Greg Russ is looking forward to the day when he can settle down in Minneapolis, after a year splitting his time between a family here and a job in Cambridge, Mass.
But the transition, which is expected to happen early in the new year, will bring a new set of challenges. Russ, 66, was recently appointed executive director at the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority — a job that only one other person has held since the agency’s founding.
During more than three decades in the public housing world, Russ has become a national authority on federal programs that allow flexibility in how public housing agencies operate and can help fill in the gaps when money gets tight. That expertise could be just what’s needed in Minneapolis, where there’s a growing need for major fixes to aging public housing stock, as well as for new affordable housing.
“I believe Mr. Russ is an exceptional candidate,” Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman said before voting to confirm him. “In many ways, his whole career has been about [being] a true believer in the importance of people, and people who live in public housing.”
Russ’ reputation as a proponent for the Moving to Work and Rental Assistance Demonstration programs, though, has drawn criticism from tenant advocates who say the programs erode tenant protections — and has alarmed local public housing tenants unsure of how they might be affected when Russ takes the helm.
Russ is expected to start the job Feb. 13. He will replace Minneapolis public housing veteran Cora McCorvey, who was appointed to the position in 1991 and oversaw the separation of the agency from the city.
“I can’t replace Cora — she’s who she is,” Russ said. “But I want to understand how the agency works and what could be done to build on the work that she’s already spent so much time on.”
‘An experienced executive’
This won’t be Russ’ first time stepping into big shoes. The executive director who preceded him at the Cambridge Housing Authority had been there for more than 20 years. Before Cambridge, Russ gained experience at larger housing agencies in Chicago and Philadelphia, as well as at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
After an 18-month search process in Minneapolis, Russ rose to the top of a pool of four out-of-state finalists. His 2017 salary has been set at the governor’s salary cap of $167,978 — about $26,000 less than he earned in Cambridge.
McCorvey described Russ as “an experienced executive,” and said he’ll likely face similar challenges in Minneapolis as he did in Cambridge — just on a bigger scale. The Cambridge Housing Authority oversees 2,700 public housing units; the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority oversees more than twice that.
And in Minneapolis, as at housing authorities across the country, federal resources are dwindling — and affordable housing advocates expect it’ll get worse in 2017. Money the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority receives to repair, upgrade or build public housing has dropped 22 percent since 2006, and nearly 40 percent from its last peak in 1999.
“The federal budget process looks pretty foreboding,” said Dorinda Wider, a housing staff attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid who represents low-income tenant clients. “I would be pretty nervous if I were trying to run a housing authority.”
In Cambridge, Russ overhauled public housing under the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which allows housing agencies to use federal rental assistance to raise private money for capital improvements.
The process in Cambridge, which is ongoing, converted public housing to project-based Section 8, a program that attaches a federal rental voucher to a specific building.
“They tried to do it in a way that would be as seamless as possible for tenants,” said Susan Hegel, a staff attorney at Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services who negotiated on behalf of tenants during the transition.
Still, there have been some problems, she said, including rents rising unexpectedly for some tenants.
The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority has plans to use RAD to convert Heritage Park on the city’s North Side to private ownership. It’s also been discussed as a possible tool for much-needed renovations at Glendale Townhomes, a 184-unit public housing complex in Prospect Park.
For more than a year, Glendale tenants have organized in opposition to changes there. They’re worried that if the complex is torn down and rebuilt, there won’t be enough affordable rental units and they’ll lose their homes.
Housing authority spokesman Jeff Horwich said it’s too early to say how renovations at Glendale might unfold, but affordability will be preserved.
Tenants aren’t convinced that the housing authority, especially with Russ as executive director, will be on their side. After the City Council voted to officially confirm Russ’ hiring, the tenants’ group Defend Glendale released a statement calling Russ “the czar of privatization and gentrification” with a record of “basically dismantling public housing.”
Council Member Cam Gordon, whose ward includes Glendale, has echoed residents’ concerns but also said that a leadership change at the housing authority is needed.
“I’m moving forward with some reservations,” Gordon said before the council voted unanimously to approve the appointment, “but also with some hope that we can actually use this to get a better, lasting and more permanent resolution for all those residents there who I think have been left hanging for too long.”