Despite Challenges, Low-Income Housing Agency Hopeful In Creating Homeowners

Cover Story photo

June CoverBy Richard L. Williams

On a recent Thursday morning in the executive suite of the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem in the Loewy Building downtown, the authority’s chief executive, Larry C. Woods, had to be prompted by staffers to don a jacket and tie for a photo shoot.

He’s much more comfortable in an open collar, shirt sleeves rolled up.

On this day, however, the persistence of Wood’s administrative assistant, Darlie Dudley, and Alisa Quick, the authority’s director of human resources and public relations, won out.

While Woods’ casual attire may seem calculated to better relate to the blue-collar, working-class residents who live in the city’s 1,200 public-housing units, he is anything but pretentious.

He’d rather utilize those few minutes it takes to assemble a necktie or affix a sports coat to develop strategies and tactics to make homeowners out of chronic public-housing renters and help reduce their dependency on government subsidies. That’s exactly what he’s been doing since he arrived in Winston-Salem in 2006.

Woods inherited an agency embroiled in financial and public perception crises. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had taken control of and was micromanaging the agency by pre-approving any major spending. The federal agency found its actions necessary because of fiscal mismanagement prior to Woods’ arrival. In short order, however, a representative of HUD’s Greensboro office told the authority’s board of directors that the agency was on strong financial footing, going so far to say that Woods was the best chief executive among those in his Carolinas region.

 

Not Business As Usual

 

“Initially, our goals and objectives were to right the ship,” Woods says. “Coming in, we were in financial turmoil and there were a lot of other problems. So our first goal was to operate the ship once we got it back upright.”

Once the agency was stabilized, Woods and his team knew early on that business as usual was not an option since he was privy that HUD was in the process of reducing funding for subsidized housing.

“We decided that we needed to figure out a way to continue to provide affordable housing and depend less on federal subsidy,” he says. “So we developed second and third income streams.”

Currently, the housing authority has expanded its business model from not only providing public housing to low-income residents, but to sell, own, rent or lease market-rate housing. The agency also has an affiliated company, Imperial Property Management, which manages private properties for a fee. The agency also is a licensed real-estate broker and a fully licensed general contractor that, because of the way the housing authority is chartered, can perform work projects for other public-housing agencies.

“The revenue stream that that produces helps support our public-housing efforts and has kept us afloat,” Woods says. “If we win the bid, we’ll make a small profit, but that (other) housing authority gets good quality work at a reduced rate.”

The Winston-Salem agency currently manages the Madison Housing Authority in Rockingham County and the Princeville Housing Authority in Edgecombe County. The town of Princeville was hit hard by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and the Winston-Salem authority is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to get funds to rebuild the town’s public-housing units that were destroyed.

For those two authorities, Woods says his agency handles most operations, including work order, staff training, financial record-keeping, procurement and lease-up evictions.

“We were able to turn those agencies around financially,” Woods says. “Our IT staff even developed a property management program in the ‘cloud’ so an authority four or five hours away could have access to their records without physically being on site. We believe we have the capacity to take on other housing authorities if they so need our services.”

Woods says his agency also has done capital projects for housing authorities in Charlotte and Gastonia.

 

Social Safety Net

 

            Despite success in some areas, the agency continues to struggle with what it terms its “social mission” – to assist residents to become self-sufficient and less dependent on federal subsidies.

“The federal deficit is real,” Woods says. “The ones who are going to get hurt are those folks on federal support – and to keep them in a dependent state is unconscionable. So we felt that part of our social mission is to help folks as much as we can to reduce their dependency upon third-party support.

“We have a homeownership program that can handle up to seventy-five clients at one time,” he adds. “They go through a rigorous set of training opportunities, including working with different banks, credit repair, and they learned about financial literacy.”

The agency also partners with organizations that can help residents get experience in some of the basic responsibilities of owning a home, such as how to cut grass, trim hedges and make minor home repairs.

Residents also have the option to live in homes not associated with public housing. The housing authority provides them with vouchers to help pay the rent. The whole idea of the housing choice voucher program, says Woods, is to give families the ability to live in stable communities without the stigma of being identified as a subsidized unit.

Woods has testified before Congress and lobbied congressional representatives on behalf of creating a social safety net to prevent families from becoming totally destitute. The whole idea of the safety net, Woods says, is once tenants are in a stable situation the next step would be for them to transition from public housing so someone else could enter the program to receive those services.

“We call that a positive exit strategy,” he says, “when someone in a safety net then extricates themselves from that net.”

The downside, he admits, is there is no requirement that puts any responsibility on the client or tenant to develop an exit strategy.

 

Challenges Persist

 

The authority recently held a ceremony along with the Winston-Salem Federal Credit Union where certificates were awarded to about a dozen residents who successfully participated in homeownership class. Woods wishes more residents would take advantage of the opportunities the agency provides. The authority has 1,200 public-housing units and 4,500 families receiving vouchers.

The agency also developed a program called PATH, People Achieving Their Highest, whose purpose is to reduce or eliminate family dependency on local, state and federal support through education and employment.

“We had zero takers,” Woods says. “The issue came back clearly that residents believe ‘If I don’t have to do it what should I do it for?’ Their housing support is not predicated upon them trying to become self-reliant.”

Woods believes that if the authority receives the Moving To Work designation from HUD, the number of public-housing renters moving on to become homeowners would increase. The program encourages heads of households with children to participate in job training, educational programs, or other programs to become economically self-sufficient.

“Moving To Work designation will give us greater flexibility in the utilization of our dollars,” Woods says. “We could carve out dollars that allow us to partner with local agencies, particularly mental health agencies and counseling agencies that will come in and do case management and work with those families.”

Moving To Work is a designation that fewer than forty authorities across the America have. Woods says Winston-Salem has sought the designation for about seven years.

“We’ve been asked to become one of those agencies but we’ve been unsuccessful,” Woods says. “We think we’ve done all that we could do.”

 

‘A Good Reputation’

 

Last year, Woods completed his second five-year contract but decided to commit to only three years in his new contract.

“I think at some point an organization needs to have fresh blood, fresh ideas, in order to move forward,” Woods says.

“If we become a Move To Work agency, I would clearly go back to the board and ask to extend my contract,” Woods says. “I think that would take us into another direction that I at least would like to try to steer the agency. Concurrently, I’d like to try to prepare someone internally to fill this office (so) it won’t be an outside stranger coming in and saying ‘I don’t like what’s being done.’ I think the direction we’re going in makes us very stable.”

The housing authority is an arm of the city of Winston-Salem, and Woods has effusive praise for Mayor Allen Joines.

“I told him when I came here that I wouldn’t do anything to embarrass the city or defame this organization. I asked him to work with me in putting together a board with a different set of skills sets that can take us to another level and we both lived up to that commitment,” Wood says. “I’m very happy about that.”

Woods arrived with a sterling resume. He has two master degrees – one in social work with an emphasis on public administration, planning and program development; the other an MBA. He has held senior posts in community revitalization in New York City and Philadelphia, and came to Winston-Salem from Wilmington, Del., where he was the deputy executive director of the housing authority.

“We have a good reputation in our industry,” says Woods, referring to his staff in Winston-Salem. “We get phone calls from Washington, D.C., from other housing authorities, and industry groups that ask our opinion on legislation; sometimes they ask for some of our … boilerplate contracts trying, to mimic what we’re doing.

“We think we’ve done a lot since we’ve been here and there’s a lot more” he says. “But I’m very pleased with where we are now.”

 

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