Jacksonville Housing Authority Commissioner Andrea Reyes is see as chair of the transition committee that will oversee the search for a new CEO for the agency. | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

Amid turmoil, Jax Housing Authority making moves

Published on February 19, 2024 at 9:05 pm

An agency that’s critical to solving the area’s housing crisis – among the most urgent problems facing the city – is taking steps to move forward after months of turbulence.

Last week, the Jacksonville Housing Authority sealed the deal on a $41 million apartment complex purchase and rehab project funded through its first-ever public bond sale. And on Friday, the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners took aim at replacing the agency’s embattled CEO.

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“New board, new year, new CEO, everything’s new,” said Commissioner Andrea Reyes, who joined the authority’s board last year and is now chairing the transition and search committee to find the agency’s new leader. “Change is hard. Yet it’s necessary, and it’s the only constant in life.”

It’s been a bumpy few months. Between multiple city probes into processes and finances, shedding a few key players in the upper echelon, an incomplete board of commissioners for at least the immediate future and an interim CEO who’s now juggling two major positions, the road for the Jacksonville Housing Authority and its board may not be smooth anytime soon. 

Late last year, at least two investigations into Jacksonville Housing Authority finances were revealed. One: the city’s Office of the Inspector General determined that the agency had “wasted” nearly $2 million in utility funds — distributed to residents with no way of tracing how they’d been spent. 

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Then, last month, three top-tier resignations occurred in rapid-fire succession: A board member, the board chair and then the CEO. 

The mayor’s office has appointed Lisa Strange Weatherby to fill one board seat. She sat in on her first meeting Friday, when the Board of Commissioners took its first steps to replace former CEO Dwayne Alexander.

Weatherby took part in the unanimous vote to conduct a national search for a new agency head as Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Dunn juggles her own job and assumes the responsibilities left by Alexander’s sudden resignation.

Jacksonville Housing Authority commissioners Lisa Strange Weatherby and Hank Rogers listen during a committee meeting Friday, just prior to voting on the next steps to secure a new CEO of the housing agency. | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

Dunn has her work cut out for herself over at least the next 60 days  — the agency just recently completed a major general revenue bond sale, the first of its kind for Jacksonville. 

The bonds deal closed Feb. 9  — one week after Dunn was made acting CEO. 

First-of-its-kind financing effort complete

On Feb. 12, the Housing Authority completed the purchase of Westwood Apartments at 1171 Lane Ave. S., off Normandy Boulevard, according to Senior Director Greg Rainey of Berkadia Central & North Florida, who led the transaction on behalf of the seller, California-based Interwest Capital. 

Basically, the authority is incurring long-term debt to buy and renovate the complex, and will pay that debt back over time through rents from that apartment complex, as well as other Housing Authority revenue.

“We are now focused on renovating Westwood Apartments and fulfilling our mission of delivering affordable, safe and clean housing for the citizens of Jacksonville,” Board Vice Chair Heather Horovitz said. 

The agency touted the deal as a new financing option it would like to pursue more in the future. 

“This really is a momentous occasion for the Jacksonville Housing Authority,” Horovitz stated in a news release from the agency heralding the bond sale. “Issuing bonds is an innovative way for us to finance our mission, which is to provide much-needed affordable housing for the city’s low- and moderate-income residents.”

The agency said the bond issuance “marks a significant milestone in our mission to address the housing crisis gripping Jacksonville.” 

The mayor said it was a good project.

“It is one of my administration’s top priorities to address Jacksonville’s housing crisis,” Mayor Donna Deegan said in a statement. “As we launch new programs and implement new strategies to tackle this challenge on all fronts, we welcome projects like this one that will increase the supply of affordable housing within our community.”

Joshua Hicks, the city of Jacksonville’s affordable housing director, stressed that it is vitally important to increase housing inventory in Jacksonville. 

“Repairing and rehabilitating existing properties is one of the key tactics to reach that goal as quickly as possible,” Hicks said in the press statement.

The Housing Authority and its development partner, The Integral Group of Atlanta, are expected to make significant repairs and updates to heating and air conditioner units, appliances, flooring, stairways, roofing and the pool at the Westside complex. Once work is completed, the Housing Authority will manage the property. About 82% of the units will be rented to individuals or families earning less than 80% of the average median income in the Jacksonville area, and the balance of the units will be rented to those earning less than 140% of the average median income.

Prior concerns dismissed

Even amid revelations that the city’s Office of Inspector General was looking into agency finances, board members have diplomatically discussed concerns about leadership, transparency, communications and cooperation since at least November. But it wasn’t until January that there was a ton of movement.

On Jan. 19, board member Andre Green resigned, giving no reason for his departure. On Jan. 24, board chair Christopher Walker resigned, citing an “opportunity that would present a conflict of interest.” Then, at a board meeting on Jan. 29 — after previously and adamantly stating he aimed to remain in his position — Alexander gave notice to resign, stating he was being “pushed out” by the mayor’s office, an assertion the mayor has denied. 

Dwayne Alexander stands outside the entrance to the Jacksonville Housing Authority, which he resigned from recently. The agency is on the hunt for a new CEO. | Jacksonville Today, Casmira Harrison
Dwayne Alexander before he resigned as president and CEO. | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

Just prior to the turnover, in a Jan. 12 email to board members, staff and other team members associated with the Westwood Apartments bond acquisition, and obtained through a public records request by Jacksonville Today, Walker expressed his “profound dissatisfaction,” going on to say he had concerns about leadership and coordination, “lack of direction” and lack of “clarity about responsibilities.” 

Walker also expressed significant concerns over how the agency and its partners were coming along on the bond deal — specifically the financial disclosure documents that would be released to investors just before the bonds went on sale to the public.

“One glaring issue is the absence of the Jacksonville Housing Authority’s financial information, a critical component that should have been included from the outset. This omission not only reflects poorly on our due diligence process but also potentially undermines the confidence of our stakeholders and bond investors,” Walker wrote. “It is evident that there is a significant lack of direction and clarity about responsibilities, which I believe the board will agree is deeply concerning. We must address these issues immediately to ensure the integrity and success of this bond issuance… This deal is a positive and influential step in the Housing Authority’s mission. Based on what I have seen, this is still a very good opportunity for the HA. With all the efforts, costs, fees, and expenses, failure at this late stage is not an option.”

The sale of the 256-unit apartment complex on more than 25 acres in West Jacksonville was set to close just one month later, on Feb. 12. It did, just days after the bond offering raised enough investor funding for the purchase and rehab.

Walker did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Jacksonville Today reached out to Horovitz, vice chair of the board, who took the reins after Walker’s departure. Asked whether she had similar concerns at the time and whether Walker’s concerns were sufficiently resolved, Horovitz said Walker’s concerns were the product of a “very early draft” of the bond documents, and that the final outcome is what matters.

“The process of structuring and closing a bond deal involves much back and forth of information and details,” Horovitz responded in an email. “In the end, it’s the final preliminary official statement that matters — which was unanimously approved by the JHA Board and signed-off on by JHA staff.”

What next?

For now, the main focus of the Housing Authority Board is to get someone more permanent into the president and CEO position. Reyes said the last time they had to replace the CEO it took between seven and eight months.

The board last week agreed to issue a request for proposals to find a national search firm that can help them select the best person for the role, though Commissioner Harriet Brock pointed out that internal candidates can apply.

In a separate vote Friday, the board agreed to give the interim CEO, Dunn, a 5% raise while she manages both positions. The uptick in pay is retroactive to Feb. 2.

The next board meeting is set for Feb. 26.

Lead image: Jacksonville Housing Authority Commissioner Andrea Reyes (right) is chairing the transition committee that will oversee the search for a new CEO for the agency. | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

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Casmira Harrison is a Jacksonville Today reporter focusing on local government in Duval County.

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