Citing city mismanagement, HIV agency threatens to end housing contract

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in an Oct. 4 press release that ending homelessness is one of her administration’s “top priorities.”

But one of the largest housing providers for people with HIV in Atlanta wants to cut ties with the City of Atlanta, alleging years of mismanagement of its HIV housing program, breach of contract, and over $1 million in unpaid bills.

Positive Impact Health Centers also claimed that the city is sitting on over $70 million in “desperately needed” funds owed to nonprofits through the Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS program. PIHC is just one of more than two-dozen agencies that face budget shortfalls without promised city reimbursements.

The group said that the city owes it alone $1.3 million to cover January through September 2021.

Positive Impact’s board of directors on Sept. 21 unanimously voted “as a last resort” to end its HOPWA contract with the City of Atlanta after 28 years in the program. The nonprofit also threatened to sue the city if it doesn’t agree to the terms of the termination and provide a transition plan within 30 days.

“PIHC housing staff will now begin the task of designing a sustainable housing program that meets the needs of our clients and addresses our goal to end HIV in our community,” CEO Larry Lehman said in a Sept. 30 press release.

Positive Impact offered to pay tenant-based rental assistance subsidies for its HOPWA clients for the next 90 days if needed.

Bottoms’ office has not responded to Project Q Atlanta’s questions about this latest development. [Ed. Note: see city’s response below]

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (Photo by Matt Hennie)

A history of dysfunction

HOPWA is a federal program that provides rent subsidies for low-income people with HIV. The City of Atlanta manages the program that covers 29 counties across the metro area and serves about 2,500 people. Local nonprofits like Positive Impact cover the subsidies for their HOPWA clients, then bill the city for reimbursements.

Chronic payment delays, dysfunction and constant turnover plagued the city’s management of the program going back to Mayor Kasim Reed’s tenure. Soon after taking office in 2018, Bottoms said her administration would work “around the clock” to fix the program.

But the mismanagement has persisted as the mayor enters the final months of her only term. The city’s dispute with one HOPWA agency led to an eviction crisis, an explosive lawsuit that was later settled and the agency filing bankruptcy in 2019.

The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development launched an investigation into the city’s HOPWA program the same year. HUD found widespread and systemic issues and threatened to end the city’s HOPWA grant if it didn’t clean things up.

In August, the city had “complied with all guidelines” and HUD was not considering terminating the grant “at this time,” a HUD spokesperson told Project Q.

Atlanta has the second-highest rate of new HIV infections of any city in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Dive into three years of Project Q HOPWA coverage.

UPDATE | A City of Atlanta spokesperson told Project Q that the city supports Positive Impact’s decision to terminate its HOPWA contract and it’s working to transfer the group’s clients to other providers.

“The city has worked diligently with PIHC over the years and the Department of Grants and Community Development has provided dozens of hours of technical assistance to Positive Impact’s staff on how to properly substantiate monthly expenditures,” Press Secretary Michael Smith said. “Just since Nov. 2020, the city has made pre-payments amounting to more than $1,544,000 to Positive Impact to assist the agency with providing uninterrupted services to its HOPWA clients.”

Smith said that the city and the DGCD remain committed to serving Atlanta’s HOPWA clients.

“The Department of Grants and Community Development is engaging current HOPWA project sponsors and community partners to transition Positive Impact’s clients and will ensure that the agency’s HOPWA clients remain stably housed,” he said.

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