Eugene Jones Jr., president and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA), has established himself over a 35-year career as one of America's foremost public-housing leaders. The Atlanta job is his ninth in a leadership position with a major-city housing agency: Jones, 64, served as CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority from 2015 to 2019, and previously held top executive positions with the public-housing agencies in Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Mo., and Toronto.
The 50,000-resident Atlanta Housing Authority that Jones now leads was one of the first in the nation to build a public-housing project, Techwood Homes, which opened in 1936. Six decades later, in 1996, AHA was the first to use the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's HOPE VI funding to develop a residential project, Centennial Place, as a mixed-income, mixed-use community. I have a particular interest in Centennial Place: I was a member of the Atlanta City Council at the time of its development.
Jones will soon publish a book, as yet untitled, that his publicist promises will provide a sharp critique of current local and national housing policy and offer a vision for reforms. I recently interviewed Jones about those issues, the current climate for housing policy, and his own experiences in one of the most challenging jobs in public administration. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You have had much experience managing housing agencies in Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City and even Toronto. What has stood out in your 35-year career?
In Toronto, I was an African American running one of the largest systems in the city. There you had no HUD or regulatory bodies to contend with, so things got done a lot easier. We even had our own power plant, which would not have been possible in the U.S. The main thing was we had the full support of the mayor, which was a prerequisite for our being successful. I also directed the Kansas City Housing Authority from 1994 to 1997. This was a challenge because the authority was in federal receivership for past performance issues. Working closely with Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, we were able to move this system forward, although it was still under receivership at the time I left.
Atlanta is often cited as being the first housing authority in the country to redevelop a public-housing project under HUD's HOPE VI program. Residents complained that they were displaced, and homeowners of nearby stable neighborhoods complained that they were overrun with AHA residents with Section 8 vouchers. What happened?
If you are going to tear down public housing, you need a transparent plan — in the beginning, middle and end. Before you act, you need to build loyalty and trust, and there must be open communications with residents, schools, businesses and other stakeholders to make sure everyone is on board.
Atlanta, being one of the first communities to implement the HOPE VI grant, had no script, no best-practice models to follow, so mistakes were made. Displaced residents were angry and they were not properly alerted to the fact that they probably would not be returning to the neighborhoods they called home because the process from start to finish could take up to eight years, and by then residents would have resettled and not want to pick up and move again. This couldn't happen today because HUD has instituted more stringent requirements for transparency. Additionally, you have best practices to rely on that mandate stakeholder participation, political support like from the state public officials, mayors, city council members, business leaders, and community and economic and development organizations.
You have been around a long time and have seen a diversity of executive and congressional leadership with varying degrees of commitment to redeveloping urban America come and go. How do you navigate the federal landscape in that?
I take the politics out of what I do. I don't bash anyone, and I keep a positive working relationship with the professional staff in HUD and Congress. Staff is more important to be on good terms with anyhow. They will or will not recommend your project to HUD's leadership and congressional staff, based on your past performances. I have met and know over a hundred congressional staff members. The top leadership at HUD leaves when an administration changes over, but not the professional staff. I get to know them, have credibility with them and have gained their respect.
What about affordable housing and its accompanying problem of gentrification?
First, we need people committed to building affordable housing. We must get a handle on this problem and make a financial commitment to addressing the problem. I guarantee you that if we had fully funded an affordable-housing program 50 years ago we wouldn't be facing the problems that we face today. Every city needs partnerships and a clear path for tackling the problem. We also need all types of affordable housing to be built, including modular, pre-fab, corrugated, trailers, etc. We need affordable-housing builders, private and nonprofit, to come to the table and do a better job coordinating. Above all we need mayors across this country to do as [Atlanta] Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms did when she set a goal of spending $1 billion on affordable housing.
What about leadership and the effects of COVID-19?
We need real commitments from political leaders like mayors and city council persons and — this might get me in trouble — national civil-rights organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP to step up to the plate and do more. We need to demand empathy from more people in a position to do something about affordability of housing. Certainly, we need to make sure individuals have jobs that pay sustainable wages. This is all the more important with COVID-19 threatening so many with the loss of jobs. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, people will also lack access to resources such as food and health services. And many will not be able to pay their mortgages. Come the fall, we are going to see just how terrible this pandemic has been, and the economic fallout.
You have advocated for a national policy to ensure adequate housing. Where is this leadership going to come from?
It needs to come from Congress. They need to develop a national plan, pass the plan as legislation, and fund it in its entirety. We need to redefine affordability as well. It changes from location to location. Sixty percent of the area median income won't work everywhere. We don't have a national housing policy, and one of the reasons why is that we have the wrong people at the table. Those advocating change today are largely from advocacy groups. They are needed, but we need everyone to be accountable. We need Rotary Club members, the philanthropic community and national policy institutes. We need a national vision and commitment to solving this problem.
You have often said that housing professionals don't often take advantage of all the federal resources available. What did you mean?
When people think about housing needs, they think only about physical structures. They don't think about all the other things individuals need to survive. After you feed the hungry, where do they go to live? All of this is connected, and there are many federal agencies that should help. We have veterans who need affordable housing. Do we think about tapping into the resources of the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs? Many who need affordable housing also need job-training skills, so we should be connecting with the Labor Department. Many who can't afford high rents, including the homeless, have transportation needs. Do we call on the U.S. Department of Transportation to help? The psychological needs of those stressed out about housing need the services of the Department of Health and Human Services. Many individuals threatened by the housing crisis are senior citizens, so we need to involve agencies serving this population. Like they have done in Austin and L.A., we need to figure out how to build affordable housing utilizing Opportunity Zone tax incentives. HUD is just one source of federal funding, but we need to tap into them all.
You have spoken repeatedly about political accountability. What exactly do you mean about this?
They have to own it. They need to see it as something they can use for bragging rights. The U.S. Conference of Mayors never talks about the need for a national affordable-housing plan. Mayor Bottoms is being accountable, but who else is stepping forward? We need housing development funds like the Atlanta Westside Future Fund on the Eastside and all sides of cities like Atlanta. We need housing authorities to continue to take the lead. When housing authorities lead, generally the private sector will follow. But we don't have much vacant land, and some parts of some cities have negative perceptions of those who live in public housing. We need banks to stop taking a back seat and show up for those needing affordable housing. During the Great Recession, we bailed out banks. We now need them to be part of our solution. If they, and government leaders, were serious, they would postpone all mortgage payments for those who are struggling financially for the entirety of this year. We need the establishment to show more empathy. That's being accountable.
After speaking with you for an hour, I feel you are a bit pessimistic about the future. But you still are working. You must have hope.
I do have hope. And I wish my fears regarding the lack of real commitment from our leaders prove to be wrong.
Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.