Monday, September 25, 2023

Amid financial crunch, WHA makes cuts, streamlines operations

Wilmington Housing Authority director Tyrone Garrett (middle) discusses his new strategies at a board meeting last week, with input from new CFO Kineth Darboe (right). (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

WILMINGTON — The humanitarian crisis facing some Wilmington Housing Authority residents, snowballed by the agency’s financial issues, is one executive director Tyrone Garrett said he hopes to never face again.

Over the last year and a half, nearly 400 WHA tenants — 150-plus families — have been living in hotels after mold was found rampantly spreading in their homes in 2019. Funding hotel rooms and food stipends, while also addressing the environmental health concerns of nearly 200 units, quickly depleted WHA’s bank account. 

READ MORE: 8 months without leadership, WHA hires director to tackle tough issues

ALSO: City, county to temporarily bail out housing authority

Adding to WHA’s financial burden, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reneged in March on its approval to use federal capital funds to cover housing and per diem costs, causing the authority to dip into its non-federal funds, reported in March at only $250,000.

WHA is funded almost solely by federal money.

On the job for two months, the new executive director — filling a months-long leadership vacancy —  is spearheading initiatives to rebuild WHA’s funds and is implementing strategies to ensure the authority stays on track in the future. He has deployed initiatives he oversaw in past housing authority positions while serving in Washington D.C. and New Jersey.

“First of all, I have a CFO in place,” he explained.

Garrett said a top priority was securing that position, as prior CFO Kim Fitzwater retired in early May after serving for six years. 

Kinteh Darboe, a former director of finance and administration at Wake County Housing Authority for the last 14 years, accepted the position on Garrett’s first day, May 16. Garrett said Darboe’s role “creates some stability.”

“One of his performance measures in his action plan is to get WHA on stable footing,” he said.

According to administrative manager Julia Shaw, the authority did not incur financial trouble until the organization began doling out millions of dollars on housing and everyday costs for displaced families over the last 18 months.

So far Darboe has taken control of the annual budget revenue and spending to “stop any leakages,” he said. He also helped secure funding to cover displaced families’ hotel stays through a county program and he is looking to recoup money from overdue rent payments across WHA housing. 

Property managers are working to assist with payment plans for rent in arrears. Depending on the amount owed, residents are being offered a three-month or six-month payback plan, with a 10% down payment required up front.

WHA reports a current collection rate of roughly 50%. Moving forward, Garrett said he’s working to ensure 80% of rent is collected within the first two weeks of each month.

In a less popular move to defray expenditures, on July 1 WHA cut per diems paid out to the 150 displaced families by half, now $30 per day for adults and anywhere from $3.75 to $15 for children. It had been running WHA nearly $300,000 per week. In a letter to intergovernmental affairs manager Tim Buckland, WHA reported spending $2.7 million between April 2020 and February 2021 on hotels and per diem costs alone.

The county’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program stepped in to help WHA offset hotel costs. Payments began funneling in after applications closed July 8.

So far 142 displaced families have applied and are eligible for the funding assistance, taking the burden off WHA of over $280,000 per week. The 10 not eligible — due to not wanting to provide personal information or were unreachable — will continue to have their housing costs subsidized by WHA, which is close to $20,000.

“Being able to come down from 150 to 10, is a good tradeoff right now,” Garrett said. “I’ll take it. It’s more than I anticipated to be honest.”

Darboe is working to seek financial support through HUD grants, state and local governments and other sources.

In February, WHA applied for a nearly $13-million emergency grant from HUD to cover at least six months of financials. It’s yet to see the funds, as the application has been returned multiple times and re-routed, according to previous PCD reporting

Just last month WHA received a $1.65-million loan from both city and county governments to cover capital improvements. The two entities also this month offered resolutions of support for WHA to apply for a $3-million N.C. Recovery and Resiliency grant. If awarded, it will help rebuild 31 units taken down to the studs.

Darboe, Garrett and the WHA board have worked to find ways to cut back spending further. Prior to Garrett stepping in, WHA’s board estimated the rehabilitation of 109 units could cost up to $80,000 each. That number has dropped significantly to $25,000 per unit, as Garrett said less extensive work was needed on many and crews will only focus on essentials.

Garrett said he is already working on a plan to ensure unit inspections will be done more frequently to “get ahead” of any issues in the future.

Before displaced residents move back home — 13 by next week — every unit will be inspected. Apartments will then be examined again six months later, and a third inspection will be completed four months later, in preparation for HUD’s annual inspections. 

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, when inspections were halted entirely, WHA did bi-annual check-ins of its facilities. Consistency will help WHA get “back on track,” Garrett added.

As units become vacant in the future, Garrett is requiring they be turned around for new tenants within 13 days.

To ensure that timeframe is doable, WHA has launched a strategy to streamline its work-order process. Garrett is requiring a seven-day average turn-order for reported issues. If it can’t be completed that quickly, residents are to be contacted and told why.

A new work order administrator position has been created and is dedicated strictly to tracking work orders and making sure they are followed through timely.

“If there was a timeframe [before], I don’t know,” he said. “Now, someone is paying attention to it.”

There were 556 work orders reported in May and over 700 that are backlogged due to the Covid-19 virus, many being minor fixes, such as changing out a light bulb, Garrett said. He tasked his roughly 15-person maintenance team with coming up with a plan to tackle the log-jammed orders, prioritizing them by age. 

The work order administrator reports progress to the board, ensuring “more accountability,” according to Shaw.

The authority also hired a VP of maintenance operations, a new position.

Garrett said emergency orders — no heat or air conditioning under extreme outdoor temperatures, major plumbing or flooding, electrical problems that could result in shock or fire, no hot water, failure of appliances, natural gas leaks, waterlogged ceiling, or lack of a functioning toilet — are all handled within 24 hours.

Residents will be selected at random to fill out a quality control survey to provide feedback on the efficiency at which a work order is fulfilled.

New approaches to WHA’s operations are just a small piece of Garrett’s recurring 90-day action plans, intended to continually set clear goals and ensure accountability across every department — human resources, housing choice voucher, property management, finance, IT, resident services and executive.

“Some might think [the plans] are boring, but it actually allows us to have tangibles to look at and review,” Garrett said.

He also created a manager’s manual to keep leadership in check. It lays out daily, weekly and monthly areas of responsibility. The document is a rough outline of Garrett’s expectations.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but we’re going to run with it and if we need to make changes or tweaks, we can do that,” he said.

The idea is to create regularity for employees and to be used for training, which has ramped up. Garrett said about his five property managers and assistants oversee operations of WHA’s 10 complexes.

Garrett developed visual representations for WHA’s data to present tangible ways to track progress for the city, the county and HUD.

“My idea is hopefully by the end of the year, this is all in the rearview mirror and we’ll start talking about some other things,” Garrett said.

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