Sunday Q&A: Len Williams

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President & CEO, Columbus Housing Authority (retired); President, Columbus Affordable Housing Services

What led you to a career as a public servant?

“The real truth is I was in college and I was a political science major, taking a lot of public-administration courses. I had actually planned on going to law school but  worked my way through school and got to a point as a senior when I realized I couldn’t afford law school. 

So I thought, ‘What’s an alternative? Public administration would be good.’ I was able to get a graduate assistantship and pay my way through grad school. That’s how I got into the public administration area.” 

After serving for 19 years as President and CEO of the Housing Authority of Columbus, why did you decide to form the nonprofit, Columbus Affordable Housing Services? 

“We had several reasons. The Housing Authority had some independent revenue that was not federal revenue. We were always concerned about the federal government making us spend that money before we spent federal money. So we looked for a way to distance that. We decided to form this nonprofit.

With Columbus Affordable Housing Services, we take and invest those non-federal revenues; we do other services for the housing authority, whatever they want us to do; we’ve done a little bit of consulting, and other things.”

And they don’t lose your institutional knowledge. 

“We think that’s an advantage, too. I left after a 45-year career in housing and community development so we think that’s useful as well.”

You took over the Housing Authority when it was in trouble so maybe there was concern that it might go back …  

“We have a terrific staff and a terrific board at the Housing Authority so I don’t think there’s any concern there. But I do think it is good to have some institutional knowledge, and that kind of experience, to help out.”

How would you describe the transition to your current role? 

“It’s very different, obviously. Related, but different.

It’s a lot less stressful. I don’t have to manage a lot of people, deal with human resources issues, that sort of thing. We’re only here a couple days of week and that gives me plenty of time off.

I’ve enjoyed it a lot; I’m glad I did that, instead of just totally retiring. The fact that we did it during a pandemic made the transition easier. I was used to traveling a lot for these national boards I serve on and, of course, traveling for  all of that stopped.” 

Were you an employee of Columbus Consolidated Government working at the Housing Authority?

“No, the Housing Authority is a  totally separate entity. It has its own board of directors. The mayor appoints the board members, but otherwise we are considered a quasi-governmental agency and are totally separate. The city provides no operating funding at all. It’s all federal and other sources.” 

Matt Gillespie, MJ Gillespie Photography

People have credited you with changing the face of public housing in the city. What changes did you make during your tenure and what were the results? 

“We spent about $200 million on development and modernization of our properties. We demolished around 1,500 units and came back with a little more than 1,000 units.

We took down Peabody and came back with Ashley Station. We took down Baker Village and came back with Arbor Point. We took down Booker T. Washington and replaced that with Patriot Point, which is for the elderly, and with Columbus Commons, which is the second phase.

We’re proud of our work. We try to do really high-quality work — things that we know will be on the ground here for 40 years or so. We tried  to do the highest quality work that we could and hopefully succeeded.”    

So you’re pleased with the results? 

“Yes, I am.

We converted four of our existing properties to project-based vouchers and did a total renovation of those properties. The Housing Authority is in the process now of building the replacement for Chase Homes, which we had started the work on. That really only leaves us with Elizabeth Canty and Warren Williams — everything else in the portfolio has either undergone a massive renovation or been totally redeveloped.

So yes, we’re pretty pleased we got that much done.”   

Is mixing public money in the private market a good thing? 

“I think so. What happens is you’re able to bring in private funding in the form of tax-credit equity and that gives you an injection of capital that you wouldn’t be able to do without. Almost all redevelopment of public housing — in fact, almost all new affordable housing — is done with the tax credit.

The Housing Authority has a substantial voucher program. In 2013, it became a member of the Moving to Work program. At the time, there were only 39 out of 3,000 housing authorities in that program. That allows the Housing Authority to do two things:

It makes your funding fungible between programs, which you could never do before. That has allowed the Housing Authority to do a lot of the redevelopment it’s continued to do. Because you can use some of those funds and use them as gap financing. In addition, it also lets you request and  get waivers from certain federal regulations. So it helps you be more efficient administratively and it helps you financially.

That’s really allowed us to do a lot of the redevelopment activities we’ve done in the last few years.

How has the local initiative to help with housing for veterans worked out? 

“We’re very involved with Home for Good, which is the city’s effort on homelessness. In fact, I was their founding board chair and was on that board until I retired. One of the efforts there we did with VASH vouchers, Veterans Assisted vouchers. We also had what we called rapid rehousing vouchers that were used by Home for Good.

As a result, we have basically eliminated homelessness among veterans. We reached functional zero — that is where you may have a handful, but they don’t want help with housing, and there’s nothing you can do about it. We reached functional zero in terms of veterans homlessness thanks to the vouchers and the good work by the Home for Good staff.”

Have you seen much of an impact of the moratorium on evictions that was in place during the pandemic? 

“Talking to the Housing Authority, they have seen a big backlog of that and, I think, it’s something all landlords are going to have to deal with for the next several months.”

Is housing in Columbus affordable? 

“Not for a lot of our population. We’re probably better off than many cities. But there’s not one metropolitan area in the United States where someone earning minimum wage can afford an apartment or a house.

There’s always an affordability issue. I like to talk to organizations we partner with — Neighborworks, Habitat — and say, ‘It’s not a competition. There’s more demand than we can possibly meet.’

I see it as a collaboration. Anything they do is good for the community; everything we do is good for the community. I’ve worked in a number of cities and have never seen the kind of cooperation we have here. Columbus is a generous community.”

How has the Columbus Housing Authority been able to avoid the big corruption scandals that have plagued so many housing authorities, particularly in large Southern cities? 

“Part of it is the culture of the community. I find that boards reflect the culture of the community, and I think here  you have a culture of excellence in terms of the boards. The Housing Authority board is excellent but I think boards at other authorities and commissions are also. It’s just not as infested with politics as it is in other cities.

It comes down to governance and leadership because they’re in charge of hiring the CEO. I’ve worked with five mayors here and they’ve all been great to work with.”

Is it hard to run a big housing organization and have a heart? You’re making decisions that impact people’s lives but you also have to meet the bottom line  

“It can be difficult for a lot of people. I’ve always taken the approach that you have to be financially solid to do your mission.

I think you have to always keep that in mind. And the best way to do a good job is mind your business. We always tried to run really lean. We didn’t have a lot of extra staff. If you’re overstaffed, people aren’t as productive, and they’re not as happy. People like to be productive at work. They like to feel good about what they’re doing.

That philosophy goes hand in hand with taking care of your finances and doing a good job. One of the things we were always focused on, we did what we were good at, which was housing. We partnered with 30 or 40 businesses and groups to provide social service or activities for our residents. That got us out of direct funding for those activities as well as it got us out of doing things we weren’t good at.” 

BONUS CONTENT: Hit play to hear full-length interview by Electric City Editor Frank Etheridge with Len Williams. Recorded at Heritage Tower, 11.16.2021.

Matt Gillespie, MJ Gillespie Photography

Age: 69

Hometown: Rossville, Georgia (“right across the state line from Chattanooga, Tennessee)

Education: Bachelor’s in political science from University of West Georgia ; Master’s in Public Administration from University of Memphis

Professional bio: City of Memphis after grad school to help implement the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. Community Development Director, City of Savannah; then Financial and Administrative Services Director, Housing Authority of Savannah (9 years). recruited by the Dept. of Housing and Urban Develop to Birmingham;  then Deputy Executive Director, Housing Authority of Birmingham (12 years). 

Favorite architect: I.M. Pei

Favorite local restaurant: Bonefish

Best decision made as CEO: “Becoming part of the Moving to Work program.”

Worst decision as Housing Authority CEO: “I have a tendency to give people more than enough rope to hang themselves, in terms of employees. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because when someone leaves in an unfortunate way, other people say, ‘It’s about time.’ So I don’t think it’s something that’s seen as unfair.”

3 steps to right the ship of a troubled organization: “First thing is assess reasonably what your situation is, confront the facts, and make whatever decisions you have to make. The second part is, how you implement those changes. We went from 220 employees to 100 employees, but we were very strategic about it and never laid anybody off.

So, assess your situation, establish your plan, and humanely implement it. That generated so much goodwill that would have gone away if we had just come in and eliminated positions.”

Best argument for public funding for housing: “It can provide good housing less expensively if it’s done correctly. I think we’ve gotten off the rails in some areas: 1) having the philosophy that we were going to do the minimum, and 2) letting the politics get involved in housing authorities. Housing authorities can be run well if you get competent, professional leadership involved and keep the politics out of it.”   

Matt Gillespie, MJ Gillespie Photography

About the author

Frank Etheridge

Native son and veteran journalist Frank Etheridge is Editor of Electric City, a digital media outlet dedicated to documenting the news and culture of Columbus, Georgia.

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