After two years directing the Minneapolis public housing agency, Greg Russ is taking on the biggest challenge in his 46-year career: running the New York City Housing Authority.
Starting next month, Russ will take over as CEO of the nation’s largest public housing system, home to 400,000 low-income New Yorkers. Russ’ hiring comes as the agency endures federal oversight amid resident outcry over systemic violations of health and safety rules.
Russ, who has worked for housing authorities in Chicago, Philadelphia and Cambridge, Mass., said his path to New York is “a call to service.”
“I’m at a place in my career where I can take this risk,” Russ said. He said he believes in public housing and that it works, but “the things that are happening in New York casts a national shadow because their program is big, but the undercapitalization is a national problem.”
Russ was on a list of potential candidates compiled as part of an agreement reached in January by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office, New York City Housing Authority, city of New York and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to overhaul the organization. One of Russ’ biggest tasks will be navigating the agency’s relationship with a federal monitor as they work to meet the terms of the agreement, including fixing heating systems, lead paint hazards, mold, pest infestations and aging elevators as well as the agency establishing new units focused on compliance, environmental health and safety and quality assurance.
Russ said he anticipates mapping out tasks the agency can quickly complete to help residents.
“You expect your landlord to make sure the common area is clean or that the elevators work,” Russ said. “Those kind of things, those are fundamental services any resident should expect. You have to restore that.”
But the announcement of Russ’ hire and the details of his pay and out-of-state commuting perks has stirred curiosity among New York City residents, housing advocates, city hall officials and media about the man New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and HUD officials have tapped to lead the organization.
Russ’ salary will be $402,000 — higher than the salaries of President Donald Trump, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio — and he will commute to Minneapolis on weekends to see his wife and two school-aged children.
Russ’ welcome to New York has so far included questions about his age (he’s 69), experience and whether he can handle the complex landscape of the public housing system, a behemoth compared to that of Minneapolis.
One of Russ’ critics is Lynne Patton, the HUD regional administrator for New York and New Jersey. Patton declined an interview through her press secretary, who said in an e-mail she “prefers not to go over what she has expressed in the past” and instead pointed to her social media pages. A pinned tweet from June 19 on her Twitter page said that Russ’ position is “a 24/7 job” in New York and that she, HUD Secretary Ben Carson and the federal monitor were working to get results.
“When I see #GregRuss doing the same, then I will give credit where credit is due,” Patton tweeted. Patton’s team said that she “has said publicly that she wants Mr. Russ to be successful, and that she is happy to work with him to improve conditions for NYCHA residents.”
Russ said he anticipated the criticisms about his salary and commute. He said the move to Minnesota was a long-term decision for his family, and he told hiring officials he would only commit to New York if he could periodically visit them.
“Whatever the salary, I have to produce, and the bottom line is I have to deliver something for the residents,” Russ said.
Under Russ’ tenure at the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, which serves more than 26,000 residents with public housing and Section 8 vouchers, he oversaw the construction of the Minnehaha Townhomes, the city’s first new public housing since 2010; helped create the Stable Homes Stable Schools program to give housing subsidies to homeless elementary children’s families; and last month oversaw the agency’s waiting list sign-ups for federal rental assistance vouchers, the first time in 11 years that the public housing authority has opened the list.
Rachel Fee, executive director of the New York Housing Conference, an organization focused on affordable housing, said that Russ’ background with smaller public housing agencies will be helpful when he arrives in New York. However, she said Russ will have to wade through the agency’s management and organizational problems while quickly improving living conditions for residents who “have really been failed time and time again.”
“The scale of what we have in New York is like no other place, so that’s certainly going to be a change [for Russ],” Fee said. “Understanding the political environment here and really trying to win over the trust of the residents, that’s going to be an important aspect of doing the job well.”
Asked about Russ’ salary, she said: “I’m going to look at that and hope he’s just a really great negotiator and he can use those skills that he used to negotiate that salary and work out a plan to preserve public housing.”
Russ’ last day with the Minneapolis housing authority is Aug. 2.
Tracey Scott, the Minneapolis authority’s deputy director, will take over as interim executive director.