Housing official who won vast overhaul heads toward job at Minneapolis agency
Cambridge Housing Authority Executive Director Gregory Russ, who helped set in motion the largest redevelopment effort in the agency’s history at a time of shrinking government support, is tentatively in line to head the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.
Russ confirmed this morning a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that a search committee of the Minneapolis agency has recommended that he be appointed executive director there. The board of the Minneapolis authority meets next week to vote on the selection; if Russ is approved the Minneapolis City Council will vote on his appointment Dec. 9, he said.
If approved, Russ will start around Jan. 1, according to the Star Tribune, but Russ called that date “not realistic given the wrap-up in Cambridge.” If he is approved, he would need to negotiate his start date with the Minneapolis board but “want to make sure the transition in Cambridge goes well.”
Last month the Cambridge board approved a transition process that makes it highly likely that Deputy Executive Director Mike Johnston, who has been at CHA for more than a quarter-century and has served as deputy executive director since 2008, will succeed Russ. The board ordered chairman Gerard Clark to appoint a committee of two board members, Russ, general counsel Sue Cohen and up to three more people to interview Johnston and set up an interview of him by a panel of public housing residents. The committee will also prepare a transition plan for the board by January, and arrange for three public “working sessions” by the end of January to examine issues facing the Cambridge authority.
The committee is to make a recommendation to the board by early December on who will replace Russ, but Johnston is the only candidate under consideration, according to the order approved by the board.
The Cambridge commissioners had known since September that Russ had applied for the job in Minneapolis, Russ said. Anyone who knew of his personal life might have suspected he would not serve until his contract ends in December 2017; he and his wife bought a home in Minneapolis last year and his family, including his wife, his son, 10, and daughter, 8, have been living there since last year while he commutes from his apartment in Cambridge, he said. (Russ also has three adult children).
Russ, who is 66, said he wanted to continue working in public housing. “I really felt like I could do one more job,” he said, speaking by phone from Minnesota. “I really love this work and I’m going to be living here anyway.”
Russ was named executive director in Cambridge in September 2004 after working for more than 30 years in public housing, including at public housing agencies in Philadelphia and Chicago and at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees public housing programs nationwide.
During his tenure here, Cambridge, like other public housing agencies, faced diminishing support from the federal and state government for public housing while aging developments needed increasingly extensive work. Officials feared that without renovations, the housing would deteriorate to the point where it was unlivable.
The Cambridge Housing Authority tapped into a federal economic stimulus program to help fund renovations to five developments, but much more work was needed.
After an unsuccessful attempt to use a loophole in HUD rules that would have financed the rest of the authority’s holdings, the agency won its approval in 2013 to renovate every unit under the federal agency’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program.
The program required the transfer of all public housing units to private ownership, although the authority will continue to manage the housing and has maintained almost all tenant protections. CHA also continues to own the land underneath the buildings, and deeds for the transfers require that the housing be used for low-income housing. Investors that now hold almost all the ownership interest must also ensure that the housing serves low-income residents, or they will lose valuable tax credits.
The first phase of the renovations, $153 million for 831 units, has begun. But the second phase, which was to start next year, is snagged because of an unforeseen shortage of state-sponsored bonds. A memo to the board last month said projects could be delayed up to four years. Margaret Moran, planning and development director, said the authority may have to stagger second-phase projects to obtain enough bonds. Those bonds are needed mainly because they enable low-income tax credits, the vehicle that brings in private investment, Moran said.
The authority is also considering issuing its own bonds, and has hired a consultant to advise it on that proposal or others, Moran said. CHA bonds would not trigger any low-income tax credits but they might carry lower interest rates than state bonds, which would reduce total costs and, therefore, the need for as many tax credits.
Millers River Apartments in East Cambridge (297 units for elderly and younger disabled residents) is a special case in Phase 2 because it needs so much work. The federal government has approved that project under the program that CHA originally couldn’t use, a program that brings in as much as twice the operating assistance that public housing projects now get.
And now planners at the Cambridge authority have identified two other projects in Phase 2 that qualify for the same federal program because they need so much work, Moran said: Churchill Apartments (197 apartments for elderly and disabled tenants) and Jefferson Park Federal (175 family units), both in North Cambridge. CHA must persuade the federal agency to approve special treatment for those developments too, Moran said. That could also delay work.
The housing improvement isn’t the only significant program inaugurated during Russ’ tenure. The authority has also expanded its Section 8 rent subsidy program to help preserve private apartment complexes where affordable housing protections were set to expire. CHA has saved almost 500 units in Cambridge and more than 900 outside the city, according to its latest annual report. Russ credited Johnston for spearheading that effort at a time skyrocketing rents here have pushed out poor families.
Russ said he regrets leaving the agency when part of the redevelopment work is up in the air. “I think we have promising signs for putting together a different model for Phase 2,” he said.
In Minneapolis, public housing officials were forced to retreat from plans to use RAD to replace one of the city’s most dilapidated projects after protests from residents. Tenants complained they hadn’t been consulted, and the proposal did not give current residents the right to return to the development – unlike in Cambridge, where officials held long meetings with residents.
Speaking of the setback in Minneapolis, Russ said: “That’s a conversation I’d like to reopen if the [Minneapolis] board is willing. It’s worth another try.”