During calendar year 2013, CHA collected $4.17 million in rent from public housing residents.
Here is a year-by-year look at how much rent and other fees that the Chattanooga Housing Authority has written off as uncollectible. The amount listed is rent plus associated charges such as legal fees, late charges, unpaid maintenance charges and utility charges.
2009 - $168,244.39
2010 - $237,783.99
2011 - $200,784.09
2012 - $242,416.56
Over the past five years, the Chattanooga Housing Authority has written off more than $1 million in uncollectible rent and associated costs.
The loss of money owed by former public housing tenants who either moved out owing back rent or who were evicted for not paying their rent is a perennial problem.
That's money that can't be put toward repairs of public housing units or addressing other needs in a time of shrinking federal dollars for that purpose.
But several measures have been put in place that, for the first time in at least five years, allowed CHA to collect more in unpaid rent and other fees in the first quarter than it wrote off.
• In June 2012, CHA hired an in-house attorney who is credited with recovering rental fees faster and expediting evictions for nonpayment and other reasons.
• The housing agency has cut in half the time it allows residents to pay off back rent. Previously, residents were allowed two years. As of April 30, 120 out of 1,919 public housing residents were 30 days or more behind, a delinquency rate of about 6.3 percent. That's fewer than half the 284 residents who were delinquent on rent at the same point in 2013.
• Overall, CHA has adopted a more aggressive approach to collecting rent, said CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright. Housing officials now knock on residents' doors to remind tenants of rent payments. Those who don't pay are closely monitored and the eviction process starts after the second month of nonpayment.
From 2009 to 2013, CHA charged off a total of $1.05 million in rents and other fees, an average of about $200,000 per year, or $50,000 per quarter.
But rent write-offs shrank last year, falling from $242,416 in 2012 to $207,153. And this year's first quarter showed the greatest improvement thus far, with CHA charging off only $28,869 and collecting $29,598.
More than two dozen people at CHA's latest board meeting applauded when Chief Financial Officer Philippe Lindsay announced CHA's charge-off status.
McCright said the improvement is "incredibly significant."
"If CHA does not collect these funds, it would not have sufficient funds to operate and continue to serve the low- and moderate-income population of Chattanooga," she said.
The need for tenants to meet their financial obligation is not lost on residents.
By all means collect the rent, said 10-year public housing resident Theodore Cooper.
"People should pay rent," said Cooper, 62. "Have a meeting and tell them if you're late, you've got to pay or you've got to go."
Use the money to paint the building and better insulate the windows at Boynton Terrace Apartments, he said.
"They leak air and when it rains, water runs down the side of the wall," said Cooper, parliamentarian with the Boynton resident council.
Don't let people go eight months and not collect rent, he said. That's when they just leave the apartment and don't come back because they're so far in the hole they can't get out. After two or three months, somebody needs to check on them, he said.
"Some people pay $50 and they get a roof over head, lights and running water," said Cooper. "You can't beat that."
The agency's secret weapon for collections is Lee Danley, the housing authority's in-house attorney.
CHA hired Danley after being handed a substandard score with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees public housing nationwide. Since he's been on staff, CHA's management score has improved from 13 in 2011 to 17, which meets HUD standards.
CHA has averaged 10 to 15 evictions a month since Danley has been on staff. In 2010, prior to bringing the collection/eviction process in-house, CHA ordered 174 evictions. About 115 of those were for nonpayment of rent.
"Before I came on CHA only collected about 15 to 20 percent of the money from vacated tenant accounts," said Danley. "In 2013 we collected about 30 percent and increased the first quarter 2014 collections by over 50 percent."
Charge-off money is hard to collect because people who owe it no longer live in public housing, he said.
But they can be motivated to pay off their back rent when they need a housing voucher or want to live in public housing again. They must pay their debt to the housing authority before returning to public housing or getting a voucher.
"I don't think there has ever been a quarter where the funds recovered are larger than the write-off," said Danley, referring to collections in the first quarter of 2014. "It wasn't by much this quarter, not even a thousand dollars, but if you look overall it's headed in the right direction."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 757-6431.