GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A few minutes before 10 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2018, a federal inspector from the Department of Housing and Urban Development rolled up to University Square apartments on Grand Forks’ west end — just north of DeMers Avenue near the very edge of the city.
The inspection, and others like it, are routine events. According to ProPublica, a national nonprofit news outlet, those inspections happen for a sprawling number of housing complexes that have federal taxpayer subsidies. Some of those are public housing; others, like University Square, are private, but contract with HUD.
The inspection report, obtained by the Herald through a freedom of information request, shows a failing grade. Across seven hours, the inspection found cracks in the walls, ponding on the roof, three buildings with inoperable roof exhaust fans, and multiple apartments with damaged surfaces and doors. Thirteen of the 19 inspected units had issues with window caulking.
“If all buildings and units were inspected, it is projected that a total of 108 health and safety deficiencies would apply to the property,” the report concluded.
The final score on the inspection was 34 out of 100 points; far lower than the 97 points the complex scored in 2015. It’s the largest such point swing in Grand Forks that ProPublica — which tracks scores around the country — has on file, and cause to suspect the reliability of the reports, according to the news outlet.
It’s not clear from the gathered data or the inspection report precisely the nature of the apartment building’s relationship with HUD. A management firm listed for the building in 2018 did not return a request for comment.
But that dramatic downward slide isn’t just at University Square. Brian Urlacher, a UND political scientist, reviewed the ProPublica data and found that North Dakota’s scores appear to have declined across the 2010s.
“From the statistics perspective … we have a sort of truism that if you can see the pattern in the graph, it's going to show up as statistically significant," said Urlacher, who completed the analysis on behalf of High Plains Fair Housing Center. "When I was watching those graphs and it was popping out. That was striking to me."
That’s not to say all scores are poor; for example, ProPublica’s database shows subsidized properties in Burleigh, Grand Forks, Stark, Richland and beyond scoring in the 90s, according to the most recent figures in the database (which runs through early 2019). But for many of the properties, like at University Square, those scores have instead taken a nosedive.
Housing experts say those sagging scores are potentially connected to a complex web of housing policies, with decades-old buildings going without necessary maintenance and, in recent years, a steeper curve for HUD evaluations. The answer, according to some, is a heftier federal funding requirement necessary to give subsidized housing the renovations they need — with subsidized housing around the country reportedly needing tens of billions of dollars in maintenance and repairs.
“These properties that today are in the state of North Dakota that require (these kinds of) inspections — and not all of them, but most of them — were all developed starting in the late ’60s through the early ’80s,” said Terry Hanson, executive director of the Grand Forks Housing Authority. “So they’re getting old. They’re 40 to 50 years old. And the majority of them have never had any major renovations or rehabilitation done to them.”
What’s more, Hanson said, policies restricting rent levels have made it harder to fund maintenance, while the inspections themselves have become more rigorous.
“In the old days, there might be an inspector that walks through a building, and saw something like a door latch that wasn’t working just quite properly — you had to push on it a little bit for the door to latch. Well, he would just let that slip, knowing that maybe the building had shifted, and to fix that one door latch would cost $543,000 to fix it, to readjust the building,” Hanson said. “Today, because of the review that the current inspectors have, they don’t make those deviations anymore on those self-judgments. They have to record everything, because their job is on the line.”
Those insights help explain the significant swings in points seen at properties around North Dakota. University Square, for example, was built in 1978.
Departmental officials with HUD did not make experts on housing available for an interview this week, but did provide details on shifts in its inspection processes. Among those is a new program, detailed on its website, to overhaul its physical inspections process late last year.
“This model includes more objective standards, value-added inspection protocols, and scoring elements that are more defensible and less complex,” HUD’s website states. “Inspectors will spend more time in units and the overall results will better identify substandard properties.”
Matt Sheppard is the facilities and operations manager for the Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority, whose portfolio includes Lashkowitz High Rise — a 248-unit building that scored a 47 out of 100 points on an inspection in February. Like at University Square, there’s a long litany of demerits for the property.
“As far as some of our properties, they’re aging — they’re anywhere between 30 and 50 years old, and some of them have aging foundations and that gets to be a heavy hit on the point reductions,” he said.
Sheppard added that, in recent years, HUD has given shorter notice for when it will conduct inspections. While he conceded that more sudden inspections likely give more accurate scores overall, it doesn’t allow property managers to check in on occupied units — where residents may have removed a smoke detector or a screen and could cost their building a higher final score.
But Jill Elliott, the Fargo housing group’s deputy director, pointed out that aging can create serious problems, like plumbing that’s “just deteriorating.”
"Our maintenance guys need to go into a wall that has asbestos in it. So they've got to get suited up to do that, go in and repair the leak within that wall, and then chase it,” she said.
But Sheppard said he’s optimistic — rising capital funds, he said, stand to improve the quality of local housing. Already, he said, there are plans in place to address basement cracks, as well as to do interior and exterior renovations on single-family homes within the local portfolio.
“I would absolutely agree (that scores will improve),” Sheppard said, “So long as the current funding remains and there's no sign it's going to be reduced. We have some pretty key projects in the pipeline."
One popular solution to housing issues has been the “RAD” program — Rental Assistance Demonstration — which was tested by HUD as early as 2012. It helps put private managers in control of rental units, with rents subsidized by tax dollars. Renovations can be paid for by private investments or tax credits, which housing authorities can’t turn to. According to newsmagazine The American Prospect, the program has “helped leverage more than $12 billion in tax credits and federal assistance for … 100,000 homes, several times more than what Congress doled out to the entire public-housing stock in the same period.” But the magazine relays concerns from public housing advocates about the long-term risks of privatizing public property, which some worry could cost residents their homes.
For Grand Forks’ Hanson — a wealth of detailed policy knowledge — the answer for most of what ails public housing is simple: more investment.
"What more should be done?” he said. “I think that we have programs out there that are in place that funding should be directed to.”