After decades in charge of the Opelika Housing Authority, Akinola Popoola has brought his experience to Mobile. Popoola started as the Mobile Housing Board’s new full-time executive director on Friday, Dec. 1, after falling in love with the city when his son attended the Alabama School of Math and Science in midtown.
“It’s just a beautiful city,” he said in a phone interview.
Popoola sees the job as an opportunity to turn the city’s low-income housing situation around, after more than a year of uncertainty. While there are a few options, Popoola said he wants to get in and get an “assessment of the needs on the ground.”
“There are a lot of vacant units,” he said. “We have to figure out what it is going to take. What do we want to do? What is best for the city?”
Every housing authority has to find a way to deal with vacancies and it’s not an easy fix, he said.
“This is not just a Mobile problem, it’s a U.S. problem,” he said. “It’s a problem with any large city.”
After 20 years in Opelika, Popoola was ready to move on to other challenges. Other than the high number of vacancies, he said, there are few similarities between the situations facing each of the cities’ housing authorities, but the source of funding and regulations are similar.
“Every city is unique,” he said. “I understand we dwell in an environment regulated by the federal government. We have to find a way to work within those regulations.”
Funding is also a common problem for housing authorities. To help stabilize funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, many housing authorities, including Mobile and Opelika, have opted for a public-private model called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).
Under Popoola, Opelika began converting its public housing to RAD, which infused private money from developers into the typical public housing model and transformed all the properties into Section 8 housing. Mobile is currently going through a similar conversion. MHB Vice Chairman Reid Cummings said Popoola’s experience with RAD was one of the reasons he got the job.
“Mr. Popoola had the most experience,” Cummings said. “He’s been through the conversion of all housing stock to RAD. To have someone go through it successfully is big in my book.”
It took almost a year to get Popoola in place. After former Executive Director Dwayne Vaughn resigned in February, the board named CFO Lori Shackelford interim executive director until a full-time replacement could be hired.
In late June, the board hired George Lee Byars on a split decision, with Cummings dissenting. At issue was a questionnaire Popoola didn’t fill out by a deadline. The board rescinded Byars’ offer in August once his background was checked. There was no explanation given at the time other than Cummings saying Byars “did not pass muster” during a vetting process.
Popoola was later hired unanimously by the board.
“While the process of hiring a new [executive director] was long and tedious at times, gaining someone with Mr. Popoola’s skill set and integrity was well worth the time we spent ensuring the best candidate was selected,” MHB Chairwoman Kimberly Pettway wrote in a statement. “I am confident that he will move MHB in the right direction. We are beyond excited to have him here.”
One of Popoola’s first duties will no doubt be dealing with the fallout from a damaging report from HUD’s Office of Inspector General dated August 2016.
The report detailed a conflict of interest between the board and its nonprofit arm, Mobile Development Enterprises. As a result, HUD fined MHB and forced the board to make changes, including rolling MDE offices into the MHB framework.
While the framework for these changes, including new job descriptions, has been started, Popoola will be able to make many of the final decisions.