The CEO of the Delray Beach Housing Authority provides more than shelter for the city’s most vulnerable
We know all about the tourist-brochure part of Delray. The part with the boutique hotels and concept restaurants. The part that wins awards, radiates fun in the sun, and takes up the most real estate in this magazine.
Steps away from the lacquered shine of downtown Atlantic Avenue, hiding in plain sight, is the other side of Delray. Nearly 12 percent of the city’s population lives in poverty, according to the Census, and that’s a pre-COVID number. The pandemic has disproportionately affected the city’s most vulnerable, and homelessness has only increased over a year of economic distress.
That is where the Delray Beach Housing Authority (DBHA) comes in. The government entity, founded in 1978, receives funding through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide rental assistance to low-income families. Together with its in-house property management company, Delray Housing Group (DHG), the DBHA provides accommodations to 1,111 Palm Beach County families in the form of rental-assistance vouchers. The vouchers provide the tenants apartments in 13 public housing units in Delray, with other DBHA families discreetly housed in units from Boca Raton to Lake Worth Beach.
“Families pay rent based on their incomes,” says Shirley Erazo, CEO of the DBHA. “In all aspects, we’re helping them with their rent, we’re paying attention, making sure they’re kept in a safe environment. Drive to Lake Delray [the apartment complex where the DBHA maintains 404 units]. You’ll see how nice and clean, how pleasant it is to live there. … We operate above standard. We take care of the properties as we would want to live in them, or our parents would want to live in them. You can’t even tell that they’re public housing units.”
Erazo, 56, has been CEO of the Housing Authority for fewer than two years, but she’s a lifer to the cause. The native New Yorker moved to Palm Beach County 26 years ago as the DBHA’s Section 8 Housing director, then worked up to chief operations officer and finally director of the organization. A hands-on leader, she gives away her personal cell phone number to tenants, even if it means fielding queries unrelated to the DBHA purview.
“We serve as a liaison for our residents in all services,” says Jakeleen Fernandez, DHG vice president of operations. “Shirley is very much involved in trying to bring services to all of our residents. She is instrumental in making a lot happen.”
During the pandemic, this has meant ensuring their residents, especially the elderly Section 8 residents of the Courts of Village Square, had access to COVID tests, cleaning supplies, PPE and home-cooked meals.
“We provided them with $25 gift cards for groceries,” adds Erazo. “We advocate. We see the need, and we address it.”
And then, when their elderly tenants had trouble signing up for vaccine appointments, the DBHA stepped in. “Through the collaboration of local officials, we were able to get [vaccinations] set up. They brought in a health clinic team to the site, and we were able to successfully vaccinate more than 300 residents.” As of this writing, Erazo is aware of only two tenants in the city’s Section 8 program who have died from the coronavirus.
Economically, however, the virus has put the need for public housing in stark relief. “Approximately 200 of our families lost jobs as a result of the pandemic,” Erazo says. “So we came into play and paid most or all of their rent. … The Housing Authority is a vital agency.”
It is also, unfortunately, maxed out of space, and there is not enough housing to meet the demand. The organization’s Housing Choice Voucher program has been closed for some time, with 2,695 applicants on the waiting list. The DBHA hopes to win approval for a 3-acre vacant lot on Southwest 12th Avenue and Southwest 10th Street, which would allow for 54 additional rental units.
In the meantime, Erazo will continue to field calls from tenants in need. “I will grab that phone anytime during the day,” she says. “This is a mission for us. I was put here to serve the families and the residents. It gives me satisfaction to be able to transition a family that is homeless to a home. When they come here, they’ve gone through all local agencies, and they’ve told them ‘no, we have nothing for you.’ And when we can help them, it’s inspiring, just to see them say, ‘there’s hope for me. I have a home.’ And that’s what motivates us to continue our journey here.”