by Sean McManus
It’s been one month and one day since Dwight Peterson moved into the post of field office director for the Jacksonville office of Housing and Urban Development and he says he’s “happy to be busy again.”
Peterson’s most recent job was in South Dakota where he was state coordinator in the HUD office in Sioux Falls. Before that, he was manager of the San Diego and Phoenix HUD offices.
“Climate-wise this is most like San Diego, but the job here is the most like my time in Phoenix,” said the amicable Peterson, who also noted that because it’s very early in his tenure here, the regional director in Atlanta has requested that he not yet comment on HUD policy generally. “But Jacksonville seems like a really nice place,” he said. “I think I’d like to stay.” Peterson said Phoenix’s booming economy and vibrant building sector is similar to the situation in Jacksonville.
Peterson oversees an office of 116 people in the BellSouth tower. There are four HUD offices in Florida — here, Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. Peterson reports to the regional director in Atlanta, who represents the Southeast, the largest region in the United States. Mel Martinez, the current secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, ran the Orlando HUD office before being appointed to the Cabinet by President George W. Bush.
Peterson’s job is in large part ceremonial. He serves as a liaison to mayors, city managers, elected representatives, state and local officials, congressional delegations and customers in Florida’s northern 36 counties.
“I go to everything,” he said. “Anything to do with the homeless, public housing, home building and buying or spending block grant money.”
HUD basically serves four functions: it helps the homeless by providing money for shelters and grants for non-profit organizations; provides low income people with safe and sanitary housing by subsidizing rental properties; helps people buy homes by securing mortgages through the Federal Housing Administration and controls the administration of block grants.
“The last one is the urban development part,” said Peterson. “And block grants are pretty popular with states because they can be used for lots of different stuff and cities like them because they can make it seem like the money came from them.”
But actually, it’s money that comes from the federal government. The most visible manifestation of block grants, according to Peterson, is money spent for natural disasters such as tornadoes in South Dakota and hurricanes in Florida. The way the federal government spends money to rebuild after disasters is through block grants. Cities with a population over 50,000 people, like Jacksonville, receive block grants directly. Cities with populations under 50,000 have the money diverted to the states which administer it.
Peterson estimated the total amount of money allocated annually in North Florida through HUD at about $100 million. And HUD operates about 10,000 housing units through the Jacksonville Housing Authority, an affiliate.
Another major HUD function is the administration of empowerment zones. Recently, in a $17 billion tax incentive program to stimulate job growth, promote economic development and create affordable housing opportunities, Jacksonville was named a federal empowerment zone. Started in 1994, the empowerment zone concept was created to rebuild communities in poverty-stricken areas through incentives which would entice businesses back to the inner cities. Bond financing, tax credits and capital gains incentives are used in this endeavor.
Prior to federal service, Peterson served in various capacities on both city and county planning commissions and was development director for a large real estate firm. He is a graduate of Utah State University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and environmental planning. He also has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Utah.
“I’m thrilled to be here,” said Peterson, who picked Jacksonville as one of the top three cities he wanted to relocate to when President Bush held a re-compete for all top HUD jobs. Peterson and his wife, Nena, and their children are currently looking for a house.