Public Housing Issues Brought Up in Private

STEUBENVILLE – Ongoing violence and street crime has transcended public safety in Steubenville, and the city’s reputation is driving away business opportunities while threatening one of its few remaining assets, Rep. Bill Johnson announced following a closed meeting to discuss public housing within the city.

Johnson, R-Ohio, was among numerous city, county and federal representatives who met behind closed doors at the City Building for about 90 minutes Thursday while discussing the violent crime that many believe stems from the city’s Section 8 and low-income housing projects.

The congressman said that crime is now keeping potential employers at bay – to the detriment of the local economy. The crime has also had a negative effect on enrollment at Franciscan University of Steubenville, which is often lauded as a major asset by city government. Franciscan University Director of Community Development Mike Florak was among those in attendance on Thursday.

Hilltop Community Development Corp. President Laura Sirilla confronted Johnson after his opening remarks, and said she was a stakeholder who was left out of the meeting. Sirilla and her fellow group members, residents of La Belle and Pleasant Heights, live in sections of the city that most often take the brunt of the crime.

Johnson welcomed Sirilla’s presence and input at future meetings, and Mayor Domenick Mucci said she was originally slated to attend the closed-door session, and attributed her absence to an oversight on the city’s part.

The dialogue is set to continue among Steubenville officials at similar monthly meetings. The findings will be reported to Johnson, or a member of his office, at quarterly meetings. Goals Johnson announced on Thursday included enabling the Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority to enact the eviction process for law-breaking tenants, as well as improving security systems and training security personnel at the city’s public housing projects.

In 1996, JMHA security guard Donald Hamann was shot and killed in the public housing project that now bears his name. That was the last time someone had been killed on JMHA property, until earlier this year. A 16-year-old boy is being tried as an adult for a January double murder in which he shot two men at the Heritage Place Apartments on Market Street.

JMHA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have issued about 380 Section 8 vouchers to Steubenville renters, while about 280 have been issued throughout the rest of Jefferson County. But Steubenville and the county will not see any more vouchers issued in the near future, as HUD officials related that strained finances cannot support any more.

Likewise, the number of public housing units in Steubenville will not increase from the 530 currently located in the city. There are only 138 public housing units throughout the rest of the county – all of which are located in either Toronto, Tiltonsville or Yorkville.

First Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto, who has lobbied for public housing to be spread evenly throughout the county, requested Johnson attend Thursday’s meeting as a follow-up to a similar session last year. DiLoreto said he was encouraged by HUD’s presence on Thursday, but scoffed at the agency’s suggestion that Steubenville has the capacity to support more housing projects – up to an additional 370 living units.

JMHA Executive Director Joe Costantini said public housing units are subject to annual inspections, but proving that a tenant is illegally housing someone is a difficult task. Similarly, law enforcement have complained of renters, particularly young women, who receive Section 8 housing vouchers and illegally harbor men dealing drugs.

JMHA also annually inspects the homes of renters receiving Section 8 funding, but the agency’s primary responsibility is to ensure the property is maintained. The prospect of proving someone is staying in a Section 8 home illegally, and subsequently evicting the lessee, is slimmer than at a public housing unit.

Ray Keyser, chief counsel and acting director of HUD’s Cleveland office, and one of four HUD officials at Thursday’s meeting, said Steubenville is suffering from economic forces broader than the housing market. Regardless, HUD is committed to working with the city to ensure the safety of its residents and visitors, Keyser added.