Guttenberg public housing investigated

Executive director, two tenants own shore house together

The ownership of a $770,000 Jersey shore home by the Guttenberg Housing Authority’s executive director, assistant director, and housing manager – at least two of whom also live in Guttenberg’s federally subsidized affordable housing – has led to questions from the public and has resulted in the agency’s attorney asking an auditor to review the issue, officials confirmed last week.
The North Bergen Reporter, along with Guttenberg Mayor Gerald Drasheff, the Town Council, and the Police Department received a package last week from an anonymous person who outlined several complaints against the GHA, including the fact that three high-ranking employees purchased a Monmouth County home together last summer, even though two of them are tenants of the federally assisted low- and moderate-income housing run by the GHA.
“I do not know the rules that well, but whatever they are, they should be adhered to,” said Drasheff last week. “I’m a little bit surprised if this is a federal program, federal money, and it’s a federal subsidy [and] that there aren’t more detailed audits done by the feds.”
According a deed on the Monmouth Beach, N.J. house, GHA Executive Director Barbara Criscione, Assistant Director Maryann Morro, and Housing Manager Fatima Becerril purchased the $770,000 property at 3 Riverdale Ave. on June 26, 2008.
That same day, they signed a mortgage with Wells Fargo Bank for $738,412, apparently placing a $31,588 down payment on the home. Both of these documents are available via Monmouth County’s open public records search on the web.
For 2009, $8986 worth of taxes will be paid for the property, according to tax records.
The GHA is one of dozens of agencies in New Jersey towns that are entrusted by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development to manage federally subsidized low-income and moderate-income housing. The individual housing agencies report back to HUD.
Often known as “the projects,” these units tend to have income guidelines, are meant to provide stable housing for the poor, and are partly subsidized by federal tax dollars.

Moved out

According to Mayor Gerald Drasheff and another town source who preferred to remain anonymous, Criscione lived in public housing a number of years ago before moving into the pricey Galaxy Apartments in Guttenberg with her husband Frank, who stepped down from his seat on the Town Council last year after missing more than six months of meetings. Frank is also a former GHA commissioner.
Housing advocate Telissa Dowling, who is now a Jersey City resident but who lived in Guttenberg’s low-income housing buildings from 1996 to 2006, said that Criscione has been an employee of the GHA for around 27 years, beginning as a bilingual clerk. Dowling said she went before Congress in her capacity as a housing advocate and spoke out against Criscione living in federally-assisted housing while Criscione was making $90,000 and paying (according to Dowling) $500 rent.
Dowling said she was an employee of the GHA office before being let go in 2000 by Criscione for not having enough “bilingual” skills.
Criscione, as well as Morro and Becerril, did not return phone calls last week. An employee at the GHA said, after an inquiry by the reporter, “None of them are in the office and I don’t think they care about the story.”
One employee said that Morro is still a housing authority employee, even though Drasheff said that he attended her retirement party last year. Drasheff believes that Becerril is now the assistant director.
A phone call to Guttenberg Housing Authority Attorney Terrence Corriston of Breslin & Breslin of Hackensack was not returned last week. However, apparently some action is being taken. Drasheff said that Corriston told him that he met with the GHA board and the involved members, did a preliminary investigation, and sent the information out to a “special auditor” for review.

Public housing

According to two sources, as well as various websites and visits from the reporter to their apartments to check the names on the buzzers, both Becerril and Morro have lived in federally assisted housing for some time now. Becerril is a tenant of the affordable building at 6900 Broadway, while Morro lives in Guttenberg’s senior housing building at 7005 J.F.K. Boulevard East.
Dowling said that Becerril moved out of housing for a short period of time to Bergen County, before returning to the GHA. She said that Morro moved into senior housing around 1998 after her mother died.

Income eligibility

In order to qualify for federally assisted public housing in the United States, the individual(s) must meet income limits, among other criteria. Each housing authority’s rules and regulations are different depending on population and median incomes of the area, so it is not necessarily illegal to continue living in the housing if one has other assets.
However, income increases may affect the rent one pays, and one’s eligibility to stay in the housing, depending on the situation.
Therefore, the purchase of the home may not be illegal if it was reported properly – but some are asking if it was indeed reported, and whether it is ethical for a housing employee to purchase property with two of her subordinates and tenants.
According to HUD’s 2009 overall income limit summary for Hudson County on HUD’s website, a single person living in HUD’s low-income or senior housing should not earn more than $39,850 a year. For two people the limit is $45,500, and for four people the limit is $56,900.
In neighboring North Bergen, the maximum incomes allowed for that town’s senior and low-income housing are $35,900 for one person, $41,000 for two people, and $46,150 for three people.
Guttenberg’s exact cutoffs and the rules for the GHA housing could not be obtained last week because the GHA attorney did not respond and HUD’s Newark branch requested that a Freedom of Information Act form be filled out to get the information. The request may take at least 20 days to be processed.
However, according to HUD, rent is determined by several factors, including businesses owned by tenants and any interest or net income from real or personal property.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, rent should be the highest of the following options: 30 percent of the family’s monthly adjusted income, 10 percent of the family’s monthly income, an amount related to a welfare supplement received, or various minimum rents set by the government.
Dowling said that if 30 percent of a tenant’s income limits reaches the market rate housing limit, then according to HUD standards, they legally should not be living in a public housing agency.
Dowling said that she left housing because it was deemed that she could afford market rate housing around 2006.

High incomes

The 2006 state employee salary database compiled by a local newspaper had Criscione earning a $132,672 salary, while Morro was at $72,267 and Becerril was at $62,229.
According to the Asbury Park Press’s public official salary search, Criscione allegedly earned $157,169 in 2008.
It is not known if the Guttenberg Housing Authority Board knew about the purchase of the Monmouth Beach home.
There is also a question of whether it is considered ethical for two lower-ranking employees to partner with Criscione on the purchase of a home.


“They should be out immediately…they can afford to live out of public housing.” – Telissa Dowling

Dowling said public housing authorities hire their tenants because it is in keeping with HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Section 3 policy, which states that HUD’s “economic opportunities will be given to Section 3 residents and businesses in the area.” However, Dowling said that it is often really for personal gain.
“They [live in public housing] because it’s cheaper,” said Dowling. “They should be out immediately…they can afford to live out of public housing.”
According to HUD’s website, public housing tenants are supposed to disclose any changes to their income through re-examinations.
“[I may have the] inclination to send it to the internal investigator of HUD … depending on what the auditor finds,” Drasheff said.
The Hudson Reporter sent a Freedom of Information Act request last week to the U.S. Department of Housing and Development for Guttenberg’s tenant regulations, up-to-date salaries, attendance records at board meetings, and other documents.
Drasheff said that Becerril was on vacation last week.

Drasheff concerned

Drasheff, who became a councilman in 2002 before becoming mayor last year, said he remembered former Mayor David Delle Donna appointing about four people to GHA Board of Commissioners, a volunteer board that oversees the paid directors of the agency.
Drasheff said one appointment was made when Frank Criscione stepped down as a housing commissioner.
“[I didn’t question it] at the time the appointments were made,” said Drasheff. “If these were things that board members were either not aware of or should have been aware of and there is something that is here that isn’t legal, then the board members have to be accountable.”
Tricia Tirella may be reached at

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