting the [housing authority] capital fund budget and probably a 3 or 4 or 5 percent proposal on your operating subsidies.

“Obviously, that is going to impact our operation if that comes to fruition. While I didn’t prompt you before, the board should know that should Congress decide to make these serious changes, and it is and will eventually … but ultimately if we sustain the cuts being proposed we are going to have some financial problems in trying to maintain what we are doing at the current level. It may require some action from the board of commissioners.”

In 2010, the Houma Terrebonne Housing Authority received extra federal funds and as a result has a $1.7 million reserve that the agency might need to call upon due to cuts. “[But] those cuts might not even happen until the end of the year,” Patten said.

According to Thibodeaux, congress may offset budget cuts by requiring the housing authority to make use of the reserve. “It you’ve got a healthy reserve, they give you less operating subsidy money and force you to use the reserve,” he said. “I don’t think housing authorities want to start dipping into that as a matter of practice.”

Patten was unable to provide information including how far six months of reserve money would go for those in public housing, what measures might be taken by the housing authority to reduce expenses, or what the current operating budget is for the housing authority.

Ora Celestin (left) speaks up for her sister, Connie Celestin, as the women appear before the Houma-Terrebonne Housing Authority and director Wayne Thibodeaux (at left) to complain that placement in Senator Circle housing was not proceeding as they desired. MIKE NIXON