Just three weeks into his new job as executive director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, Gregg Fortner already has a full plate.
He has to put a budget together by October, take on oversight of one of the largest affordable-housing development projects in the city’s history and, of course, continue to provide decent, safe and sanitary housing for thousands of New Orleans families.
As Fortner sees it, those tasks are all steps toward achieving his long-term goal of building public trust in the often scandal-plagued agency, which this month returned to local control after 12 years under a federal receivership aimed at fixing its chronic mismanagement.
The feds took control in 2002 after finding the agency in substantial default on its annual funding contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and after HUD, HANO and the city had repeatedly tried and failed to improve the local operation.
At the time, the agency had struggled to commit millions of dollars in federal grants, failed to revitalize its crumbling developments and operated in other ways HUD found deficient.
Fortner is the agency’s first executive director since it returned to local control.
“People have to believe that we know what we’re doing. And the way they believe that is if we actually do the right thing and know what we’re doing,” Fortner said. “If we have people in the know who say that HANO is better today than it was when (I) came here, then I’ll be satisfied with what I’ve done here.”
The New Orleans native was selected for the job after a national search by a special panel put together by Mayor Mitch Landrieu. His two-year contract began July 7. It carries an annual salary of $200,000 to start and has an option for a one-year extension.
So far, he has been meeting with his staff, government officials and tenants to determine where the agency is strong and where it still falters. He has identified a budget in need of attention.
“We have a situation where we have to operate within our means,” Fortner said. “We have to operate within ongoing revenues, as opposed to trying to use reserves to balance our budget.”
HANO generates revenue from a variety of sources, including federal housing vouchers, tenants’ rent, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, grants and interest income.
As the federal government tightens its belt, it has directed less and less money to housing authorities across the country over the past decade. Fortner said he will rein in spending at HANO to take account of the cuts, but he also intends to find ways for HANO to generate more money.
“We have to get those nonhistorical funding sources and get creative and see what opportunities are out there so that we can build mixed-income communities,” Fortner said. “We want to diversify because those nonpublic housing units can actually draw revenues, and we can use those revenues for more housing. There’s a big underserved community as far as (housing for) low- and moderate-income families.”
Those nontraditional funds could come from the state, local or federal government or even from private sources.
In Miami, where Fortner had served since 2009 as executive director of the Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development Department before being lured to New Orleans, he sniffed out an opportunity to renovate and redevelop six public housing sites using $85 million in Low-Income Housing Tax Credit funds for preservation from the Florida Housing Finance Commission.
“At the time they thought of that (tax credit), they probably didn’t realize that public housing qualified as preservation,” he said of the stratagem. The tax credit program’s rules have since been changed to limit the money that goes to public housing, he said.
“We don’t know what opportunities will be there. That’s why we have to stay alert and figure out what opportunities we can take advantage of,” he said.
Fortner said he wants to create a work environment at HANO where employees feel comfortable chasing unconventional ideas.
Although he has worked in housing for 30 years, Fortner arrived at the job in a somewhat unorthodox way.
He moved to California in his 20s to become a stand-up comedian and took a day job in housing to pay the bills. Eventually, housing ousted comedy in importance, but he continued to moonlight for several years while ascending the ranks in California.
Though he no longer performs — because “the job is so political and some people don’t have senses of humor” — Fortner often responds to questions with the biting sarcasm of someone who enjoys cracking wise.
“Because everything you read in the paper is always true, right?” he responded to a question about reports in California media outlets that the mayor of San Francisco forced him out of his position atop that city’s housing authority in 2007.
Fortner, according to published reports, resigned from the San Francisco Housing Authority under pressure from Mayor Gavin Newsom and amid criticism over living conditions at the agency’s properties. At the time, he was the agency’s longest-serving director in more than two decades.
Fortner dismisses the claim that he was pushed out, pointing out that he stayed at the housing authority for three months following the announcement of his resignation.
“So as far as whatever changes they wanted to make, it had nothing to do with my performance,” he said. “I’m proud of the job I did in San Francisco.”
As for reports that under his watch, San Francisco residents reported living in housing units that were infested with rodents, covered in mildew and where sewage bubbled up through grates in the cement, Fortner said the agency responded to complaints in a timely fashion and did the best it could on a tight budget.
“As far as conditions at public housing, you can only do so much with the resources that you have,” he said. “When you’re talking about units that are 75 years old ... you can go out and find something wrong every day in public housing. If that’s what the media chooses to focus on, it colors the perception that may be out in the public.”
In San Francisco, Fortner said, he had a balanced budget and a clean audit every year he was there. The agency also expanded its Section 8 voucher program and completed four out of five Hope VI housing-complex revitalization projects on his watch, he said.
“I’ve been around for 28 years, so I’m bringing 28 years worth of experience” to HANO, he said. “And in all those 28 years, I’ve always improved the agencies that I’ve worked for.”
Fortner will lead his first meeting of a newly appointed seven-member board of commissioners on Tuesday.