Housing authority accused of hypocrisy

A former Altoona Housing Authority employee has accused the agency of hypocrisy.

Karen Fletcher, former assistant project manager at 11th Street Tower, said the authority was inconsistent in hiring a security firm owned by a man with a pending criminal charge, given that the authority routinely moves to evict tenants facing certain kinds of criminal charges.

The authority’s executive director and an authority member contacted by the Mirror disagreed with Fletcher’s accusation, saying the cases aren’t parallel.

This month, the authority hired Regional Security & Investigations, owned by former Altoona police officer Craig Zahradnik, to guard the 11th Street and Green Avenue towers, even though Zahradnik faces a misdemeanor stalking charge in Blair County Court – based on allegations he followed his ex-wife and their two children through area municipalities on Sept. 25.

For years, based on its zero-tolerance, one-strike policy, the authority has moved to evict tenants who engage “in any criminal activity that threatens the health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents … [or] any drug-related criminal activity.”

The authority doesn’t wait for convictions to initiate action. The authority started eviction proceedings against Freda Neely nine days after police cited her for disorderly conduct, following an argument with another resident – and several months before a magisterial district justice found her guilty – a verdict later reversed on appeal.

A conviction or even an arrest isn’t necessary for an authority to terminate a lease and evict, nor is it necessary to meet the criminal standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” states the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a 1996 notice on one-strike policies.

There’s a relatively low bar for getting rid of problem tenants.

Yet “[Zahradnik] is charged with stalking and is awarded a SECURITY position,” Fletcher wrote in an email complaining of the decision to hire his firm. “I do not and you do not know if he is guilty, but IF THIS WERE A TENANT THEY ARE GUILTY.”

If Zahradnik had been a resident, he’d have been evicted as soon as the charge became known, Fletcher said.

Zahradnik declined comment when contacted by the Mirror.

Authority officials quarrel with Fletcher’s analysis.

“Not a fair comparison,” said authority Executive Director Cheryl Johns.

Hiring Zahradnik’s firm is not inconsistent with the one-strike policy, she said.

Nor would the authority have evicted Zahradnik based on the pending charge, if he were a resident, she said.

“We don’t evict or terminate unless there is a violent criminal action or drug activity or something of that nature,” she said. “If someone goes out and does something [like what Zahradnik allegedly did] or has a PFA [protection-from-abuse] violation, that doesn’t mean we would evict them, based on the circumstances.”

Board member Scott Brown said the hypocrisy accusation is “totally ridiculous.”

“We follow policies given to us by HUD” to ensure safe and affordable housing, he said. “We try to do everything uniformly across the board.”

Still, the board will need to look at the issue of Zahradnik’s hiring “in more depth,” Brown said.

Johns previously said she and another authority official vetted Zahradnik’s firm and was aware of the pending charge before recommending the month-to-month hire.

She said she thinks Zahradnik got “a bad rap.”

Johns had discussed the hiring with board member Mitch Cooper, who said Zahradnik’s firm was by far the best of six candidates.

At the meeting, Cooper said there were no charges against Zahradnik – explaining later that he thought the stalking charge had been dismissed.

The next day, when he realized the charge was still pending, he said, “We just have to see what works out in the courts.”

“I would have rather we looked at this thing before it came to a vote,” Brown said, stressing that he has the utmost respect for Cooper, the Blair County sheriff.

“We’re tap dancing in a minefield,” Brown said. “[We] have to do the best we can when one goes off.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.