‘A wonderful experience:’ Longtime CEO of Columbus housing authority announces retirement

After 45 years of public service, with the last 18 spent at the Housing Authority of Columbus, Len Williams has announced he will retire from his role as chief executive officer in June.

“I knew I was not going to make it to 50 years, so I thought 45 years was pretty good,” Williams said. “It has been a wonderful experience here, I could not have asked for a better job.”

Williams, 67, worked for housing authorities in Savannah and Birmingham before coming to Columbus in October 2001.

The authority has an annual operating budget of around $30 million and in addition to managing housing projects in Columbus, it also manages projects for other cities and counties in the region.

The accomplishments of the authority since Williams arrived have been significant, he said, with $200 million worth of modernization and development work completed in the last 18 years.

“We’ve developed seven mixed-financed properties, we’ve demolished about 1,700 dilapidated properties and rebuilt, we have made major renovations of several other properties, so that obviously is one of the big things we’re proud of,” he said.

Under his leadership, traditional public housing properties like Peabody Apartments, Baker Village and Booker T. Washington have been transformed into new mixed-income projects called Ashley Station, Arbor Point and Columbus Commons, while the old Chapman Homes housing project was made into Patriot Pointe, which is specifically for senior citizens.

Other properties have been renovated or are on the way to being demolished. Three unfinished projects weigh on Williams as he prepares for his departure: in particular Chase Homes on 20th Street, which was constructed in 1952 and is slated for demolition.

A demolition disposition application will have to be approved by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the structures at Chase Homes to be taken down, and a tax credit application has been submitted to help fund construction of replacement housing, Williams said.

Similarly, Warren Williams Homes off Wynnton Road and Elizabeth Canty Homes off Cusseta Road are facing renovation or demolition. Once those projects are complete, Williams said he thinks the future is bright for the housing authority.

“I think we can see the housing authority looking forward to doing some different things, maybe building some workforce housing, maybe building some additional housing in the Mill District area,” Williams said. “The housing authority is in really good financial condition, I like to think their best days are ahead of them not behind them.”

In addition to all of the updates to dilapidated housing, Williams said he is also proud of the employees at the authority, stating the people are what he will miss most.

“We went from 220 employees to about 120 at one point; we’re a little above that now,” he said. “Because as we took down properties, we also lost income. We never laid anybody off...I think taking care of the employees we built a loyalty and trust level among the employees that I think is just hard to duplicate.”

He also commended the seven-member board, who are appointed by Columbus Council, and touted the fact that the authority joined HUD’s Moving to Work program about five years ago. It is one of only 39 out of more than 3,000 housing authorities in the program, according to Williams, and works by allowing the housing authority to request waivers of regulations, giving the authority more flexibility.

Williams will also be retiring from two national boards and several local boards he sits on.

He said he has plans to travel but ultimately stay in Columbus and work part time with the housing authority.

On Thursday, the board will meet at the Auburn Marriott in Opelika, Alabama during its annual retreat. The board will discuss potential successors for Williams, who says he isn’t worried about the future of the housing authority.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “They will be just fine without me.”

Allie Dean is the Columbus city government and accountability reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer, and also writes about new restaurants, developments and issues important to readers in the Chattahoochee Valley. She’s a graduate of the University of Georgia.