Grab Your Magnifying Glass: A Guide for New Executive Directors

July 11, 2017

By Thomas Carr, partner

In the U.S., there are over 3,300 public housing authorities. For the executive directors tasked with leading these authorities, it’s often the job of a lifetime. After all, these organizations offer you a platform to actively engage with your community and enact positive, meaningful change.

Are you ready to take over the captain’s seat — and ensure you’re steering your ship in the right direction? Work to uncover and solve any potential problems from the get-go.

Play Detective

First things first: Get to know your key staff members as soon as possible. By establishing these relationships early on, you will have a variety of individuals whom you can call upon to discuss the functions and processes of each area of your organization. Use these discussions to unearth specific problems and get answers on the following:

  • Ask leadership where the ACOP plans are stored, how often they are updated and what the procedures are for engaging with the board on these changes.
  • Request the most recent procedural manuals for key areas such as finance and procurement.
  • Ask the finance director to walk you through the ledger and get a sense for the dollars and cents.
  • Ask operations to give you a tour of certain properties and facilities. By going into specific units, you will have the opportunity to see the portfolio and how it’s being maintained.

Key team leaders will be able to paint a larger picture of your organization, while members of your line staff — maintenance workers, HQS inspectors, procurement employees or site staff — will give you often-overlooked details concerning operations. In fact, there’s a high probability your line staff will have witnessed any unethical or illegal activity that has taken place on your premises. As a new director, building relationships is, of course, important for boosting employee morale, but it’s equally important for expediting your problem-solving process.

Once you’ve met those involved, it’s a wise decision to investigate your PHA’s current procedures to discover any potential compliance discrepancies. As a best practice, you should begin by looking at highly-regulated, routinely-audited areas:

  • Wait List Policy: Ensure you have clear selection guidelines in place.
  • Tax Credit Files: Ensure your records contain all required documentation, including the resident eligibility application and supporting income and asset statements. Any files with missing documents could put your authority at risk when it comes time for an audit.
  • Housing Assistance Payments: Ensure these landlord payments are within payment standards and monitored for irregularities.
  • Procurement Policies and Procedures: Ensure these items are reflective of the latest federal and state regulations.

Take a Step Back

Next, develop a clear sense of the debits and credits taking place within your budget, an especially important task because financial mismanagement has the potential to introduce the most risk to your agency. Gaining a firm understanding of the PHA’s routine business transactions can shine a spotlight on other issues, whether operational or ethical. For example, your PHA may offer housing assistance to landlords, but could be overpaying them. By carefully weeding through these finances, you will be well-equipped to prevent such over payments, allowing you to save time and money down the line.

In many instances, you will be able to resolve issues within your housing authority yourself. In some cases, however, you’ll need to leverage the expertise of an outside party. After all, many housing authorities run into complex regulatory and accounting obstacles, the root of which can take some digging to uncover. If you feel as if you aren’t getting the answers you need, consider referring to housing authority advisors and reviewers to audit or test certain areas of your organization.

A comprehensive report from an independent consultant will help you proceed in your new role with confidence: You’ll either have the assurance you need that there are no significant problems, or you’ll be equipped to address any previously unknown issues.

Develop a Plan

If you do identify any problems, remember that it may take several years to repair them. As such, it’s crucial you put together a plan and share it with the board, HUD and management. Make sure to give these figures any and all information on your findings, including financial statements and the independent reviewers’ report. As a best practice, your action plan should lay out the scope of the problem, how you will solve it and the necessary time frame. Once you determine the specific issues at hand, consider making changes to your leadership team or bringing in your own deputy director from outside the agency.

Regardless of the size of your authority, it’s crucial you use all of the tools at your disposal to ensure you’re on the right track:

  • Refer to HUD and state tax credit websites for free policy and procedure templates and guidelines.
  • Contact other executive directors to get on the right listservs, so that you have a community to refer to when you have specific questions.
  • Make connections to industry trade groups such as NAHRO, CLPHA and PHADA to expand your network and find new professional development opportunities.
  • Bring in outside consultants who can provide you with a new perspective and valuable, actionable insights.

To set the desired tone for your agency from day one, you’ll need to wear many hats. Start by playing the role of detective.

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About the Author

Tom Carr

Thomas is a partner in Aprio’s Housing Authorities industry niche. He has over 13 years of experience managing housing authority audits. In his role, Thomas oversees financial and compliance audits for Aprio housing authority clients. He has performed over 300 housing authority audits for clients across the U.S.