House director shines while doing double-duty

By: By Scott Bigelow - Staff writer

LUMBERTON Lemark Harris is taking some time off over the holidays after serving as executive director of both the Lumberton and Pembroke public housing authorities.

While serving full-time in Pembroke, Harris was called on twice in the past five years to lead the Lumberton Housing Authority through difficult times. By all accounts, he thrived in Lumberton while guiding the agency through a management crisis and then leading it for months after Hurricane Matthew damaged more than 250 housing units.

Harris led the Lumberton Housing Authority, which manages public housing and the Section 8 housing subsidy programs, from March 2013 to October 2015 and again from February to December in 2017.

“Both times, Lumberton was without a manager, and the board wanted somebody with experience to fill in,” said Harris, who is a 25-year veteran of public housing management. “I was not sure at first, but it worked out.”

In 2013, the Lumberton Housing Authority was in crisis. It had lost top managers to an embezzlement inquiry and had not produced financial statements in six months.

Harris is an accountant by training, with an undergraduate degree from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and an master’s degree in Business administration from Campbell University. He put the Housing Authority’s finances in order in short order.

“That was a big deal,” Harris said. “We’re working with 20 different special purpose funds. We’re confident in the financials now.”

Harris’ people skills are a match for his financial abilities. He used those skills to rebuild the Housing Authority’s management team.

“We got right on hiring managers,” he said. “We helped them rebuild the whole team. We got some really good people.”

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had Lumberton under special scrutiny. Lumberton was repaying nearly $400,000 in misused funds over 10 years. HUD saw Harris as the manager to bring stability to the authority.

With the finances in order and a new executive director in place, Harris returned to Pembroke. When Hurricane Matthew devastated Lumberton and its public housing units, the new director left, and Harris was called on again.

“Since March 1, our Section 8 group processed more than 1,500 applications and purged its waiting list,” Harris said. “We were able to address all the displaced people.”

In a recent interview, Harris never used the words “I” or “me” when speaking about the housing authorities’ work. It was always “we.”

“We have good people who work hard,” Harris said. “One person I give great credit to is Cynthia Chatman, in the Housing Choice Voucher program. She worked nights and weekends to clear the waiting list.”

When speaking of his time at the Lumberton agency Harris refers to himself only in connection to the satisfaction felt in doing the job assigned to him.

“It was a rewarding experience helping the agency — my friends — in their time of need,” Harris said. “I plan to retire this summer with 30 years.”

Those years include the time Harris worked in UNCP’s controller’s office before joining the Pembroke Housing Authority, where he has served 25 years. In public housing, he is one of just two managers in Robeson County with more than 20 years of service.

One of Harris’ major accomplishments as manager of Pembroke and Lumberton’s public housing is bridging the seemingly huge divide between the two municipalities.

Harris receives rave reviews from housing authority board members in both communities. Chester Chavis, a 10-year member of Pembroke’s board, ran out of superlatives with which to describe Harris’ abilities.

“If Lemark said it, you could take it to the bank,” Chavis said. “He is good people, and he’s been good to me personally.”

Chavis said Harris had a special mission in regard to the divide between Lumberton and Pembroke.

“I believe he did heal some the the Lumberton-Pembroke issues,” Chavis said. “We can get along, and I think he wanted to prove that.”

Danny Martin, a 20-year member of the Lumberton Housing Authority board, also praised Harris’ work.

“He did a really good job for us,” Martin said. “He is a good business manager with people and accounting skills.

“He’s been training some people for us who will do a good job going forward. Lemark pulled us out of some tough times.”

Lumberton will begin searching for a new housing director in the new year, and Pembroke will begin its search not long afterward. Adrian Lowery is currently the interim manager of the Lumberton authority.

By Scott Bigelow

Staff writer

Staff writer Scott Bigelow may be reached at 910-644-4497 or by email at [email protected]

Staff writer Scott Bigelow may be reached at 910-644-4497 or by email at [email protected]