Mpls. leader collects and conquers challenges

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2011 - 9:47 PM

Cora McCorvey has a low profile, but not so for the city's public housing agency, which she has led for 20 years.

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Cora McCorvey prepared to lead a tour of the commons building in the Heritage Park development recently. She came to the city at 17 and took a job as receptionist for the housing agency she now leads. “She’s one of the most gifted public managers I’ve ever known,” said mentor Richard Brustad.

Photo: David Joles , Star Tribune

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Cora McCorvey started her career in Minneapolis public housing as a receptionist in the late 1970s, when the city's biggest landlord was in disarray.

Unrepaired units sat vacant for months with thousands of poor people on waiting lists. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), its main funder, scored the agency so low that some feared a federal takeover.

By 1991, McCorvey was appointed to run the newly independent Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA). Within six years, she had engineered such a turnaround that HUD gave it a high-performer award for public housing. In 2007, MPHA's other half, which helps low-income people pay for private apartments, won the same award.

This year, McCorvey celebrated her 20th year as the MPHA's only leader, three times as long as the next longest-tenured city department head. She is tied for the distinction of being the city's highest-salaried employee, at $150,000, but few know her name. McCorvey likes it that way.

"My tenants know me. That's important," McCorvey said.

A six-year resident of a public housing high-rise, Chloe Mathisen, agrees: "I feel like she's trying to do the best job she can do."

Other big public housing agencies and HUD have tried to hire McCorvey. But she has always said no. She is 62, with 12 grandchildren. Most of her family lives here, including a mother in her mid-80s who lives with McCorvey in Plymouth. McCorvey knows the politics of Minneapolis; she knows the buildings.

McCorvey was one of four politically powerful black women prominent in Minneapolis a decade ago. Sharon Sayles Belton was mayor. Carol Johnson ran the schools. Mary Merrill Anderson ran the parks. McCorvey ran public housing. She is the only one still in the job.

"She's one of the great survivors in city government," community activist Ron Edwards said.

McCorvey grew up in Michigan City, Ind., and moved to the Twin Cities at 17. She took the receptionist job to support her ailing late husband and their two children. She quickly worked her way up, helping to manage the Glendale housing project in southeast Minneapolis, adding a few high-rises later.

McCorvey is a boss who seems to find the next challenge irresistible. There was the mammoth redevelopment under court supervision of North Side public housing projects, prompting a diaspora of families across the metro area. Then MPHA won extra federal stimulus money in 2009 for new and refurbished housing.

Still, for lack of federal money, thousands languish on the waiting lists for public housing and housing vouchers in Minneapolis. With pending budget cuts at HUD -- McCorvey has heard she could lose anywhere from one-fifth to one-third of federal aid -- a new reason to stay looms.

McCorvey's dedication is the city's gain, said Jon Gutzmann, director of the highly rated St. Paul Public Housing Agency. "She's smart, she's fair and she's really authentic. She can connect, whether it's Mayor Rybak or the president of a resident council or maybe someone she has to evict."

An important early victory came in 1992 when McCorvey worked with then-U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo to return some high-rises to seniors-only status after the failure of a federal mandate to mix them with younger disabled residents. Although she laments the demolition of the four Olson Highway housing projects, the authority worked with governments to build public housing in suburbs -- a result that's unusual for desegregation lawsuits.

The agency is one of the few nationally that HUD allows substantial operational flexibility. The extra federal stimulus money finances a nearly complete 48-unit building for public housing residents with memory loss that is a national first and an adjacent senior-oriented community center, both on the redevelopment site.

Public housing wasn't always so favored in Minneapolis. The city and HUD issued two scathing reports in 1984. The city report found a vacancy rate in Minneapolis five times that of St. Paul, and HUD suggested the agency was headed for its label of "operationally troubled." Public housing suffered within the city's development agency, but independence didn't come for another seven years.

McCorvey knew how to run public housing but had to learn about the rental voucher aspect of it. She had to invent agency procedures from scratch. Just a year after separating from city government, the agency was hit with a lawsuit alleging it segregated minority public housing residents. A City Pages exposé not long after headlined MPHA as "the worst landlord in town." Two employees were sent to prison for demanding bribes from housing applicants.

Learning on the job

The new agency's board was headed by developer Richard Brustad, who was convinced that then-acting director McCorvey had a big upside. He tutored her in weekly sessions for several years on installing systems to improve the agency. "She absorbed this so fast," Brustad said. "She's one of the most gifted public managers I've ever known."

Although the agency officially operates largely independent of City Hall, the board is appointed by the mayor and City Council. Unlike St. Paul, where Gutzmann has only one political boss, the mayor, McCorvey answers to the mayor and 13 council members. Early on, she developed a system for tracking council complaints, typically about the condition of scattered-site or rent-subsidized units or behavior of their tenants, so she would resolve issues to keep in good standing with the council.

She needed those political instincts one morning in 1999 when Sayles Belton called to insist that McCorvey delay the imminent demolition of the North Side projects after the arrest of 14 protesters, including eight ministers. McCorvey had made legal commitments to go ahead, and she resented being put in that position. But she reluctantly agreed. City Hall controlled a $1 million subsidy to the agency for public housing security.

Still another test came several years ago when Rybak and the council upgraded her board by appointing more high-powered members -- a lawyer, a financier, a developer and property manager. The board and McCorvey differed over employee pay, but she has since adapted to the tighter oversight.

McCorvey expects to leave the agency in the next two to three years. She's already thinking about whether the fourth round of HUD cuts will mean fewer managers, cutbacks of tenant services or less frequent grass cutting.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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