Although rarely talked about, the public housing industry is more than just brick and mortar. In its more profound sense, it is about community building and connectivity. 

Joining Abhijit Verekar is the Executive Director at the Morristown Housing Authority in Tennessee, Sean Gilbert. He talks about the process of modernization in housing, how to maximize public transportation, and how to connect residents with job opportunities effectively. Sean also shares his work on the technological side of housing, underlining the importance of embracing digital platforms not only to help in virtual education but making various services more accessible than ever. 

AV: My guest is Sean Gilbert, who is the Executive Director at the Morristown Housing Authority in Tennessee. Sean, welcome to the show. 

SG: It’s good to be here, Abhijit. 

AV: You’re new in your role at Morristown, but you’ve been an executive director before and spent some time in Knoxville. Now, you’re in Morristown. What’s your story? What’s your journey? How did you end up in this position? 

SG: My fascination with urban revitalization, or downtown revitalization, started in college when I took a class called Catastrophic Disasters. It made me start thinking about how things can go bad, quickly. I got into the mode of studying how that stuff works. Once I got out of college, that was the mode I went into. I worked in Pennsylvania as a neighborhood coordinator as my first job in a mid-sized town in Altoona. I worked my way through the governmental system there and in West Virginia, which is where I was raised. I got fascinated. I didn’t know Section 8 from Public Housing, but I saw a job at the HUD for the Kentucky Housing Authority. I went for that job, got it, and worked as an executive director. 

I didn’t know what Section 8 was from the get–go, but once you get into the housing side of things, it ruins you, or it makes you unmarketable for anything else. I was there for about 19 years. We were a mid-sized agency. We’re able to grow the agencies and expand into couple of different affordable housing realms. I had connections in Knoxville at KCDC, and after about 19 years in Kentucky, I thought, “It’s time to see what you can do on the bigger stage.” 

I was interested in developing about all that we were going to develop in that part of Eastern Kentucky. I wanted to go where there’s a much larger format at KCDC. I had about 7,500 units in my portfolio, but what was exciting was the ability of the HUD to continue development and figuring out how to grow this thing on a bigger scale, how to redevelop properties, and how to do all that. 

That was where my mindset was. I went there and loved it. It was a great organization to work for. As you get older, you start stepping back and thinking, “I like being the one in charge and being the one that can take the blame and take the credit that comes with it.” Also, as you get older you start thinking, “It more sounds a little bit slower paced, and great quality lives with the field has been fantastic with affordable housing.” It’s frustrating and aggravating, but it’s also ultimately very rewarding because when you drive around town and see all the rooftops, you know you’re helping a lot of people in those homes. 

RelatedHow Knoxville is Leveraging Innovative Technology in the Public Housing Sector

AV: The executive director position in Kentucky was your first job in housing? 

SG: It was my first job in housing. I’d worked in neighborhood and community development, downtown development prior to that. You deal with the HUD programs, a lot for that, but it’s more the CDBG home side of it. I didn’t have that expertise at that time even though I was fairly young, but my very first day on the job at a Housing Authorities went in as an executive director at the HUD for Housing Authority. It’s a corporate job. 

AV: Did they have Section 8?  

SG: We had Section 8 in Public Housing, and we were able to branch out. 

The Farmers Home at the time already oversaw housing, and we only came out with the tax credit, developed those properties, and partnered with people to do a scholar house, which is a cool idea. 

In the Scholar House program, you’d find parents that want to go back to school – we provided housing for those individuals as well. You have to be a parent. It was all about making sure that their kids are taken care of, and they are taken care of while they’re learning whatever it is they want to do going forward. 

AV: That’s innovative, and innovation doesn’t always have to be technology or blinking lights. What do you think about innovation, and how do you apply that to your job? 

SG: A lot of the housing industry is aging out. As I came over here, we have a lot of people who have been here for 25 or 30 years. The housing industry has been static, and that, “We’ve done it this way. We’ve always done it this way, and we’re going to keep doing it this way” thinking. It’s paper-centric. 

As we tried to do at KCDC, and now we’re doing at Morristown, is a change of direction. 

We are going to more of a business model instead of just being a governmental agency. We have to be able to provide for the community while providing for ourselves. We’re looking at all angles, both as far as what we’re doing internally as well as what we’re doing on the production side. Internally, we’re looking at things. The pandemic, although it’s been a horrible catastrophe, it also provided opportunities for us to look at new operational modes and methods. 

When we look at the IP side, in particular, we’re looking at customer service and ways to improve our customer service, but also improve their ability to become more efficient. If we can become more efficient, use what we have, grow what we have, use the technology that’s there that we haven’t used in the past. We’re not having contact with our customers. We’ve developed modes to have without that personal contact, to keep in touch with them, and to keep them getting the information that we need from them while providing them the information they need to survive. In the old realm, we come out of the back end of this, and we’re going to be much better off moving forward to provide services to all of our individuals even though we’re not necessarily providing all the services we want now. 

We will be able to step right back in and provide the personal services, but we’ll also be able to push out information, whether it’s using an app to push out information to our residents like “There’s food distribution going to be on X street. Come over here. We’re having an event for the kids.” We can use these push notifications, even things that aren’t good, push notifications to stay away from the main street. We’re looking at all this stuff and also the way we communicate with people saying, “Your restart is coming up. We can get that information to you and be able to virtually as much as possible get that information. We’re not having to hound them and do all that.” 

Virtual showings on units, things like that, anything we can do to make us more marketable while making the customer experience better and making worker satisfaction better, all ties in. 

We do that with budget constraints that are typical with the capital we have, we have to make a choice between these IT needs or how we’re going to provide better units for our people. All that being said, we’re trying to look many years down the line, and take care of IT needs which are a big thing with customer service. 

People don’t necessarily give people that live in affordable housing credit, but many of them, and most of them are very tech–savvy. They know how to operate your phones or their XBoxes or their PlayStations to communicate with us. The more we can do to bring them into the fold, the happier people we’re going to have in the open lines of communication. We’ll make it better for our staff because we don’t necessarily have residents yelling at us when we can take care of the situation when (residents) are in their house, instead of them being here. 

AV: How many residents do you have? 

SG: In our different Section 8 public housing, we have 1,100. We’re big enough that we have the metropolitan flavor, but we’re small enough that I can look out and know there are five lakes within a few miles of me. It’s the best of both worlds. 

AV: In the middle of the pandemic, when we didn’t know which direction it was going to go, you had to take on this important job and make sure, at a very vulnerable time for your population, to keep delivering services. Kudos to you. It’s like jumping on a rodeo horse as it’s going. How did you come up with the solutions that you needed right away? 

SG: Luckily, Morristown was well-run before. It needed to be pushed into more of a non-traditional public service to the more traditional business model. As we try to navigate somewhat away from the governmental side of it and provide the best for ourselves and our residents, that’s a big step for a quasi–governmental agency. 

When you start talking about net operating income and stuff like that, then they haven’t had to worry about it in the past. It’s an educational process for the staff. We’ve been going through that. We’re converting all of our properties through what’s called the RAD program away from public housing into a more of Section 8 private–based model. As we do that, it’s a large educational process.

Although, what we’re hoping during this is that the customers or residents won’t feel any of that pain because we will keep operating as much as possible the same. You’re trying to balance that out and get staff over into the “business mode” mindset, as opposed to coming in, and this is a governmental organization. 

We’re becoming so much more than that in the affordable housing industry. We want to produce, and this area here has a real shortness of traditional housing and affordable housing. There’s a lot of manufacturing that goes on here. It took me months to find a house. If it’s taking someone months to find a house, can you imagine what the rental market is? It’s tight. We’re trying to find ways to make a dent in that and make an impact and bring their work base, which I always look at affordable housing as economic infrastructure. 

They have to be near their jobs. It’s difficult for someone that is making minimum wage to pay for transportation to work while they’re also trying to pay their rent. When we produce these, you have to be very cognizant of what kind of population and where you’re putting them. It’s a whole new world there. 

I think I’ve veered off the question you asked, but as far as jumping in, it’s been a different mindset. We’ve talked a lot about innovation and the use of things. That’s where we want to be here, we want to be innovative. We’ve also got to be mindful of taking care of our customers and our residents while we’re doing that and not losing the societal reason why we do what we do. 

AV: That’s innovation to me. You’re taking something that has traditionally, for the last 100 years, been a government program. It’s welfare. It’s seen as handouts in certain parts of the media and press, but you’re turning it into the housing business as you see it because you’re right. It’s not just an affordable housing problem. It’s a housing problem. In Blount County and Knox County, it’s hard to find rentals and houses to buy, same as Morristown. The challenge is, how do you have sustainable growth? You have Amazon and DENSO investing here. They can’t find people because people can’t find houses. How does the public housing authority fit into that puzzle? 

SG: It can be difficult because the production side of it is extremely expensive, especially coming out of this pandemic with the price of labor and materials going up exponentially over 2020. There are mods out there, whether it’s the affordable housing tax credit program, Fannie Mae, FHA, whoever it is. Tennessee has a community that has a tax credit program. We’re looking at all those and looking at areas where we can build, but while we’re doing that, we also have to be very proactive in letting people know that the vast majority of their people aren’t what people think of in traditional public housing. About 35% of our people are elderly and/or disabled. In my mind, those are people like their brothers or fathers, that we have an obligation to take care of. 

The rest of the people are our workforce. I remember I would go into Knoxville to eat quite often and you’d look in a restaurant, and the place would be half empty, but you have a 1.5-hour wait. The reason was there weren’t enough workers within close enough distance to fill all the jobs. It’s not necessarily that people say “people won’t work.” People can’t get to work. If you’re working for $7, $8, $9 an hour, and you live 25 miles away, and you’ve got a vehicle that’s 20 years old, the first time that car breaks, then you don’t have a job. It creates situations where we’re looking at if we do elderly housing, we want it to be near the services that they need, such as hospitals and doctors. Whereas if we’re building family sites, we need them to be near areas where the jobs are because we have a captive workforce. We’ve got to find a way to get them to work. 

AV: Back many years ago, there were empty units and a 10-year waitlist. It’s a similar problem. Has that gotten any better? 

SG: It depends on the bedroom size. In the smaller bedroom size, we have a six to nine-month waitlist for people to get in. During the pandemic, people aren’t moving, and an eviction moratorium is in place. People have hunkered down, and the production has slowed down because of the problems you’ve had with COVID-19. 

I know we had more cool projects in Knoxville that we sat down at various times because of issues with COVID. If you’re working in an elderly high-rise or elderly units, you have to be cognizant if you want to either improve those units. If there are units that are currently occupied, you don’t want to bring COVID into a unit or a building that is full of elderly people that are much more apt to have issues with this virus. 

It slowed down production. The costs going up have not helped, but I’ve got to give Congress some credit. The CARES Act has been very helpful. It’s allowed us to resituate ourselves.

God forbid, if there is another pandemic, I can shut down the office and my staff can work from home now, whereas they couldn’t before. Although it wouldn’t be quite as efficient as what we’re doing now, we can still live by and get through. That’s been good. We looked at changing the industry and the way that we operate, even pre–pandemic, but the pandemic allowed us to focus on where we want to look at on the back end of this. We’re going to look totally different, and a lot of people are. 

AV: The whole industry has changed. It’s been great for the adoption of technology. I do miss the in-person meetings and I hope we can get back to it. But people that didn’t know about Zoom, now are Zooming all day. There’s Zoom fatigue there. We used to travel three or four times a month. I haven’t been on an airplane in a year, which is incredible. Things are changing rapidly. You mentioned things like virtual tours of your units. The term smart cities gets thrown around a lot when you don’t realize that there are small applications like that can make you a smart organization. What is the housing industry doing to make virtual life more accessible to people? 

SG: Morristown has been good. One of the least aspects is our kids’ virtual learning. We have been able to make sure that virtually all of our kids have tablets or laptops and access to the internet, but even with that, parents aren’t trained to be teachers. We’re taking the next step, and we’re working with the school system, hopefully, to catch up on some of the virtual lag this summer. We’re looking at those niches. For example, our website. We want our website to be a HUD. We don’t want it to be pictures of Morristown housing. 

Whether you’re a landlord, a vendor, a resident, a staff member or general member of the public, we want the people that can come to the website and have this virtual experience. At some point, where you can see our units, have videos of the unit, check your rent, pay your rent, and you can put in a work order. You can leave a message without necessarily having to do anything, set to go to that one central depository, forms, itinerary, where you can see what you may say it’s doing. 

The more we can drive our customers to that, it will track the traffic, which is great. We don’t have a mechanism to track what comes into the office, but we can track what a digital footprint is. We can see where people are going. For example, what pages are they going to? We can focus on making that a positive experience for them as possible, and why don’t they go into other areas that we feel are important and then try to make that more attractive relocation. 

For us, our website is going to be a big thing because we think that it can be a central depository. Whereas we have residents that are 25 miles from here. If they can do all that from their home, they haven’t spent $8 in gas and two hours of their life trying to come here. 

Hopefully, we can get there whether it’s a complaint, a work order, or the normal yearly information we have it all together. If we can do that for them, they move out of their properties, and they can turn around and say, “It makes this a great place to go and live.” It’s almost like you want to get your yoke score up. 

AV: It ties into your vision of running it like a business and turning those metrics. You’ve got a big vision. How do you translate that to your tech team? Do you have an IT team in–house?  

SG: Yes. Not just me, we have three or four other staff members. We have a talented, well-rounded staff. When you’re at an agency of our size, you become a jack of all trades. For the first 20 years of my life, when I started out, we didn’t even have cell phones. I keep looking and listening for the modem to kick in some facts. We had people here that have gone through that. They understand that side of it. They understand the housing side of it. Hopefully, what I bring is experience in other areas, what has worked, and a vision to move us towards that side of it. 

That’s a short way of saying we don’t have that piece, but we have a group of dedicated, knowledgeable people trying to work with our vendors to get where we want. We’re good at pushing our vendors. Sometimes, they’re good at saying, “We’re working on that. We’ll have that soon.” As soon as I hear the word “soon,” I want a definition. What does that mean? In my mind, soon is six weeks. In your mind, soon might be six months. That’s what we’re getting much better at, not just maintenance. 

We were paper-centric maintenance. We were finally able to get all their maintenance staff tablets. They can be from two to 25 miles away from us. If we have a work order coming in, it makes no sense for them to drive back, pick up a work order and go back out. Now we have the capability to push them out in the work order. They can fill it out right there. They don’t have to come back, and we don’t ever see any paper. 

AV: What do you use for your backend for processes like that? 

SG: We use Scott Accounting as a software provider. They are pretty good at what they do. They’re better than the ones that I have previously worked with. 

AV: You are active and narrow and circ because you’ve been president. Your vision is to transform Morristown housing into a well-run, well-oiled machine. Where do you see the housing industry in general going? Is everyone doing that as an industry, or are you one of the pioneers? 

SG: You like to think, no matter what, you’re on the cutting edge, whether you are or not. 

I don’t know that I want to go too far down that road. HUD is finally doing a good job of pushing out repositioning and explaining it to people. There are many people in our industry that still don’t understand what repositioning and asset management are. We’ve run their housing authorities for so long. There are many small agencies that struggle with that, and it’s not due to any fault of their own. That’s never been part of what they’ve had to do. 

HUD got much better training people, getting out the information and showing you the tool as to where you can possibly find ways to leverage your property, to make capital investments into your property. Once you learn that and start making these capital investments and you do get a positive test flow, you can start looking at your IT needs and say, “I’m not having to throw all my money at roofs, appliances, windows,” or whatever it is you’ve got under capital backhaul. You can start saying, “I can start working on the customer experience and the experience that we have as employees.” 

That’s another side of this as we’re going through this. I want to be cognizant of employee satisfaction. We have good long-term employees that have shown that they know what they’re doing, but we’re entering a new realm and a new phase of the way we can use technology, and we can use other resources to move forward. Keeping them satisfied, happy, and valued during this process can sometimes be hard to do because most people don’t like change. I happened to be at one of those. 

AV: The problem of attracting talent is the housing authority, it becomes then a marketing challenge. How do you appear “cool” to the new generation? 

SG: I’ve never met an individual that works in affordable housing that went to school thinking, “I want to work for a housing authority.” Finding those people, especially here at Morristown, that have that experience is difficult, and finding someone that wants to stick around and is excited by nerdy things like this can even be more of a challenge. 

AV: Sean, I appreciate your time. Is there anything we missed that you want to talk about? 

SG: No. I appreciate the chance to talk. It’s always great to talk to you. Hopefully, I’ll be back in the Maryville area sometime shortly, and we can get together in person.

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