Quiet Director Has Stirred Some Noise At Lakeland Housing Agency
Benjamin Stevenson discusses his first seven months.
Published: Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 12:09 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 12:09 a.m.
LAKELAND | Fresh from a five-year stint helping New Orleans rebuild its affordable housing stock, Benjamin Stevenson took over May 1 as executive director of the Lakeland Housing Authority.
"I'm accustomed to going into messes and cleaning them up."
"The board sets policy, I run the agency, and that means I get to pick staff."
"Over a billion dollars worth of projects I've worked on have benefitted people ... I want to do the same in Lakeland."
The Mulberry native has had a rocky start.
He tangled with several members of the agency's board of commissioners over his handling of events that led to the resignations of two seasoned senior administrators, John Calcagni, who served as interim executive director, and finance director Chuck Fink.
The two former employees were caught up in a routine review conducted in May by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that found serious deficiencies with the housing authority's policies and procedures related to financial management.
While working to restore internal controls to the satisfaction of HUD, Stevenson, 52, also has had to defend a controversial pay raise of $16,323 to staffer Earl Haynes. The two worked together at the Tampa Housing Authority from 1998 to 2000.
Bristling over Stevenson's management style, Bruce Lyon, the housing agency's board chairman, resigned Oct. 15 after serving less than half of his four-year term.
The drubbing continued at a Nov. 26 meeting with board member Beverly Copeland, out of town for the holiday, criticizing in a letter to her fellow board members Stevenson's hiring of Valerie Brown as senior director of development, replacing Calcagni.
Copeland is concerned about the hierarchy of Stevenson's four senior directors, especially the duties assigned to Haynes, director of resident services, and Brown.
Clearly, there's been no honeymoon between the board and Stevenson, who sat down with The Ledger recently to discuss his first seven months on the job, and his plans for directing Polk County's largest housing authority with a budget of roughly $28 million.
Q. How would you grade your performance so far?
A. Definitely a passing grade. We've cleaned up and have the agency heading in the right direction. I've headed much larger programs before, much larger than here. When I was in New Orleans there were $600 million worth of projects I was responsible for. I have followed what the majority (of LHA's board) wanted. I'm accustomed to going into messes and cleaning them up. When I went to the Tampa Housing Authority, the E.D. (executive director) had gone to jail so there was a mess to clean up. I think the majority of the (LHA) board has been very pleased with some of the changes I've made.
Q. You've been criticized for the way you've installed senior managers. What is your response?
A. The majority of the board has said that I've been following the rules and guidelines that have been set. Why should I not be allowed to assemble the team that I think will give us the best opportunities to be successful? The board sets policy, I run the agency, and that means I get to pick staff. And I'm not hung up on titles. In my mind, there's four senior executives. When I get ready to go out of town there's nothing that says I cannot leave any one of those four in charge. I won't do this but I could put the janitor in charge if I wanted to.
Q. How are you addressing the city's shortage of affordable housing?
A. At this time it probably would be best to purchase some existing properties. In terms of new construction, there's very little (money available for) public housing-only construction. So you've got to go to tax credit properties that give you that additional financing so you can build more affordable housing. But tax credits are available only once a year and we're going to miss the next cycle, so you have to look at purchasing (existing) properties.
Q. How do you propose to do that?
A. We have some leftover HOPE VI funds, which allows us to be very creative. It's $1.9 million. We would basically use that to leverage a bank loan in order to purchase. If you manage the property right it can be profitable. It will be mixed income housing, a mix of public housing, Section 8 and market rate. We're looking at apartment complexes, 50 to 100 units. There's at least one we're looking at but we don't want to spill the beans. You'll see us present it to the board.
Q. What lessons from your past do you bring to your mission of housing Lakeland's poor and dispossessed?
A. You learn what it takes to build that community. You have to have partners, you can't do it alone. You have to work with the city, with the private sector. That does not happen overnight, especially with an outsider coming in. You have to find a way for people (residents) to feel comfortable with you. You have to be honest with people. As time goes by and they see that you keep your word then that trust comes and you build relationships.
Q. Why are you so soft-spoken? It makes it hard to hear you at public meetings.
A. As a small child my adenoids were abnormally large and I could not breathe out of my nose, I had to talk and breathe out of my mouth. In third grade I had surgery. I was always quiet, the quietest person in school. I was one of seven children. All my brothers and sisters were loud. I was a shy introvert and artistic. My medium was acrylic and graphite drawings. I can take a pencil and draw a picture of you and it will look just like a black and white photograph.
Q. What would you do if you won a lottery jackpot?
A. I would probably give the money away. I've never won the Lottery, but over a billion dollars worth of projects I've worked on have benefitted some people, in Tampa, New Orleans. I want to do the same in Lakeland.
[ Eric Pera can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7528. ]
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