Homestead - South Dade

Leadership set for Homestead Housing Authority

The embattled Homestead Housing Authority has now settled on its leadership.

HHA commissioners gave Shane White the job as executive director in a 4-2 vote on Thursday night. The authority’s former Section 8 program supervisor, White was named to the position on an interim basis in September when the nearly all-new HHA board abruptly fired his controversial predecessor.

Like his predecessor, White is an at-will employee and can be fired at any time. When he took the job in September, his salary was bumped up to $99,000 to be in line with U.S. Department of Housing and Development pay scales.

The agenda item to make White the authority’s permanent director came from HHA commissioner Lois Jones, one of the board’s oldest members and a strident critic of the former director, Oscar Hentschel. She had blasted her then-colleagues on the board in 2011 for hiring someone with close personal and once professional ties to one commissioner despite 23 other candidates with public housing experience — while Hentschel had none.

Hentschel’s lack of experience created problems for the agency later, when he tried to wrestle back control of their USDA-subsidized farm worker housing from the third-party management company the HHA had been forced to hire in 2012 following a USDA audit that revealed chronic mismanagement. The problems began before Hentschel’s tenure, but when he asked the federal agency to get self-management back, they turned him down, citing his lack of housing credentials as a top reason.

“I’m very impressed by Shane — and I was not prepared to be impressed,” Jones told the board.

Unlike his predecessor, White doesn’t have a college degree. But he does have about 20 years of public housing experience, having worked as a Section 8 program supervisor for Miami-Dade County and the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority before coming to the HHA in July 2012.

Marta Torres, who was re-appointed to the board two months ago, said she had “no doubt” that White would do a good job, but that since the HHA’s last hire had drawn such controversy, the authority shouldn’t act in haste.

“I think we need to do a national search,” she said.

Board commissioners Russell Black, Carmen Rodriguez, and Michael Goodman echoed her sentiment — all saying that while White appeared to be doing a terrific job, the authority might want to take its time to avoid any improprieties.

“[White] seems to be doing a good job. But the previous hire was extremely controversial. [It] sullied the reputation of the HHA,” Black said. “It seems to me that this is extremely quick.”

“You keep comparing the two. Shane has 20 years of experience, the other gentleman had nothing,” Jones snapped.

HHA commissioner Gerard Berrouet also staunchly argued in favor of hiring White, noting that a number of those community members who had come to voice concern about Hentschel’s abrupt termination had asked the HHA to hire from within to replace him.

“The community said they wanted continuity. He has the experience, he has the background. He has 20 years of service,” he said.

Board members considered putting White on a probationary contract, but HHA lawyer Gilberto Pastoriza pointed out that an interim title was already a probationary status, and that since the executive director’s position was at will, the board could still fire him any time. He added that a national search for the position was not required in authority or state rules.

The motion to hire White ultimately passed 4-2, with Jones, Berrouet, Rodriguez, and Goodman voting in favor, and Black and Torres voting against.

Also on the agenda at Thursday night’s meeting: an update on the $3 million USDA grant earmarked to help build 30 new townhome-style units of farm worker housing the authority could lose, having let the funds languish for over six years unused — one year past the grant’s five-year expiration.

HHA commissioners voted unanimously in an emergency November meeting to follow White’s recommendation and ask the USDA for a one-year clemency period, and to rush permitting and construction to exhaust the funds within that period.

White told commissioners that Michael Botelho, the USDA area director for construction, had officially recommended the one-year extension to the state and national offices on Dec. 12. Final word should come in January and should be favorable to the HHA, White said, since Botelho had been the only one to express reservations about the extension in conversations between the HHA, Botelho, and USDA state director Nigel Parish.