Following a CAPER

Last week, the City of Knoxville released a draft of its annual housing report, the Consolidated Annual Performance Evaluation Report, or CAPER. This document details how the city spent a little more than $5 million in grant funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to build, rehab, and repair homes, apartments, and other facilities for low- and moderate-income people, the homeless, and disabled over the program year ending June 30, 2009. The draft will be available to the public for comment and questions until Sept. 30, when it gets finalized and submitted to HUD for review.

But before you dim the lights, slip into something more comfortable, and head to the city's website for that PDF, there are a few things you ought to know first: Namely, attempting to actually understand the report is a Sisyphean task that will yield little but confusion and frustration. And that's pretty much how it's supposed to be.

This report is meant to be a record of how housing funds were spent in the 2008-09 program year (which ends in June). Each May the city lays out its various goals for the number and type of projects it hopes to complete in the coming year and how much money it will need to complete them. Then, in September, it issues CAPER, its report card on how those goals were or were not met.

In this year's report, the very first goal listed was to rehabilitate or replace 25 owner-occupied homes. Just 17 were actually completed, or about 70 percent of the target. The report does note that 11 are in the process of being rehabbed for the 2009-10 program year, but including those numbers somewhat negates the idea of a yearly goal.

Further down, another: the city hoped to rehabilitate or construct 12 housing units for sale or rent to low- to moderate-income households. How many did it complete? Two.

Stepping back, of the roughly $5 million set aside for the 2008-09 program year, according to this report the city only spent about $3.7 million. So it looks like the city left about $1.3 million on the table that could have gone to any number of initiatives to help the poor and lower middle class.

So what's going on?

Madeline Rogero, Knoxville's director of community development, says a number of issues are at work to make this report mostly useless in obtaining anything resembling a comprehensive understanding of what her department and the city have achieved.

For one, goals are routinely missed and shouldn't be given the weight of, say, "goals." That's because they're estimates based on an average cost of a past project before any actual, real-world projects are applied for, appraised, and begun. Once projects do begin, the parties involved are subject to the same frustrations as anyone else who has ever tried to build or renovate his or her home: cost overruns and/or delays that absorb more resources than the cold calculations of foresight assume.

So why have targets at all? Rogero says they show HUD the city is moving in a certain direction and what sort of headway it's making.

"[The estimate] is a best guess, not an absolute," Rogero says. "HUD wants to see you're making progress, and if not, how come?"

But another factor is also at work. This year Knoxville's Empowerment Zone funding will expire after a 10-year run. Empowerment Zones, or EZs, were a President Clinton initiative begun in 1994 and expanded to include Knoxville and 14 other urban areas in 1999 in what's known as a Round II Empowerment Zone. Under this plan, Knoxville was to receive $100 million for rebuilding urban neighborhoods and supporting local development; however, Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, divided that allocation by four to $25 million, and in doing so at least quartered the project's ambitions. (Earlier this year, Joe Tarr looked into the success and failure of the EZs for Metro Pulse and found that one of the principal criticisms of the program was that EZ funds weren't deployed quickly enough into the communities that needed them.)

Still, a quarter of a loaf is better than none, especially when someone wants it back. So as the decade draws to a close, there's been a rush by the city to spend the EZ funds before they're swallowed back into the bowels of the federal budget.

Meanwhile, what wasn't spent this year in HUD grants will roll over to next year. In fact, Rogero says of the annual HUD allocations that it's "basically impossible to spend all your money each year." The confusion in the CAPER comes because projects funded by different sources can't be listed in the same report, and with more projects being funded by EZ money, the statistics in the report look worse than they actually are.

In essence, presented a choice between turning in an incomplete, confusing report and losing millions in funding, the city chose the former.

Rogero acknowledges that this report isn't exactly essential reading for citizens. "It's strictly a required document that we need to submit, and we welcome whoever can labor through it to respond," she says. "But it's not comprehensive and doesn't show totality of the things we do.... Where citizens have more interest is in the planning process," which typically occurs in December.

As if to prove this point, as Metro Pulse went to print, the only citizen to pose a comment or question was a lowly staff writer, obviously new to his beat.