Nashville’s most prominent landlord has retired. Jerry “Coach” Seay began as a social worker in 1975 and left the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency on Feb. 2 after a 19-year stint as director of asset management.
“They picked the best person for the job,” said Assistant Director of Asset Management Connie Martin. “It saddens me Jerry retired because we’ve developed a good working relationship, and it is good to be able to work with someone you trust and respect.”
As director Seay was responsible for the management and maintenance of 5,400 public housing units and 125 market-rate units at 20 properties in Davidson County and oversaw 192 of the agency’s 298 employees.
A Wilson County native, he studied psychology and sociology at Austin Peay State University while on a football scholarship. Seay’s social work career began at Metro Social Services on CETA, a comprehensive employment training program. A year later, he came to MDHA as a social worker and wrote a grant for the Target Projects Program at Sudekum Apartments as his first big project.
His journey to become the well-respected “Coach” of many residents and employees took practice. Early in his career, he learned the importance of in-depth interviews for social workers and the need to solve the root of problems instead of addressing only blooming issues.
While property manager at Edgehill Apartments, a group of boys asked Seay how they could earn money, and he gave each of them 50 cents to pick up trash around the property. The next day at the leasing office, a larger group of kids showed up ready to help, and he had them deliver fliers and do other small chores in the community. After digging into his pockets for several days, Seay approached neighborhood businesses and churches for donations to start a program for the children.
The group evolved into Opportunities for Kids (OK) Program to provide constructive activities for neighborhood youth. Seay structured it as a behavior modification program in which children signed contracts agreeing to be obedient and complete homework. It soon was awarded drug prevention grants from the State Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. The OK Program expanded to Napier Place and Historic Preston Taylor Apartments and added curriculum to develop leadership qualities, communication skills and self-esteem. The program also gave Seay a door to build relationships with parents and help them become more involved with their children.
“You saw someone as a result of your efforts become successful. It was God using me to help people, which helped me to grow too. It has been gratifying to meet former participants and hear about some of the positive things they are doing with their lives,” Seay said.
Seay assigned teens, like Napier Place resident Latoya Covington, to lead the program as youth coordinators.
“He taught us about helping out in the community, being a young lady, having morals and being respectful to our elders,” said Covington, recalling her role as a youth coordinator in the mid-‘90s. When she became pregnant her senior year of high school, she named Seay her son’s godfather.
“He told me to keep my head up and not worry about what other people say and to just worry about graduating. I knew that I could call him for anything and he would be there for me,” Covington said.
Through the years, Seay worked at Levy Place, Hadley Park Towers, Napier Place, Sudekum Apartments, Edgehill Apartments, Cayce Place, J. Henry Hale Apartments, Cumberland View and Parkway Terrace in social services and management-related positions. He applied for several agency positions before being named director of asset management in 1995.
“I believe God was directing my path. The jobs that I didn’t get would have put me on a different career path and not in the management position,” Seay said.
As a manager and director, Seay had firm expectations yet showed compassion to staff.Former construction director Janice Platt Banegas recalled the empathy he showed her as she went through a hard time.
“I know this was a unique situation for Jerry, but he handled it gently and with care. Jerry is a very intuitive person who understands people and what they need,” Banegas said. “His kindness in this situation will never be forgotten, his care and concern admirable. I have the highest respect for him as a supervisor and friend. He read me very well, understood what I needed and responded with compassion. He is a remarkable person with a huge heart. “
Staff also appreciated his sense of humor and tendency to “coach” their careers. After tense conversations, he would wave a white flag outside of Martin’s office and their laughter lightened the mood.
“He always tried to turn a moment of conflict into a teachable moment. I have learned from him by just sitting in his office and watching him resolve situations. He can be compassionate and has shown strength when needed,” Martin said.
Edgefield Manor Maintenance Supervisor Danny Pentecost, who worked with Seay for two decades, recalled Seay’s wise warnings as Pentecost sought career advancement.
“I kept applying to be a supervisor, and he would always tell me be careful what I asked for. Now I understand. Every promotion comes with a greater level of responsibility and new problems to address,” Pentecost said.
Executive Director James Harbison added, “Jerry will be greatly missed. He has been the heart and soul of public housing. In my short time here, I have witnessed the impact he has made on residents, his staff and MDHA as a whole. We wish him all the best.”
As Seay stepped away from MDHA to fish and spend more time with his family, he reflected on the last 40 years with his MDHA family.
“I will always treasure the friendships and the great memories I’ve made here,” Seay said. “I met some of my goals and reached the full potential of my career as a coach. And a coach knows when he has carried his team as far as he can.”
Martin is serving as interim director of asset management while a national search for the seat, being renamed director of affordable housing, is underway.