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Delaware Headlines

Wilmington Housing Authority 'nowhere close' to troubled, says interim director

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Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
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New interim leadership is in place at the Wilmington Housing Authority—after former director John Hill was suspended and subsequently resigned last month. 

It’s the third leadership turnover the housing authority has seen in five years. Even so, the interim director hired to replace Hill paints the housing authority’s condition as positive.

Thomas Harkless has decades of experience in affordable housing. He worked to help turn around “troubled” housing authorities including the Chicago Housing Authority. He retired in 2014 as the executive director of the Fayette County Housing Authority, and has since worked as a consultant in the affordable housing sphere. Harkless, a resident of southern Delaware, was appointed interim director by the Wilmington Housing Authority Board of Commissioners immediately after Hill resigned.

Harkless says the Wilmington Housing Authority’s finances are strong. 

“Wilmington Housing Authority is nowhere close to being a troubled housing authority,” Harkless said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s had some troubles. There’s this little bump in the road. [But] I believe it’s got good, competent staff. So we just need to stay on the right course that they’ve got planned.”

The Fayette County Housing Authority had its own bump in the road under Harkless’ leadership. In 2002, the authority was cited for violations of federal regulations pertaining to two contracts awarded to companies associated with Harkless’ relatives, according to TribLIVE.com, which covers southwestern Pennsylvania.  

“I screwed up,” Harkless reportedly told the Tribune-Review at the time.

Harkless expects to serve a six-month term in Wilmington, and says he has no interest in a permanent position.

“I came here because I wanted to help,” he said. “This is what I do. You look at those families, that if the housing authority wasn’t here, where would they be?”

Harkless admits he is still taking stock of the housing authority’s operations. But one of the first things on his agenda is resolving maintenance issues.

“Frankly, there’s complaints—so tracking down, finding out what the legitimate ones are, resolving those, fixing them permanently,” he said. “Making sure that things are uniform, so that if there’s a complaint that’s real, that there is a system in place so that they can get resolved, and everybody follows that.”

MaryAnn Russ, a housing consultant and former director of the Wilmington Housing Authority, assessed the operations and condition of the agency last month, but the board has so far declined to release her report.

Russ found that the housing authority needs to be “more detailed in its plans,” according to Harkless.

“We need to look at all our internal policies and procedures and make sure that they’re up to date and that we’re doing it correctly and completely,” he said.

Harkless says the housing authority will work to update tenants’ incomes and the resulting rent they pay. For those struggling amid the pandemic, the authority will set up repayment plans.

“We’re not going to throw people out on the street if they can’t afford it, as long as they sign a repayment agreement,” he said.

Harkless also hopes to keep the agency on track redeveloping its properties in Riverside, and to recruit strong, "visionary" candidates for the next executive director. 

“Getting this turned in the right direction, and it’s not that far off course—but the biggest thing will actually be getting a good, professional leader ... so that the board can select him or her and fill the job permanently," Harkless said.

John Hill was hired to lead the Wilmington Housing Authority in 2018 after the previous director was fired over concerns about his credentials. Longtime director Fred Purnell resigned in 2016 after the Board of Commissioners voted not to automatically renew his contract.

The News Journal reported after Hill was hired that he’d previously been ousted from a Nevada housing authority amid accusations of gender discrimination, safety violations and other issues.

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