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HomeNewsLocal newsVIHA’s Robert Graham Retiring After 15 Years at the Helm

VIHA’s Robert Graham Retiring After 15 Years at the Helm

HUD Deputy Secretary Pamela Hughes Patenaude, Gov. Kenneth Mapp, and Robert Graham review plans to demolish Tutu High Rise after 2017 hurricanes. (Source file photo)
HUD Deputy Secretary Pamela Hughes Patenaude, Gov. Kenneth Mapp, and Virgin Islands Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Graham review plans to demolish Tutu Hi-Rise after 2017 hurricanes. (Source file photo)

In 2008, when Robert Graham was appointed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to lead the Virgin Islands Housing Authority out of federal receivership, he arrived with decades of experience in public housing management and consulting.  Having racked up 33 years in the field, Graham will retire at the end of  December.

VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham
VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham

In her July 5, 2022 ChangeMakers podcast, Katie Goar said, by way of introduction, “Mr. Graham’s years of affordable housing experience has resulted in the successful turn-around of several troubled housing authorities and non-profit entities with underperforming housing portfolios.” Goar, a professor of Public Management, Public Organization, and Public Policy at Purdue University, said, “He began his housing career in 1990 at the largest housing authority in New Jersey and after twelve years in New Jersey and leading a successful turnaround, Mr. Graham went on to lead the successful turn-around of housing authorities in both Connecticut and the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

In 2003, when the federal Housing and Urban Development Department appointed federal receiver Donna Ayala, who at the time headed HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing, VIHA had failing grades. HUD Assistant Secretary Michael Liu said that while the receivership  was not unprecedented, neither was it commonplace. “Since 1985, there have been 17 takeovers out of 3,200 housing agencies nationwide.”

Fast forward 19 years when it is fair to say VIHA made the Dean’s list. In 2022, auditor Richard M. Larsen, a partner at Novogradac & Company LLP, said the V.I. Housing Authority’s 2020 audit reports showed “the highest level of assurance that we can give.”

Among the items Laren’s said stood out in the “unmodified opinions” — meaning the auditors have no concerns — is the V.I. Housing Authority currently has an “outstanding” liquidity ratio. “They have 10 ½ months of operating funds,” he said, “leaving them in a position to pay their bills in a timely manner.”

Larsen, whose area of focus is the affordable housing industry, with a particular expertise in auditing public housing authorities and their affiliate entities, said normally if a housing authority has four to six months it is considered “good.”

The abnormally high liquidity is an indication of a “tight ship,” he said, adding the local agency is “running their federal programs efficiently.”

But a financial tight ship is only part of what is important to Graham. He believes strongly that providing social support systems to middle- and low-income housing residents is equally critical. “It is the role of affordable housing,” he said recently, “to offer programs that will lead residents to a life of prosperity.”

Those programs include everything from job training to healthcare to mental health services and more. But, never a purveyor of false humility, Graham is quick to admit that the idea “is bigger than me.” A year or so ago when Graham brought Marvin Nesbitt, a South Carolina native with years of experience in community development — including 12 years at the Atlanta Housing Authority — to offer his expertise, it was a measure of Graham’s leadership abilities. Though Nesbitt did not stay on, he did spend his time in the territory sharing his wealth of knowledge and experience with others who could carry on the work. That work, Nesbitt has stated publicly, involves “seeing to it that individuals and families from underserved communities are able to walk a path that leads towards generational success.”

Former Human Services commissioner Christopher Finch, a member of the newly formed seven-member Housing Authority board in 2014 when VIHA was returned to the Virgin Islands’ care, said in a phone interview, “We owe Robert Graham a big thank you for all the work he did in in bringing the Housing Authority back to the territory.” Finch, who was well acquainted with working with HUD as the former director of Lutheran Social Services, said crucial to that process was Graham’s ability and understanding of the need to follow federal guidelines.

Sandra B. Henriquez, HUD assistant secretary for the Office of Public and Indian Housing in 2014 when the transfer took place, praised the work of the agency under Graham’s tutelage, saying the authority was “more stable than it has ever been.”

At that time, with the new board in place, it would’ve been easy enough for Graham to walk away. But he didn’t.

Sens. Celestino White, Louis Hill, Robert Graham, Gov. John de Jongh, and VIHFA Director Clifford Graham at 2010 transfer of the Warren E. Brown housing community site back to the V.I. government. (Source file photo)
Sens. Celestino White and Louis Hill, VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham, Gov. John de Jongh, and V.I. Housing Finance Authority Director Clifford Graham at the 2010 transfer of the Warren E. Brown housing community site back to the V.I. government. (Source file photo)

Not only did Graham hold his position at the helm of VIHA through three administrations, a feat in itself, but as a Black man from the states it’s “something of a miracle,” according to former Gov. John P. deJongh, who worked closely with Graham  during his administration when the federal receivership was lifted.

DeJongh attributed much of Graham’s success to his ability to form good and mutually beneficial relationships, the earmark of a true leader.

Graham’s strategy for building local capacity was always “to bring in experienced housing professionals from other large housing authorities to develop our local leaders to take over,” he said recently. This strategy has proven successful in all the places he has worked, particularly in the Virgin Islands.

Graham’s ability to work with others and form alliances was successful, according to Finch, “in replacing our worn-out and tired affordable housing with, new up-to-date dwellings.”

The former Human Services commissioner added Graham was equally committed  to social, educational and work development for the residents, while also holding them accountable for stepping up to the plate.

While those interviewed for this story who have worked with Graham and many others are effusive in their praise for what he accomplished in his years with the authority, he is unwilling to accept anything even close to full credit for it.

Graham said he worked with a team of dedicated professionals to develop what he called “an aggressive 10-year plan” that would replace all 3,000 units of obsolete public housing.  Unfortunately, he said, “we were unable to get all of the funding we expected to achieve the goals we had set.”

The groundbreaking for a new Donoe Housing Community on St. Thomas took place in 2021. (Source file photo)

While he was successful in seeing 560 new units built under his leadership, what he feels even more positive about as he leaves his post is the progress made in residential services.   Bright Paths, as the program is called, is “fully staffed.” And more importantly, he added, none of it depends upon federal or local money but rather, relies on funding from investor equity and non-profits who assist in providing some of the services

It’s important to note that were it not for a diagnosis of and treatment for stage IV cancer, Graham, in his early 70s, would stay at the helm.

But while that was not feasible, not unlike the 2014 transition he oversaw, he is not leaving the Virgin Islands. Rather,  he looks forward to enjoying spectacular sunsets from his island home, and maybe, just maybe seeing that aggressive plan fulfilled.

“It is my hope that the planning work we have done over the years will eventually be carried out through the public-private relationships we have successfully developed over the years.”

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