An otherwise uneventful city commission meeting on Aug. 2 alluded to prior — and potential — conflict between the Key West Housing Authority’s five-member governing board and some members of the city commission, including Mayor Teri Johnston.
City Commissioner Clayton Lopez at Tuesday’s meeting remarked on the recent retirement of longtime Housing Authority commissioner Roosevelt Sands, who at 91 is the second-oldest housing commissioner. Chairman Frank Toppino is 98. Prior to Sands’ retirement, the average age of the board was 86.
Lopez confirmed with City Manager Patti McLauchlin that the city will honor Sands for his service. Lopez also reminded Johnston, who has authority to appoint the housing authority commissioners, that Sands had recommended an individual to replace him on the board.
“It’s someone I’d certainly recommend as well,” Lopez said.
Johnston acknowledged Sands’ “very honorable career, but,” she said, “this is a mayor’s appointment. I’ll take his recommendation into consideration, but I’ve been interviewing candidates and will bring my appointment forward.”
The housing authority board manages millions of dollars in property as well as federal, state and local housing funds. It manages the city’s public housing developments, Poinciana Gardens assisted-living facility and scores of affordable housing units, including the Henry Haskins Senior Citizen apartments and the under-construction Garden View Apartments on College Road. The housing board is slated to discuss tenant selection for Garden View Apartments when it meets at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9 at 1400 Kennedy Dr., Key West.
The housing authority board last made headlines in February 2021, when Johnston tried unsuccessfully to expand it from five to seven members. Then in March 2021, City Commissioner Sam Kaufman urged the board to rename Porter Place public housing complex. Kaufman and historians provided evidence of its namesake’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan and the fact that when it opened in 1930, Porter Place was designated whites-only.
The housing board initially refused to even discuss the renaming, and refused to give Kaufman an extra minute to speak during the public comment period. Housing commissioners Toppino and Bob Dean bristled at the perceived implication of racism.
“Let’s vote no and move on to something more important,” board chairman Toppino said at the March 2021 meeting.
“Whoever Sam Kaufman is has turned this into a racial issue. I don’t think we ought to take any action,” Toppino told the board, then stormed out of the meeting, seemingly unaware that Kaufman was and is a city commissioner.
“This really made me angry,” housing vice chair Dean said. “I’ve been on this board 49 years. We’ve served thousands of black people and white people. No one on this board is a racist.”
Housing Commissioner Annette Mobley, one of the board’s two black members, supported the name change, saying, “In the words of John Lewis, ‘We are better than this.’” But her motion to approve the change died for a lack of a second.
Commissioner Roosevelt Sands, the other black commissioner, who is now retiring, suggested the board postpone the conversation until all facts were known about JY Porter’s involvement with the KKK.
In April 2021, the housing authority renamed Porter Place for Lang Milian, one of the first black city commissioners.
Around the same time in 2021, Mayor Teri Johnston pitched a seven-member housing board, wanting to appoint two new members. She said she was looking for people with an understanding of the current state of affordable housing, available funding sources and options for infilling, or adding units to, existing public housing neighborhoods.
The city commission back then voted 5-2 against the mayor’s proposed expansion of the housing authority board. Kaufman and some community members supported the idea, calling for younger members with fresh perspectives and expertise, while an equal number of other, mostly older, residents supported the status quo.