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WATER VALLEY – After more than two decades of serving the residents of Water Valley Housing Authority in various positions, Sharon White is now tasked with overseeing the 200 units that are home to many in the community. White was promoted to executive director on Nov. 1.
“When I got the position in November, I told them that I was going to let God lead and I am going to follow,” White shared about her promotion that comes with strong responsibilities.
She started as an occupancy clerk in 2000, a job that was admittedly an eye-opener. She cited strict parents growing up and a sheltered life, and soon learned about hardships families face.
“It really hurts to hear some of the stories,” White explained. “I found it was important for the residents to understand that we have a job to do and guidelines to follow.”
In 2007 she was elevated to the administrative assistant position, a job that brought new challenges as she was involved in people’s finances. Monthly rent could increase with new jobs or other changes, and she was responsible for coordinating the details. And with White’s passion to help others, her input has ranged from financial or family counseling to life planning. Her advice can start early in the process when a potential occupant fills out paperwork to get on the waiting list. White stresses the importance of saving for up-front costs that include turning the utilities on, paying the $100 deposit and first month’s rent. It can take up to a year before a unit becomes available, especially in the elderly section.
“I love when we can call and let someone know we have an opening for them,” White shared. “But it hurts when they can’t come up with the money.”
The housing units range from one to four bedrooms with rent varying from $239 to $639 based on the size. Occupants pay on a sliding scale based on their income, meaning some pay full price while others pay little or no rent. White added that almost 25 percent of the occupants pay full price. Her duties have included pursuing the rent, even taking residents to court if necessary.
“We always stress to make sure your priorities are right. But it really hurts to hear some of the stories,” she reiterated.
Communication is essential, as occupants must understand that the guidelines are implemented from USDA’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and must be enforced by the personnel at the housing authority.
Her stories from the last 22 years are moving – single mothers who may live in the housing authority on a short-term basis while they get their life back on track, while others stay and raise their families. White has watched children grow up and start their own families. She shares about a tough mandate handed down by HUD in 2016 that prohibited smoking in the housing units and on the property.
“That was tough,” White recalled. “Telling residents they can’t smoke in their apartments.”
Residents are also required to keep their city utilities and gas turned on.
“If the utilities are turned off, once we find out the occupant has 14 days to get their lights or gas turned back on,” White explained.
The housing authority complex includes 52 elderly units, and many of the older residents may stay for decades. For White, the toughest days are when one of the long-time residents dies.
“It can be like losing another mom, sister or brother,” she explains, adding that over the years a planned quick visit with a long-time resident can last much longer, even hours.
“Sometimes our elderly residents just don’t have any visitors,” she added.
One of her favorite memories is Operation Christmas several years ago, when they made sure every elderly person residing in the housing authority received a gift box.
“That was before Covid and the next year we couldn’t do it,” she added.
Her strong connection with the residents comes as no surprise as White comes from a close-knit family. Her father, Cleveland Alexander, serves as pastor at Pine Grove West M.B. Church in Tillatoba. White is one of six sisters and their parents, Rev. Alexander and Hazel, recently celebrated their 45th anniversary. White and her husband, Frederick White, have two grown children.
In addition to her father, she also cites Barron Caulfield as a strong role model. Caulfield served as executive director when White first started.
“Mr. Caulfield was wonderful. I get a lot of what I am doing now based on what he did. He was so caring,” White recalled.
White said her plans are to gradually start implementing programs to help residents and their families, similar to Caulfield and other predecessors prior to Covid. Potential programs range from after-school tutoring, mentorship, faith-based programs and others.
“I want to get that back going,” White emphasizes.
Each year as Christmas approaches, she noted that there are always residents who report that their finances are tight, as they are juggling purchasing Christmas presents for their children with paying rent. This year, White is excited to have good news to share. A recent utility study in the community prompted a rent reduction by $20 per month.
“That is going to be good news for them!” White said.