Gregg Fortner, who in 2014 became New Orleans' first locally appointed public housing director in a dozen years, will leave the Housing Authority of New Orleans in July despite recent indications that the agency had begun to turn a corner.
Friday's announcement came five months before Fortner’s contract expires July 7, a timeline aimed at giving the relatively new HANO board time to find a replacement.
As for the reasons for his departure, Fortner, 61, said, “Sometimes, you just have to take control of your own destiny.”
“This is a new board that has different things that they want to accomplish, and it’s better for them to go on with their vision for the board with someone else,” he added.
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He also cited "negative perceptions" that have persisted about the agency despite work he and his staff have done in the past five years to try to scrub its image.
But both he and HANO board President Casius Pealer, a professor at the Tulane School of Architecture, stressed Saturday that no one on the board asked Fortner to leave.
"He certainly had support from the board last summer, and I don't think anything had happened to change that," Pealer said, while acknowledging that the vote last year to extend Fortner's contract through July was not unanimous.
Fortner also denied that Mayor LaToya Cantrell asked for his resignation. Instead, he said, he is leaving to pursue other opportunities and to give Cantrell's mostly new board wider latitude.
After he was appointed in 2014, it fell to Fortner to try to rebuild public trust in local management of HANO, which had just come off a 12-year federal receivership aimed at cleaning up widespread corruption and mismanagement.
Since it returned to local management four years ago, the Housing Authority of New Orleans has worked to professionalize its operations, balan…
The feds often struggled to achieve their goals. In 2009, HANO, supposedly under the watch of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saw its top employees rapped for illegally using housing vouchers to pay their rent and pilfering at least $900,000 in public money for personal use.
Then, David Gilmore, a contractor whom HUD hired later that year to right the ship, crafted three years of balanced budgets and a seemingly stable foundation — but was accused of using a nonprofit to skirt public bid laws and divert HANO contracts to companies that had ties to him.
Fortner, a Benjamin Franklin High School graduate who grew up in Hollygrove, sought to remove the stigma over the agency, drawing from his experience as a public housing leader for three decades in San Francisco, Miami and elsewhere.
Over his tenure, he balanced HANO's budget through unpopular moves like staff cuts and drawing down from the agency's surplus, which became necessary as HUD allocations to local housing agencies dwindled.
"He had to right-size the agency, particularly our Section 8 program, in order to keep us within our budget," said Toni Hackett Antrum, who has been on the HANO board since 2014. "We now have a surplus, and stellar audits ... which doesn't happen all of the time elsewhere."
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The Section 8 program has since earned "high-performer" designation from HUD, added Pealer.
Fortner is also credited with overseeing the ongoing revamp of more than 200 HANO-owned "scattered site" properties across the city, securing grants to provide job training and other services for low-income residents, and implementing a criminal background check policy designed to remove barriers that former convicts experience when seeking housing.
But Fortner had his critics, including former City Councilwoman Stacy Head. His plan to redevelop vacant HANO-owned sites, for example, was decried by some who claimed the properties could generate sorely needed tax revenue if sold to private owners.
Kim Ford, a housing advocate and former HANO employee, claimed last year that Fortner was "distant" and "unresponsive" to tenants' concerns, and that she had not seen much change since the agency returned to local control. "They go to great lengths to give the appearance of improvement, but it just ain't there," she said.
Fortner's brusque personality and wry sense of humor, meanwhile, could rub others the wrong way. He and former HANO Vice Chairwoman Andreanecia Morris, widely praised as an affordable housing advocate, often tussled publicly during board meetings.
Morris could not be reached Saturday, but Antrum acknowledged that "personalities" could have made the past year "difficult to navigate" for Fortner.
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But he appeared to gain an ally in Cantrell, who booted Morris and three others from the board last year after they began holding executive sessions to discuss Fortner's job performance. The mostly new board voted 5-3 to extend Fortner's contract until July.
Cantrell praised Fortner in a statement announcing his departure. "Under his leadership, HANO has made tremendous progress: returning the agency to local control, receiving high performance ratings from (HUD), and bringing new resources to the agency to support workforce and business development for residents and scholarships for our youth," the mayor said. "The city is grateful for his service."
And Fortner insisted that he alone made the decision to resign. "I have nothing but respect for Mayor LaToya Cantrell ... and if she were the only factor involved here, then I would (stay) at HANO," he said.
But, he said, he is leaving because he wants to give the board space to come up with its own vision for public housing in New Orleans. Pealer acknowledged that board members had been trying to figure out how their vision meshed with that of Fortner, and that his departure gives them freedom to set their own agenda.
Fortner said he also hopes his exit will finally quiet some of the murmurs about HANO. "It's hard to defend against silent enemies, those people who are doing that covert HANO bash," he said. "Hopefully, a change will allow for some of that narrative to stop."
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