WILMINGTON — Downtown at the Hannah Block USO and community center Wednesday morning, Wilmington Housing Authority introduced its newest leader after almost a year of flailing guidance.
Executive director Tyrone Garrett told media he will serve as the “vulnerable communities’ greatest advocate and champion.” A New Jersey native, Garrett’s passion for public housing ignited during his time at Rutgers Law School.
“No matter how much I say maybe there’s something else I want to do with my career and move in a different direction, I always feel the need to come back to affordable housing,” Garrett told Port City Daily.
Twenty years of experience is guiding his course of action: strong leadership, transparency and a strategic plan, he said.
Garrett has a long road ahead in his new role. He is starting May 16 amidst the displacement of hundreds of people due to a mold crisis that has plagued WHA’s neighborhoods for at least four years.
As of this week, there are still 141 families (378 individuals) displaced from their homes. Many are living in hotels — and receiving daily food stipends — at WHA’s expense: $6,000 per week, per family for lodging and a $61 food stipend per day per individual. Some have found temporary apartments, as WHA works with contractors to remediate the issues and rebuild units.
“Wilmington isn’t unique,” Garrett said. “Housing authorities across the country are going through similar situations and circumstances, just based on the age of the housing stock and lack of capital funding throughout the years.”
Garrett began his career working with a clinic that dealt with affordable housing for nonprofits. Rather than practice law, he used his legal expertise to impact public housing in 2002 with New Jersey’s Housing Authority of the City of Long Branch. During his first day on the job, he was facing coal tar contamination in units, which displaced residents. He worked to tear down 1930s buildings, remediate where possible and strengthen the infrastructure.
Within his first few years as executive director in Long Branch, Garrett received a $20-million HUD grant and Tax Credit Awards totaling over $72 million. He used the money to build 429 rental units, multiple home ownership units and a community center.
“I left there doing a lot of positive things in the community and created an opportunity for entrepreneurial revenue for the housing authority during a time when they were making all these [funding] cuts,” Garrett said.
Most recently, Garrett served as chief executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority for four years. While there, he was up against lead contamination and additional environmental concerns across 4,000 housing units.
By creating what he called a “strategic transformation plan,” he spearheaded a $2-billion strategy to preserve, stabilize and redevelop the housing authority’s portfolio.
“When you’re a public servant, the community wants to see action but also take accountability for when you’re tasked with something,” Garrett said. “They want to see you recognize and understand the responsibility, not to shirk it, but to meet it head on and move forward.”
Garrett’s goal in Wilmington is to implement a 90-day action plan for how to move forward. He said he will initiate monthly resident engagement sessions and hold the authority accountable to performance standards.
“I’m going to take bits and pieces of everywhere I’ve been, projects I’ve worked on, engagements I’ve had and try to mesh them together to get some things started here and make a strong organization and agency that is sustainable into the future,” he said.
Garrett knows more affordable housing options are a must, with WHA’s lengthy waiting list. But his first order of business is to return displaced residents to their homes as quickly as possible.
“I don’t have the nuts and bolts, I apologize, but it has been keeping me up at night trying to develop exactly what the plan needs to be and who we need to engage,” Garrett said.
Garrett said the key to rebuilding community trust is constant communication and improving the quality of life for WHA residents. He will lead a staff of 60 and oversee all of the housing authority’s operations, including public housing, the Housing Choice Voucher program, real estate development and financial operations. He will also act as the liaison with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
WHA applied for a $13-million emergency grant from HUD last month to expedite the remediation and rebuilding process. Mayor Bill Saffo and city councilors visited Washington to appeal to officials. While the amount of funding HUD will provide is still pending, the federal agency did increase the subsidies of WHA’s Housing Choice Voucher Program to 120% of market value.
In terms of additional funding, Garrett said he will leverage the housing authority’s current capital funds and assets to advance future projects. As of March 24, WHA had $5 million in operating reserves. Garrett has his eye on outside financing sources, including private foundations, to help promote new initiatives.
“We cannot create a house on a weak foundation,” he said. “We need to ensure the foundation of WHA is solid before we start talking about other endeavors.”
The WHA Board of Commissioners approved Garrett’s appointment Tuesday during its monthly meeting. An interim director and a staff of volunteer board members has filled the void since former director Katrina Redmon left in August.
WHA — the first housing authority established in the state — is a quasi-government agency, created by the municipality, regulated by the state and funded by the federal government. Most individuals living in WHA units make less than 30% of the average median income.
“This is where I feel the most comfortable and where I feel the most effective too,” Garrett said. “It’s very important to me and has been for some time.”
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