Council members upset over Ypsilanti Housing Commission director's 'over-the-top' salary
Ypsilanti Housing Commission director Walter Norris receives a base salary higher than the city manager, significantly higher than Ann Arbor’s housing commission's director, and he has received substantial raises during his eight year tenure.
That has sparked anger among some City Council Members as his contract came to light several weeks after federal reports condemned the YHC’s management and finances.
This year, Norris will receive a base salary of more than $105,000, a full health care package and use of a vehicle.
Responding to his critics, he says he believes he has vastly improved at the YHC since starting.
When Norris was hired in 2003, he was paid $70,000, meaning the housing commission board of commissioners has approved $35,000 in raises over eight years.
The outgoing and incoming Ann Arbor Housing Commission directors are each paid $88,000, and City Manager Ed Koryzno earns a base salary of $95,000, though he earns more with his pension and retirement.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city of Ypsilanti recently issued reports critical of the YHC’s management, finances and its physical properties. HUD’s sustainability report, which branded the agency as “troubled”, is requiring a number of corrective measures over the next six months or the agency could potentially install contracted management to run the YHC.
In its sustainability report, HUD labeled Norris’s salary “excessive.”
Council Member Pete Murdock called the salary “over the top and outrageous” but, despite outrage from several council members, there is little the council can do about Norris’s salary.
The YHC and Norris's salary is funded entirely by HUD and his salary is determined and voted on by the YHC Board of Commissioners, which is a separate legal entity from the city. That means city council cannot decide how much Norris makes.
The commissioners are nominated by Mayor Paul Schreiber and approved by City Council.
Deborah Strong, who is the longest serving housing commissioner and has been on the board since Norris was hired, said the board is taking a serious look at his salary. Strong said commissioners have been calling comparable-sized housing commissions around the sate and inquiring about their executive directors’ salaries since the sustainability report was issued.
She said Norris’s pay is higher than those the board has contacted, but underscored that the commissioners are continuing to do research.
She said Norris hasn’t received a raise in several years and his raises were originally based on the cost of living index. Raises are also contingent on performance reviews from the board.
Prior to Norris being hired, the YHC’s executive director earned $56,000 annually. Eric Temple, the YHC’s administrative specialist, now earns more than $61,000. Norris was hired in at $70,000 because of his previous experience as a housing commission director in Galveston, Texas.
The $35,000 in raises breaks down to a 6.8 percent increase annually. Records show that from 2003 to 2006, his salary increased by $10,000, then another $8,000 in 2006. His last raise came in 2009, which was for $4,000.
Strong said she didn’t know what corrective action commissioners might take, but said they are considering several options.
“We are not taking this lightly and we are doing our due diligence,” she said.
“I will say the commission collectively is concerned. We are having good discussions about this, and as in any situation, no individual is all bad or good. There have been huge successes this year, but there are some huge liabilities and issues that we have to take into consideration.”
Council Member Brian Robb expressed frustration with the Board of Commissioners for approving the salary hikes.
“The audacity of the housing commissioners to give those kind of raises is sickening,” he said.
Norris said he isn’t the one to judge if his salary is excessive or not, but highlighted his successes since he has been in Ypsilanti. Among those are the renovation of the Paradise Manor housing project and the $18 million Hamilton Crossing redevelopment.
“We’ve brought to the city a project that will inject $18 million into the city’s economy,” he said. “I don’t know how that compares to anyone else in the city, I just know the one we have been involved in is bringing in funds, jobs, improvements to the housing, and that’s part of my job.”
When asked about his salary compared with the director of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, Norris said he didn’t know what kind of experience the director had, but highlighted his long resume. It includes 35 years as a housing director, he said.
Ann Arbor hasn’t seen the scale of redevelopment projects that Ypsilanti has seen, though Ann Arbor also manages over 100 more units. Additionally, critics contend, the AAHC is not perfect but not working through a sustainability plan with HUD.
Schreiber served on the Housing Commission when Norris was hired and said he felt a $70,000 entry salary was appropriate, as were the first several raises because of improvements at the agency during that time. He said he agreed with the HUD sustainability report's assessment that Norris's salary is now too high.
A director could be worth $105,000 annually if the housing commission is run well Schreiber said, but he didn't think the YHC is run that well.
"I think the issue is not the salary but the performance of the housing commission," he said, adding that he believes the commissioners are serious about addressing the situation.
Council Member Ricky Jefferson said he thought the salary "undeniably high" and said it needed to be justified by more than words.
But he also said council is limited in what action they can take at the moment.
"I can only believe the facts and one fact is all members in council are evaluating the (HUD reports) that we received," he said. "We have to wait to do anything, but we will act in the interest of the city."