COOK- When complaints and allegations about Cook Housing and Rehabilitation Authority Executive Director Reed Erickson were aired by four disgruntled tenants at the May 27 meeting of the Cook City …
COOK- When complaints and allegations about Cook Housing and Rehabilitation Authority Executive Director Reed Erickson were aired by four disgruntled tenants at the May 27 meeting of the Cook City Council, Erickson wasn’t there to respond.
However, Erickson and Housing Manager Paula Erickson agreed to meet with the Timberjay recently to share their reactions to some of the major issues raised at the council meeting. The issues were all familiar to the Ericksons – whether at board meetings or city council or in communications with local media and government officials, a small group of individuals have been voicing their complaints for more than a year. The Ericksons have responded before, with no success in quelling the tenants’ discontent.
“It’s very difficult to do your job, because these questions have been asked and answered, asked and answered,” Reed said.
“They’re almost interfering with our day-to-day operations, grant writing, whatever we want to be able to do to make this place even better than we already have,” Paula said.
Reed said a group of six residents among the 83 people who live in CHRA housing account for the ongoing complaints, and the friction continues because of various violations of CHRA and HUD rules covering appropriate and inappropriate resident behaviors.
“We hold everybody accountable for their actions or inactions,” Reed said. “I think the biggest thing that’s so frustrating is they’re not raising the issue of what they’re being cited on. They’re raising the issue of who was citing them, which is me.”
“The residents don’t talk about what their issues are, what we say the violations on the lease are, and we can’t discuss that because of privacy laws,” Paula said. “That’s a very difficult thing.”
Reed turned to the results of a CHRA resident satisfaction survey conducted in December 2020 to support the idea that the complaints are isolated to a small group, while the majority of CHRA tenants are satisfied with management and their living situations.
Survey forms were sent to each of the 60 CHRA units to be completed anonymously and returned to CHRA Board Chairman Brian Gramling. Just under half of the surveys were returned, which is considered to be a fair response rate for mail-based surveys.
Tenants were asked three questions about how they felt the HRA was doing, what CHRA could do to improve their residency, and if they had recommendations, suggestions, or comments.
In the compiled results provided to the Timberjay, 24 respondent answers were listed for each question.
When asked how CHRA was doing, 21 of the responses, 87.5 percent, were positive, with three specifically listing positive comments about Reed and Paula, saying they “are always there when I have a problem,” that they “have been excellent,” and that “they do a wonderful job, they are always pleasant and helpful.”
With the other two questions overlapping in their focus on improvements and recommendations, 13 respondents to each question had no suggestions, with many specifically expressing their satisfaction. Most suggestions were related to possible property or maintenance improvements, but there were a few directed at management, including “Fire Reed and Paula” and “Too little too late let the lawsuits begin.” The lengthiest single response to the survey detailed dissatisfaction with multiple items, concluding with, “We miss not being heard! Why is that! This is our home! Thank you. Are we asking too much? I don’t think so.”
Erickson also provided the Timberjay with a letter written by Michele Smith, director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development field office in Minneapolis, that addressed a lengthy list of complaints the office received about the Pioneer Building and Cook HRA. Erickson said the letter was sent to the office of U.S. Senator Tina Smith, and he received a copy from constituent services director Miranda Morgan Lilla on March 30.
“Our Public Housing staff investigated each of the complaints and has addressed them in the paragraphs below,” Smith’s letter said.
The complaints included ones raised at the May 27 Cook City Council meeting, and no violations of HUD regulations were reported from the investigation. Notably, the investigation countered claims made at the meeting that residents’ civil rights were being violated.
“Neither HUD nor the Cook HRA are aware of any Civil Rights or Vulnerable Adult violations,” Smith wrote. “None of the complaints made in the attached letters fall under HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity laws. Our office is continuing discussions with the Cook HRA Executive Director and Board of Commissioners regarding interactions with the residents and how that can be improved.”
One of the more inflammatory claims made by Jim Obidowski at the May 27 meeting suggested the possibility of financial mismanagement by Reed Erickson, using the word “embezzlement” and citing a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling he distributed regarding a dispute over unemployment compensation between Erickson and his former employer, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Obidowski said CHRA should be audited.
While Erickson said his separation from the agency in 2012 was by “mutual agreement,” the Court of Appeals upheld the denial of unemployment benefits, finding that Erickson “was discharged for employment misconduct” by seeking “reimbursement for expenses that were either not incurred or incurred for non-business purposes.”
The Court of Appeals ruling noted that Erickson’s attorney had submitted new evidence that could not be considered due to it being “outside the record” of the initial hearings.
“That was the ruling, without allowing my attorney to submit the other documentation,” Reed said. “After that, I met with my attorney and they said, ‘They’ll just keep dragging this out, and it’s going to cost you 20, 30 grand and you win. But do you have 20 or 30 grand to pay?’ I said no, and they said just let it go. There was no evidence of wrongdoing in administration or anything like that.”
Since embezzlement of public funds is a crime in Minnesota, Timberjay inspected online court records and confirmed that Reed had never been charged with any violations, including embezzlement, stemming from the DEED unemployment dispute over personal expense discrepancies.
As far as financial practices at CHRA, Erickson noted that they have a required financial audit annually and provided a copy of the most recent audit which found no issues with CHRA finances and accounting practices.
“There are more checks and balances in the HRA than anyone can imagine,” Reed said.
The HUD field office investigation report from March backed this up in an item that also addressed the false claim by tenants that Reed and Paula being married was a violation of state law.
“We are aware of the relationship between Reed and Paula Erickson and they have addressed the concerns. There is no evidence of mis-management, based on audit, fee accounting, HUD reports,” the summary letter stated.
Before the pair was ever married, Paula was hired by the CHRA board, not Reed, based on 25 years of experience working with public housing that made her the most qualified for the job, Reed said.
“She worked with the city of Minneapolis public housing, with the city of Plymouth and Plymouth HRA public housing,” Reed said. “It’s not like this person fell off the truck. It’s a non-issue.”
Reed also addressed the claim made at the council meeting that CHRA’s security cameras were equipped with microphones and that Reed and Paula were monitoring conversations in public areas. He pulled up the system on his computer to demonstrate, confirming that there was no audio feed accompanying the individual videos. The HUD investigation report also determined that the security cameras were installed appropriately and were authorized by the CHRA board.
The Ericksons also talked about the improvements they’ve made to CHRA housing units, funded largely by grants Reed has secured, as HUD provides a limited amount of funds for maintenance and renovation of units when residents move out.
“We want to reiterate what we’ve done here – all new windows, a new elevator, new boilers, water softeners and furnaces in all our duplexes,” Reed said.
“Board members will comment that more work has been done, and we have more money in the accounts than we ever have, and that’s a credit to Reed’s background in knowing what grants to apply for and what programs to go through,” Paula said.
A comparison of CHRA financial figures reported in board minutes from 2012 and 2020 support Paula’s assertion. In December 2012, the CHRA’s bank balance and investments totaled about $20,000. In January 2020, bank accounts and investments totaled nearly $140,000.
Board minutes from meetings conducted under former executive directors also indicate that resident complaints are nothing new to CHRA. What perhaps is different is the manner in which the current complaints are being aired.
“If they want to bring in a housing advocate, they want to bring Legal Aid, they want to bring anybody for the legalities of things and if what we’re doing is legal, they can, but they don’t do it,” Paula said. “Instead, they go to the newspaper, they go to the city council, they go to the mayor.”
“Why are they actually trying this in the court of public opinion, like at city council meetings, or in the boardroom?” Reed asked. “I can’t answer that question.”