Every December, rent collections fall off at the Chattanooga Housing Authority.
Betsy McCright, the CHA's executive director, understands why.
"Life happens and parents want to buy their kids Christmas gifts," she said.
But the day when the CHA could allow its public housing residents to get by and pay their back rent in January has passed, she said.
This year, if rent isn't paid by the end of December, the eviction process will start in January.
About 2,571 residents live in the city's public housing. Most pay rent ranging from $50 to a third of their income.
Unpaid rent is a perennial problem for the agency. In the first quarter of 2012 alone, CHA officials wrote off $66,112 in unpaid tenant accounts, records show. Further figures were not available, CHA officials said.
Often when people skip rent in December, they will plead and say they'll make it up when they get their tax return in the first quarter of the year, McCright said.
Nonpayment or even late payment puts the housing authority in a bind, though, and one that has gotten worse of late.
The authority must show records of its accounts receivables to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Dec. 31. The federal agency uses that information to determine a score for CHA's management operations.
In 2012 CHA's management score was 14 of 25, one point under the minimum standard, because the authority did not collect rent in a manner consistent with HUD directives. The low score puts CHA at a disadvantage for receiving HUD funding.
CHA officials are determined to score better this year.
"The bottom line is that things are changing. HUD is really putting it on us to collect rent and make sure that we're running a good business," said McCright.
The housing authority is asking housing managers to be "very, very aggressive" about knocking on doors and explaining to residents the importance of paying rent, even in December.
Joe Clark, vice president of the Boynton resident association council, said he agrees that residents should pay rent, but he said the housing authority should do more to help them earn income.
"Get the people with the families and send them to barber college or cooking school. Put something together for the people," he said. "Every time you look around somebody from central office is going to training, but you don't bring anything back to the people."
He suggested the housing authority implement a job training program and offer GED classes at the old James A. Henry School on Grove Street near the largest housing site, College Hill Courts.
CHA board Chairman Eddie Holmes said the housing agency wants to help residents, but also has a responsibility to collect rent.
The agency has started getting people to court for eviction sooner, "but the judge has a reluctancy to evict people," he said.
He said the agency will work toward developing a better relationship with the judge and explaining its goal of being able to collect rent.
McCright said CHA also considered changing the end of its fiscal year to a month other than December, but that was too hard. And the agency contemplated an incentive program in December 2012, such as allowing residents who paid their rent on time to be eligible for a lottery gift card drawing, but HUD nixed the idea.
"We floated that balloon and it got rejected," McCright said.
CHA also hired in-house attorney Lee Danley in 2012 to see that the authority loses less money in unpaid rent and spends less time on evictions.
Write-offs through October 2013 are about 25 percent less than they were through October 2012, according to CHA records.
"Right now we're being very aggressive in order to score the number of points we need to be a standard performer with HUD," said McCright. "Without that we don't get all the funding we need to run the program."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 757-6431.