Fayetteville Housing Authority fires executive director

Willow Heights is one of three public housing complexes owned by the Fayetteville Housing Authority / Google Maps

The Fayetteville Housing Authority board will soon begin a national search for a new leader.

The board fired four-year executive director Deniece Smiley during an executive session at the end of its most recent meeting on Sept. 20. The meeting began at 6 p.m. inside City Hall and ran for over six hours before the closed session was held.

“The Fayetteville Housing Authority Board of Commissioners embraces and acknowledges the opportunities and challenges before us to provide affordable housing in a time of great change for our region,” said board chair Melissa Terry in a statement. “To that end, we would like to thank Ms. Deniece Smiley for her service and dedication, but we are heading in a new direction that requires new leadership.”

Smiley’s removal is the most recent personnel change within the Housing Authority.

Two members of the board resigned last month, including then-chair Mike Emery.

In a letter to the city, Emery said the volunteer position had become too stressful.

“Issues of late have shown to me a side of things locally that I care not to ever see again,” he said. “When you manage to get on the unpopular side of a group, person, or issue, you can expect some resistance. However, the torment that I have witnessed the executive director and staff of the FHA endure, along with myself being a target over the course of two years is nothing short of vicious.”

He was referring to a group of residents who were opposed to the board’s decision to sell one of the aging public housing properties the Housing Authority owns and move its residents to another complex it manages.

The board last year voted to sell Willow Heights to a private developer and move its occupants to an expanded Morgan Manor. Some residents said they would rather see improvements at Willow Heights instead of adding more low-income residents to the Morgan Manor area.

Terry, who was one of the leading opponents of the plan, was appointed to the board by the City Council in an effort to alleviate some of the outside criticism.

In his letter, Emery said things did not improve after Terry’s appointment. He said he became a victim of verbal attacks in person and electronic harassment through social media, text message, email and cell phone.

“Add to that the fear that goes along with having all your personal contact information, including home address, spread around by groups and individuals seeking to pressure and intimidate,” Emery said. “All of this has been relentless.”

Mayor Lioneld Jordan called a special City Council meeting in July to discuss the board’s five-year plan. Jordan said the goal was to allow residents to express their opinions about the Housing Authority in a more official atmosphere.

After nearly four hours of discussion and debate, the council made six recommendations to the FHA board that included a warning to abandon the plan to sell Willow Heights, which the board eventually agreed to do.

Board member Chris White resigned the following day, and Terry was appointed board chair soon afterwards.

The City Council last week appointed Kristen Bensinger and Evelyn Rios Stafford to replace Emery and White. The two other members are Lucky McMahon and Debra Humphrey.

The board is expected to name an interim director during a special meeting at 1:30 p.m. today (Sept. 24).