Monday, April 28, 2008

City’s housing director leaving after 3 years of progress

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
— Housing Authority Executive Director Jimmy Miller will leave his post at the close of 2008, after three demanding years steering the troubled agency out of scandal and mismanagement.
“I thought it would take a lot of work. … I didn’t realize the shape the authority was in,” Miller said.
Miller had intended to stay in the position for only three years when he took the job in November 2005, he said.
The Alabama native joined the authority as it was still reeling from the ouster of former director Cynthia Newton and her deputy, Ed Schwartz, who allegedly downloaded confidential government files in order to cheat on federal housing inspections.
Reviews from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at that time were dismal. Numerous aging properties failed inspections and the agency received low marks for fiscal management. The Housing Authority was placed on HUD’s “troubled” list for poorly managing its Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program.
“Projects were dormant for years,” Miller said. “We took some programs from scrap.”
“More things are being done in a more efficient way. It’s never going to be exactly what everybody wants, but I think he’s done a great job,” said Louise Persall, tenant member of the Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners.
Yul Watley, president of the Tenant Representative Council at Westville Manor, said Miller “has done a tremendous job.”
“He’s always on call. Any issues I have, he’s right on them, any issues with windows or walls or roofs. Anything I say I need to better the quality of life for residents, he was there to give,” Watley said, praising in particular installation of security cameras. “He gave me his cell phone number. … I never had any other (director’s) cell phone number, and I’ve lived in public housing all my life.”
Most recent HUD assessments show improvements at the authority. The authority’s Section 8 program was recently removed from the “troubled” list, and a March review from HUD commended improvements over the past year, while noting concern over Miller’s departure.
“The agency as a whole is moving in a positive direction, with the realistic recognition that there is still more work to be done,” the report says. “Many of the positive changes that have occurred at HANH over the past year appear to be directly the result of Mr. Miller’s vision, guidance and dedication to improving the agency. With his imminent departure in December, the selection of the next executive director will be extremely important given the agency’s history.”“I’m a work horse, not a show horse,” Miller said. “I’m a task master. I am demanding. I have high expectations for this agency. ...We’re trying to provide housing for people who can’t have housing without our input; that’s a serious endeavor.”
It’s a drive that stems in part from a personal understanding of what it means to live in substandard housing.
Miller grew up in an Alabama home with no dry walls, indoor plumbing or running water until he was 14. “When it rained, we’d get snakes in our kitchen because they’d seek dry ground,” he said.
“Those things are seared into my memory. I can see them and feel them right now today. You never forget that. Not having adequate food, clothing. Being ridiculed by other children for not having those things,” he said.
Throughout his childhood, his parents stressed, “If you want to escape this life, do one thing. Get an education,” Miller said. He was first in his extended family to read or write. “I know you can break the cycle of poverty and get out of it,” he said.
After 2 1/2 years working late hours six days a weekMiller said he looks forward to spending time with his family, who live in New York. “I thought I would get home a few days now and then. I never get home.”

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