CANTON Even the interior designer hired for Stark Metropolitan Housing Authority Executive Director Herman Hill’s office remodeling job wondered if the plans were over the top.
“I think a lot of people would have thought of it that way … from the humility aspect of it,” said Robert McKinney, of RM Interiors, who was paid $1,380 to act as project manager.
After all, the Housing Authority’s mission is to place poor people into affordable housing. And its 2,544 public housing units — subsidized by federal Housing and Urban Development tax dollars — are hardly “House Hunters” TV show material.
Public housing is the biggest piece of its $32 million annual operation, which also includes operating HUD’s Section 8 voucher program for 1,473 private renters in the county.
“But they explained … it’s an office that any executive director would have,” McKinney said.
Dan McMasters, one of the agency’s five-member board of commissioners since 2015, agreed. He said he’s confident Hill followed every proper procedure, and added that office appearances can be important in attracting capable new employees.
“Like fixing up the general’s headquarters to attract a better general,” he said. “In my mind, that’s not a big deal.”
Hill’s roughly $20,000 office makeover, finished in early 2018, included purchases from the likes of Arhaus furniture, repeated trips by an agency employee to Home Depot and other stores for more paint and supplies, plenty of online shopping and the deal with RM Interiors.
When contacted to comment for this story, Hill said he preferred an option of answering via email. His more than two-page written response did not directly address all questions presented.
Hill said his office and bathroom remodel, including an executive assistant’s office space, cost $17,178; records provided the newspaper put it closer to $21,000.
He cited Home Advisor data to show the remodel price was 71% below the national average for such work, based on square footage.
“A consultant worked with (the Housing Authority) to help select colors, materials … art, and furniture options with an eye toward cost, wear and tear, and functionality,” Hill wrote.
Hill’s office first up for makeover
Hill’s office was the first piece in a string of remodeling and renovation work to follow at the agency’s 25-year-old office building on Tuscarawas Street E near downtown.
Later improvements included interior painting of the rest of the complex, new carpeting, lobby floor and new entry doors, which so far amount to more than $300,000.
Hill said the agency’s board was aware of his office remodel, though it wasn’t asked to sign off on work because it fell below a $50,000 threshold required for such approval. The Board, he said, passed resolutions for the additional renovations.
But contractors for the rest of the building weren’t the same ones that had been hired for Hill’s office.
Not only was his office the first to be remodeled, it was done in increments. Six different contractors worked on one piece or another, according to bills, invoices and other agency documents provided to The Canton Repository in a public records request.
Records show purchases for Hill’s 287-square-foot office and bathroom came from: Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walmart, Amazon, World Wide Globes, Lamps Plus, Zuri, Hayneedle, Wayfair, Pottery Barn, Elegant Office, Arhaus, Macy’s, JoAnn Fabrics and Ballard Designs.
Among the items, were a:
- $1,180 Pietro Constantini dining room table from Arhaus, for use as an office desk.
- $799 Grand Cheswick bathroom vanity, with marble top, as well as added marble back splashes.
- $575 Draper leather executive office chair
- $243 floor-stand world globe
- $234 Vintage chrome pivot bathroom mirror
- $69 leather desk pad
McKinney said he’s not sure why the Housing Authority selected him, but added he was acquainted with the agency’s Development Director Ashley Wright. He said he acted largely as a consultant or overseer because the Housing Authority bought most of the pieces on its own and others did the work.
“When possible, SMHA purchased floor samples or discounted furniture … the table desk … was the only item purchased from Arhaus and it was a clearance item discounted by 69%,” Hill stated.
McMasters, the board member, said he couldn’t speak for all five members. But he said he understands why an interior designer was hired for Hill’s office, because they are experts.
“I’ve been in Herman’s office. … I don’t see anything different than in the CEO’s office of any organization,” he said.
Agency records include numerous email confirmations for many items purchased online. In addition, there are emails among Hill, Wright, McKinney and Tabitha Hamilton, an administrative assistant, who all orchestrated the office remodel.
Four different times, in the span of three weeks, Hamilton asked for and received approval from Hill to use an agency credit card to make trips to Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart to purchase various types of paint and supplies for the office.
In a Jan. 11, 2018, email to the Housing Authority, McKinney summarized some items that had been ordered and addressed others still needed, including faux wood vertical blinds, a pair of buffet lamps and polished chrome switch plate covers: “The blinds as they would be ordered, in Oyster (additional colors are available if Herman prefers) … once these are approved by Herman before they are ordered exact measurements will need taken to ensure the fit is perfect as they will need to be custom ordered.”
Hill stated his office remodel was a fraction of an estimated $850,000 renovation of the entire building. Work on the roof and new HVAC units is underway and ongoing. In his response, he noted thousands of people visit the building each year to meet, apply for housing, deliver documents and to interview for jobs.
He wrote the “building had peeling wallpaper, stained, stretched and ripped carpeting which created unsafe conditions for staff and visitors. A leaking roof caused damage to the ceiling tiles … SMHA carefully planned the renovations with an architect and consultant with an eye toward safety, aesthetics, cost-effectiveness, and COVID-19 best practices.”
Last month, The Canton Repository reported a story about Hill’s close involvement in the Housing Authority’s 2020 purchase of a house on 41st Street NW.
That house was immediately rented to an Orrville woman whose son had played basketball with and against Hill’s son. A short time later, the woman was hired by the Housing Authority for one of two new quality control posts that pay nearly $40,000 a year.
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A former longtime employee said she believed the house was purchased specifically for the woman. Hill denied that and said he did nothing wrong, adding he’d have done the same for a stranger.
The story prompted a handful of people to request to speak to the five-member volunteer Housing Authority board — McMasters, Roger Mann, Nenya Ross, Jeffrey McDaniels and Tim Shetzer — during its monthly meeting later that week.
Comments were largely about poor living conditions and lingering issues with maintenance.
Hill said all office renovation work, as well as the house purchase, was made with unrestricted funds. That means the dollars weren’t direct housing subsidy grants.
One example of how such unrestricted dollars are created is the agency’s legally permitted ability to charge fees for service against its funding. It internally charges fees for services to support the cost of operations — which, in effect “de-federalizes” some funding.
Hill went on to tout the Housing Authority’s investment of more than $14 million into public housing units during his eight years in charge. He said improvements have included everything from new appliances and roofs to energy conservation efforts.
He also lauded the agency’s work in preparing units for rent, as well as such larger projects as a proposed $11 million investment into Cherrie Turner Towers. And Hill referred to a 2016 study by the GPD Group, which determined the Housing Authority needs $66 million to significantly improve its public housing stock.
“This will never happen unless the federal government provides resources to make it a reality. Every public housing authority in the United States has been underfunded for the past 20 years …” he stated.
Reach Tim at 330-580-8333 or
On Twitter: @tbotosREP