Housing chief's vision reaching a crossroads
Backers and critics of Darrell Irions are dug in over the fate of the Graham-Rogall complex.
By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published March 17, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - Darrell Irions, the executive director of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, still answers most questions with the quick yes sirs instilled from his time in the Marines.
But in 11 years running the city's Housing Authority, Irions, 53, has seldom fallen in line.
He has defied the mayor and brushed aside the City Council, burned through five finance directors in a span of four years and developed and defended a plan to sell the city's largest public housing projects to private developers.
He survived a critical federal audit, moved his administrative offices to Largo and has risen to lead three of the county's authorities with a combined salary that bests counterparts in New York, Chicago and Dallas.
His decisions, each often more polarizing than the next, have attracted both believers and critics.
Those sides now have dug in as the authority considers the fate of its largest complex, Graham-Rogall.
At the core are two subtle but distinct ways people see the 53-year-old father of three, who left the agency last month on medical leave for an undisclosed ailment:
Is Irions irreverent, or is he righteous?
If Graham-Rogall is indeed sold, Irions pronounced Ear-ee-onz will have shed more than 70 percent of the city's public housing stock since taking over in 1995.
The moves have become a running joke among local social service groups, the punch line of which questions whether Irions knows he runs a public housing authority.
Irions has acknowledged the controversy, but downplays its significance. He points to a former housing authority property as evidence.
James Park was sold to a private developer in December 2005, but with a guarantee the property remain affordable, for-rent housing.
Residents living there were offered rent vouchers and the ability to move where they wanted, Irions said.
And with the proceeds from the sale, the housing authority has the ability to reinvest in new affordable housing.
The program, Irions says, has the potential to triple the amount of affordable housing in the city - even though the housing authority may not be responsible for any of it.
"We're trying to get ahead of the curve," Irions told the City Council in January. Irions was unavailable for comment for this story, housing authority officials said.
Compelling as it may be, it is unclear if Irions' argument applies beyond James Park.
Developers hoping to purchase Graham-Rogall, for instance, say they intend to convert the apartment complex into for-sale condominiums.
Its residents will be given rent vouchers to move, but even members of Irions' own authority board question whether there are sufficient available apartments to absorb 300 new low-income renters.
And with the $12-million from the sale, the housing authority may be hard-pressed to purchase or develop half the units it is losing, officials say.
"These are the kinds of things that make you wonder if he understands what his purpose is," said Jane Trocheck Walker, who runs a program that distributes free food to Graham-Rogall residents.
The housing authority says its hand has been forced.
This year St. Petersburg will receive only three-fourths of the subsidy it needs from the federal government, according to housing authority board member Walt Smyth.
In response, the housing authority must be creative, forging partnerships mixing low-income and market-rate housing in the same complex, so the market-rate tenants offset the losses of the subsidized units, Smyth and Irions have said.
The program has been successful across the country, and in Clearwater, officials point out.
St. Petersburg has yet to launch a mixed-income project.
Darrell Irions was never supposed to survive birth, doctors said. When he did, his parents nicknamed him Lucky.
Irions grew up part of a family of 10 in the rural suburbs south of Chicago.
His mother, Clementine Irions, had a knack for tailoring - good enough that people thought the Irionses were rich. They weren't.
"We couldn't have been snooty because we didn't have snooty money," said Mrs. Irions, who now lives in California.
Irions later attended the University of Nebraska and was a singer in the family band called the Steam Irons. He wore an Afro in college, his mother said.
Today, his haircut most resembles a closely shaved Mohawk, a product of three years as an active Marine Corps officer.
Irions landed in St. Petersburg after stints at two of the more troubled housing authorities in the country.
In Denver and later Chicago, Irions resigned high-level administrative posts as charges of corruption and cronyism surrounded each agency, according to published reports.
Both authorities were ultimately taken over by the same man, Kevin Marchman.
Marchman, a former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official brought in to clean up both agencies, would not discuss why Irions left either agency.
"Darrell has always chosen his own path," said Marchman, who is now director of the National Organization for African Americans in Housing. "At times it was questionable if (his decisions were) in the best interest of the public housing industry."
In St. Petersburg, Irions beat out two other housing officials for the executive director position.
According to his application for the job, Irions said he left Denver because a "new administration wanted its own team." In Chicago, he said, he reorganized the agency and in the process eliminated his own position. He provided an internal memo he wrote detailing the reorganization.
During a subsequent interview, board members said they believed Irions was offered a job to stay in Chicago.
Marchman said, however, he was not asked back.
The management of four of Pinellas County's five housing authorities is consolidated most mornings at one Tampa breakfast table.
Irions now leads housing agencies in St. Petersburg, Dunedin and Pinellas County. His wife and former co-worker in Chicago, Jacqueline Rivera, is director of the Clearwater Housing Authority.
The couple moved into a new, $600,000 home in a Tampa subdivision this year.
Friends and colleagues describe Irions, who is paid $220,500 annually, as a skilled speaker and demanding leader.
Critics say Irions talks his way around a troubled agency that is aloof and unapproachable.
Jim Oakley, who retired from the authority in January after two years as a housing inspector, said Irions runs his agency "like a plantation."
"People work like dogs," said Oakley, 62.
Oakley said it was not uncommon for Irions or his top deputy, Debbie Johnson, to ask a building maintenance man to fill up their cars with gas. And Irions rarely was in the office, Oakley said.
Still, "for all his faults, he's very personable," Oakley said. "He's got a charisma that makes you like him. He gets away with a lot because of that."
Askia Muhammad Aquil, a former housing authority deputy who now runs the independent St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services, said Irions is a taskmaster whose relationships in the affordable housing community are strained.
Irions, Aquil said, has been hamstrung by gaping cuts in federal subsidies.
"There is a belief, real or perceived, that the housing authority is not part of the effort to solve the problem of finding affordable housing," said Aquil. "People have this impression, (Irions is) not engaged, he's not trying to cooperate or be a team player."
It's a consequence of Irions following his beliefs, colleagues said.
One example: While many have wavered on whether Graham-Rogall should be sold, Irions has continued to defend the negotiations.
"When he thinks he's right, he wants to stay the course," said Angela Rouson, who chairs the Pinellas County Housing Authority board.
It is one of the reasons Rouson describes herself as a huge fan.
It's fodder for the other side, too.
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2273.