Take a look around you. Look at the leaders of the Chicago Housing Authority. Look at the leader of the New York Housing Authority. What is happening down in Atlanta and on the coast in LA and Seattle? In many large public housing authorities across the country, you are seeing a lot less executive leadership who come with a public housing background. You see executives running public housing programs who came from state government. You see directors of voucher programs who come from the city. You see executive directors who were lobbyist on the hill. It is an interesting trend and something worth digging into.
I have been around enough public housing agencies in several countries to know that conformity creates dullness. Some of the best run PHAs across the USA are smaller ones. However; a sub-population of these can become very cookie cutter and focus on nothing but regulations. I have seen smaller PHAs knock it out of the park, so this is not a broad statement. Keene Housing Authority, Lawrence-Douglas County and Lincoln are some good examples of smaller PHAs that are very innovative.
When you bring different types of leaders who do not know public housing into a public housing authority, it opens a new world. They bring in new ideas, different management concepts and a willingness to push the limits. If a new executive director used to work in city government, he or she brings a list of contacts, networks and opportunities along. This is just smart business. The role of housing in a larger metro area is so important that the leadership of an agency needs to be politically savvy and plugged in. If you have an executive director who started in housing 20 years ago and worked her or his way up, they may or may not have built up the networks and political skills necessary to play in that arena.
A Healthy Mix
One thing that I have noticed is that a well functioning large or medium sized housing authority does a nice job blending housers and non-housers. The non-housers catch on pretty quickly to the basics and leverage their overall leadership skills to help hone the folks who understand and know the details of public housing. It is great when you see a director of a large department call on his or her experts working for them who have done the work for 15-20 years. It is pretty exciting to see the energy, ideas and collisions take place. It is healthy and can be re-energizing for an agency.
I recently spoke to an executive who worked for the state before taking over a position at the housing authority in her area. She told me a funny story of when HUD came and she had her first audit, she just told HUD, “You just need to go get us some more vouchers and all the problems will go away.” She laughed now that she is a few years in realizing that the HUD people thought she was crazy. The same lady re-energized her organization and brought a great deal of stability and innovation. We should welcome this influx of talent and do as much as possible to strengthen the industry.