March 31, 2014 10:00:28 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
This summer, the Columbus Housing Authority will be undergoing a leadership change after the retirement of Earl Weeks, its executive director of more than 13 years.
Weeks, who has managed 480 family units citywide since he was named CHA's leader by the authority's board in November 2001, will be stepping down June 30. Debra Taylor, another long-time CHA employee, will succeed him July 1.
CHA provides affordable housing to families living below 80 percent of the standard median family income, but most of the tenants are at about 30 to 40 percent, Weeks said. About 40-50 percent of the units house the elderly living on Social Security or disability income, while another 40-50 percent are classified as the working poor, he said. Part of CHA's aim is to promote upward mobility and help those people get in positions financially where they can one day leave public housing through programs organized to help them manage their lives to the best of their abilities.
"We've offered classes through the (Mississippi State) Extension Service in how to manage a checkbook, how to do a family budget, how to prepare nutritious meals without spending a lot of money on prepackaged stuff," Weeks said. "I think the training programs we've been involved in and the interaction with the GED programs that are offered and the reading resources and through EMCC and those kind of things, we try to help them move upward."
About 20 percent of CHA's revenue comes from rent, while the remainder comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Weeks said CHA's current operating budget hovers around $1.7 million a year. Including maintenance workers, occupancy managers, accountants and a full-time police officer, the department has had 15 employees.
Weeks said each resident or family pays 30 percent of their adjusted income as rent.
"Occasionally we'll have people who haven't been working get a job and get a good job making $12-15 an hour. In those cases, we'll give a walk-up to that full-rent over a four-year period," he said. "I can think of 15-20 that have moved on to home ownership. Others have moved on to another subsidized housing or one of the tax credit development communities in our area. We've got a lot of families that have been with us. We've got some people who have lived in the same apartment 30-40 years. They think they own the apartment and they're happy there."
During his tenure, Weeks has established an annual preventative maintenance program.
"We verify any damage that's done and make the corrections or anything that needs to be repaired we take care of it then as a part of that," he said.
Longtime CHA board member Greta Gardner praised Weeks for his no-nonsense leadership style and work to improve maintenance of each unit.
"He established a prevention maintenance team that would go in and keep things in good shape," Gardner said. "He's very informed and he keeps us informed as well. I think Mr. Weeks has done an excellent job."
The biggest challenge Weeks said he has had during his time is keeping all public housing areas safe. He said he's worked to keep domestic disputes, family violence and drug abuse out of public housing neighborhoods by strict pre-admission measures for each applicant.
"The crime statistics are lower in public housing than they are in the rest of the city. It's because of the intense scrutiny and review of each applicant. Each one that comes in and applies for housing, we do a police background screen on them," Weeks said. "If there's a problem, we find out what it is and either qualify them or disqualify them based on that. If they have been arrested for a felony or made the FBI database at some point, we fingerprint them, send those off to the FBI and get a report on their criminal background history is before they're ever allowed to move into public housing. The best way we can curtail it is to try to keep the ones who have a history out."
Weeks said one of his favorite activities as CHA's leader was getting out and seeing people who live in the units, particularly the elderly.
"I try to get out and visit the neighborhoods. I've had lunch in a lot of these older ladies' homes. I've eaten a lot of turnip greens and corn bread while going out and seeing how some of our older folks are doing and feeling, especially the ones that are disabled and homebound," Weeks said. "If we've got a problem that I need to intervene in, I will go out and make the calls necessary or have the resident come in and have a 'We can't have this kind of stuff going on anymore' type conversation. We're pretty strict about that. People live awfully close together in public housing. They're pretty confined and they've got to be respectful of each other."
Taylor said she looks forward to building on the progress Weeks has made while taking on some new challenges that have emerged.
"I'm looking forward to continuing to serve the residents in a spirit of excellence and continuing to maintain the status the housing authority has had many years and adjust to the changing economy," Taylor said.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.