© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

WHA’s new executive director, Tyrone Garrett, discusses past controversies and future challenges

Tyrone Garrett of WHA
Benjamin Schachtman
Tyrone Garrett, the newly-hired CEO of the Wilmington Housing Authority.

The Wilmington Housing Authority floundered in the wake of former CEO Katrina Redmon’s resignation, faced with a growing mold crisis that has since displaced over 100 families. Now, the authority has hired Tyrone Garrett, a longtime housing authority director who has faced controversy but has also handled complex problems.

New leadership

This week, the Wilmington Housing Authority Board of Commissioners hired Tyrone Garrett as its new CEO. Garrett has two decades of experience in housing programs, working for the housing authority in Long Beach, New Jersey from 2001 to 2017, and directing the Washington, DC Housing Authority from 2017 to 2021 when the authority’s Board of Commissioners declined to renew his contract.

Garrett’s time in housing authorities has not been without difficulties or criticism — more on that below — but he’s also facing an immediate crisis when he starts on May 16: rampant mold infestations across WHA’s properties that have pushed hundreds of parents and children out of their homes.

Related: The Wilmington Housing Authority's disastrous mismanagement of widespread mold

Garrett said his first order of business will be a 90-day action plan to tackle the crisis.

“The priority is definitely to return those residents back to their homes as quickly as possible, and make sure that they are not displaced any any longer than they actually need to be. That's first and foremost,” he said.

Garrett admitted that he doesn’t have an answer in hand walking into his new job.”

“Actually, at this point in time, you know, me just being voted in last night, I don't have the nuts and bolts. And I apologize. I wish I did. Because it has been keeping me up at night, I'm trying to develop exactly what the plan needs to actually be to get residents back,” he said.

Garrett said he wants to turn next to bringing some of the disorganization and dysfunction at WHA under control.

“And then after [handling the mold situation], I think we move to the process of trying to create an organization that is efficient, that can sustain the opportunities for creation of affordable housing and maintenance of affordable housing in the future. Those are the big two pieces of the puzzle for me that I want to get started with right away,” Garrett said.

Garrett faces serious challenges at WHA. And while he has a tumultuous track record working in housing authorities in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., Garrett stands by his track record and said he’s ready to bring transparency and accountability to the beleaguered WHA.

“The good, the bad, where we've been, where I've been successful, and where I have not been so successful, I'm going to apply all of those experiences to what we are facing here,” he said.

A ‘tumultuous’ tenure

When Garrett arrived in D.C. in 2017 he was faced with a collapsing system. Within a year of being hired, Garrett was telling city leaders that roughly one-third of the housing stock was on the way to being uninhabitable — a prognosis that came with an estimated $2.2 billion price tag over 17 years, the estimated cost to get the city's public housing back above board.

Four years later, in May of 2021, the D.C. Housing Authority decided not to renew Garrett’s contract. Asked about this, Garrett dodged the question, speaking instead about his ability to recruit.

However, during his tenure in D.C., he ran into several documented controversies, including pushback on his approach to public-private partnerships, an internal audit that identified $1.3 million in “wasted funds,” allegations of hostile workplaces, and an exodus of upper-level talent.

Related: After Tumultuous Run, D.C. Housing Authority Director Tyrone Garrett Is Out (NPR/WAMU)

Garrett said he was working towards a “transformation” of the D.C. Housing Authority and disputed that the $1.3 million was “wasted,” noting that it was spent on a consulting firm that he said helped the authority secure additional funding.

“Actually, it wasn't wasted because the transformation plan — created based on a collaboration between the Housing Authority, other stakeholder organizations, and a consulting group that helped us manifest the transformation plan — the transformation plan netted $120 million for the organization,” Garrett told WHQR.

Part of Garrett’s ‘transformational’ approach was increased reliance on public-private partnerships and private equity. At the time, he noted that the aging housing stock and reduced funding from HUD made the turn to the private sector unavoidable — but residents and critics voiced concerns, including a reduction in the total number of affordable units and the displacement of tenants.

“I really think it was well-intended. And in D.C., remember, there was a lot of gentrification that was talked about, and people thought that this was just going to be an extension of that. For me, it was not — it was an opportunity to identify equity to help redevelop the units of housing and also give the Housing Authority an opportunity for financial systems sustainability,” Garrett said.

Garrett said it was understandable that there would be anxiety talking about partnerships with private developers. In particular, WHA’s Hillcrest neighborhood is slated for redevelopment. The property is aging, in disrepair, and wracked by mold; redevelopment could dramatically increase the quality of life for residents — but the people living there fear not being able to return, or returning to increased rent and a reduced number of affordable units.

“And that's where that's where the conversation and the education piece on my side has to be more pronounced when dealing with the community,” he said.

Garrett said he would address fears by being transparent, adding, “my goal has always been, never displace an individual without the opportunity for them to have the right to return to the new unit. I have never failed in that.”

On the topic of allegations of workplace toxicity, and asked how he would deal with similar issues at WHA, Garret said, “my reputation speaks for itself, I believe, I've never allowed anything to go on that was inappropriate, that was of my knowledge. And if I had been aware of anything, I would always take a strong stand against it, and correct it.”

Garrett also said thata lawsuit filed against him as a supervisor in New Jersey, which had alleged he knowingly ignored an unhealthy workplace situation, had been dismissed.

“The reality is, it was an unfortunate situation that came to my attention almost two years after I left. So, you know, if I had been there, and it was brought to me, I would have definitely dealt with it, based on who I am as a person, and my reputation,” he said.

Ending WHA’s ‘tailspin’?

In early August of 2021, Wilmington Housing Authority CEO Katrina Redmon resigned, telling the press that WHA was in “a good place” – an assessment that was, at best, inaccurate.

It would later become clear that Redmon resigned as a burgeoning mold problem was spiraling out of control on her administrative watch: a failure to consistently inspect housing units had allowed mold to grow unchecked, leading to dozens — and then hundreds — of displaced people, and costs for renting hotels and apartments that soared into the millions.

Members of the WHA Board of Commissioners said Redmon had concealed the growing crisis until it was too late. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who appoints the WHA commissioners, said it was his sense that when the Board tried to intervene in Redmon’s management, she left the authority — leaving WHA in a “tailspin.” Redmon has declined multiple requests for comment and interview.

Once Redmon left, and the crisis continued to worsen, a lack of administrative leadership only made things worse. Under mounting public pressure, WHA hired a third-party consulting firm to find a new CEO and, this week, announced the hiring of Garrett.

In a week and a half, Garrett will get a chance to pull WHA out of its tailspin.

Part of that, he said, will mean being much more engaged with WHA families than his predecessor.

“They're gonna get tired of seeing me, I'm out and about,” Garrett said, gesturing to his suit, “you know, you the shirt and tie comes off, that sort of thing.”

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.