New director of troubled housing authority pledges to change culture
When the former director of the state’s social services division, Ray Fitzgerald, arrived at the Wilmington Housing Authority, his first job was to improve the workplace culture and employee morale.
Fitzgerald, who worked for the Delaware Department of Health and Human Services division for 15 years, said the authority lacks leadership that supports employees but aims to change that.
“I think people like me who held this position before didn’t establish a good culture, didn’t boost morale as much as they should,” he said. “They didn’t provide structure and leadership, and that’s my goal.”
Fitzgerald also wants to create a sense of community between the housing authority and those it serves, a nod to the work done during his tenure with the State Department and a plan with which the council of commissioners of the authority can agree.
Late last year, the board ousted its executive director, John Hill, and appointed Tom Harkless interim director until a permanent leader could be found. Fitzgerald began on April 26.
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Hill was suspended in late October after the the board of directors voted “no confidence” in its management of the city’s social housing agency. Hill resigned more than a week later, the commissioners, in a prepared statement, expressing that Hill and the board had “fundamental differences” over how the agency should be run.
“I think council saw in Ray what a lot of people see in Ray,” said James Spadola, former chairman of the housing board and current Wilmington city councilor. “A great guy, a phenomenal leader, someone with a track record of success and someone who I think can really help the WHA build bridges and improve relationships.”
According to Fitzgerald’s LinkedIn profile, he became Division Director in July 2015 and began working for the Department of Health and Human Services in March 2006. His previous roles included the Chief Human Services Administrator and the deputy director of the division.
Fitzgerald led the division’s Community Partner Support Unit, which aims to build relationships in the communities it serves while helping residents find employment.
“Social services direct resources and things like that, but we weren’t seen as community partners,” Fitzgerald said. “We were just seen as the place to go to get your benefits. So what we did was create a community partner support unit, which started out very small, but has grown to almost 100 people within the DSS, whose job is to go out into the community, building partnerships, recruiting employers to hire our clients and things like that. “
This approach is something he wants to replicate at the Wilmington Housing Authority, Fitzgerald said. This would increase the authority’s community footprint while showing residents that they are “credible and reliable and that we take care of our properties,” he said.
The eviction of the housing authority’s last director, Hill, came days after a meeting with residents of the high-rise Park View Apartments. The meeting was organized by activists and New Castle County Director Matt Meyer to get residents to voice their complaints about the construction conditions, but it ended with a brawl and a WHA official, as well. a resident and housing activist, accused of offensive touching.
While reports at the time indicated that former Authority director MaryAnn Ross – who led the agency from 1984 to 1989 – would review the organization’s operations and building conditions, Fitzgerald said she had mainly updated policies and procedures and trained employees to ensure proper certification.
The approximately 150 occupied units of the authority are regularly serviced, but over the years several smaller, unoccupied buildings have fallen into disuse, Fitzgerald said.
The agency owns about 40 buildings across town that are vacant and in need of attention, but over the years the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has cut funding to housing authorities for maintenance and repairs. capital improvements. This forced public entities to get creative, partnering with private developers and nonprofits to fund development and maintenance improvements.
“I hope that with some of the city and state partnerships and some of our own money, our goal is to put a blitz on these and fix them ASAP,” he said. he declares.
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The Wilmington Housing Authority receives about $ 4.5 million per year from the federal capital improvement agency, which is 15% of the authority’s annual budget of $ 30 million.
While Fitzgerald does not have extensive experience working in affordable or public housing entities, his organizational leadership and customer service skills are critical to the transformation of the Wilmington Housing Authority, the chairman of the board said. , Matthew Heckles.
Public housing authorities across the country must adapt to the change in funding at the federal level, said Heckles, which has cost less dollars each year for anything – from maintaining current properties to developing new ones. housing opportunities.
“They not only have to be a good public housing authority, but they also have to turn into something good,” he said, adding that Fitzgerald’s skills are advantageous as the housing authority changes d ‘approach. “It could be property management, development, support services, higher mission goals.”
With some of the authority’s buildings vacant in economically struggling neighborhoods, a return on investment will not be easy or quick. A building valued at $ 80,000 could require double that cost in repairs, but will be valued at a fraction of what was spent on improvements.
Partnering with private entities allows the housing authority to access grants and other sources of funding that would otherwise be prohibited from tapping, Fitzgerald said.
One public-private partnership currently underway is Riverside’s multiphase development in the northeast section of Wilmington, which is expected to have eight phases and Fitzgerald describes it as – when completed – a “new community”. It will provide affordable and market-rate housing options, as well as homeownership opportunities, Fitzgerald said.
It also plans to transform the authority’s vacant buildings into transitional housing while its vacant lots could be built.
“What I also want to do is build some duplexes to help make it a bit more profitable,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of them are probably not profitable to build for an investor, but for the government – the government can and should do it. “
Do you have any advice? Contact Amanda Fries at [email protected] or 302-598-5507. Follow her on Twitter @mandy_fries.