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University Administrator Improves Public Housing in New Orleans.

A resourceful African-American university administrator has used a collaboration between a historically Black university and a major university to fix a pressing urban problem which plagues many cities throughout the nation. The recent turnaround of the long-time troubled Housing Authority of New Orleans has garnered national accolades amidst a serious public policy issue. HANO, as it's called, has gone from a crime-ridden, physically deteriorated state of affairs to a model of change in improving the quality of life for public housing residents. Even the federal government is taking notice.

After 25 years of maintenance neglect and 10 unsuccessful attempts at management arrangements, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), has been removed from the federal government's "troubled housing" list. No program had measurable success in turning the beleaguered organization around until 1996 when Mayor Marc Morial and the Department of Housing and Urban Development appointed Tulane University Administrator Ron Mason to be executive monitor and help the agency avert a government takeover.

Mason, then-senior vice-president and general counsel at Tulane, replaced the seven-member HANO Board of Commissioners and served as the local representative responsible for overseeing HANO's overall recovery effort, as well as, planning and implemented a $40 million budget and $1 million capital improvement program. In 1998, Mason expanded his role and became founder and executive director of the National Center for the Urban Community (NCUC), part of the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement that forged the first-ever partnership between the federal government, the city, HANO and its residents, and Tulane and Xavier universities.

Mason credits partnering with universities as a key component of the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement's success. "The NCUC is unique because universities are the driving force. These institutions are perceived to have integrity, which was something HANO wasn't perceived to have had. Universities also have management expertise, and human and material resources." He further said, "They are not mobile institutions, meaning they don't have the options of packing up and leaving because they don't like the city. Universities are in the problem-solving business. If you can get a university that is in the business of solving problems to focus on urban America, then you've got yourself something. By connecting university students and staff with the urban community you're creating a workforce that is always there to help people become self-sufficient."

Sternly poised at the conference table in his HANO office, Mason reflected on how working in poorer communities gave him an appreciation and an understanding of grassroots organizing, which he says, prepared him to work in his dual capacity as university official and social program director. After graduating from Columbia University Law School, he worked as an organizer of poor rural cooperatives in Lafayette, Louisiana. He also assisted in developing Empowerment Zones for the city of New Orleans. He joined the staff of Tulane in 1982 until he became executive monitor.

Mason wanted to continue his work at Tulane, and at the same time, continue working with HANO's disadvantaged community. To him, linking the university with the public housing community was the impetus for starting NCUC. "I think universities should focus on issues that are important to society and what's going on in America's inner cities is certainly critical to the future of our country. If urban universities don't focus on it, who will?" He further added, "The beauty of it is that universities can do what they do and still be a solid part of the solution. They're not being asked to do what they wouldn't normally do. They're being asked to do it in a place where they wouldn't normally do it."

The method of recovery employed by the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement involved a "fix the business" approach that separated property management from resident services and outsourced them to Tulane University. "When we got here, we noticed HANO trying to do two things and wasn't doing either well. We decided to let HANO be a property manager and we created at Tulane the Institute of Resident Initiatives (IRI)."

Mason agrees that visible signs of change are fewer than desired by all parties, "Our method was to fix the guts of the operation first, meaning all of the internal operating systems which included management, legal, security, and the procurement systems. The politicians, quite frankly, wanted a quick victory. But we took the hard road and went about the process one step at a time to fix them all." He says the process was not sexy or glitzy, referring to his comments outlined in The Executive Monitor's Second Report to HUD and the City of New Orleans (August 1999). In that report he writes, "From the streets at many sites, it is not apparent that 700 new units have been brought back online, that work orders are being filled promptly, that vacancy rates are down markedly, and that more residents are employed or in education and training programs."

Tulane and Xavier's activities under the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement, combined with the overhauling of HANO's management and operating systems, have led to HANO becoming operationally sound. A fact concurred by New Orleans pollster Silas Lee and Associates, in an independent survey taken during the second year of the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement, in which the results revealed the number of residents that felt conditions had improved or remained the same rose to 75 percent. The rating for satisfactory repair performance moved from 54 percent in 1997 to 71 percent in 1998."

Similar progress has been made in the area of human services: employment, education for children and adults, home ownership, entrepreneurship, and anti-drug and anti-violence programs. The degree of effectiveness of resident services was emphasized in the HUD's 1997 Confirmatory Report that stated, "The total number of active programs within HANO is nothing short of outstanding. Few public housing communities have diversity or programming as is demonstrated at HANO."

Mason agrees that the resident initiatives undertaken by NCUC is the area in which HANO has undoubtedly achieved greatest success. He highlighted several accomplishments attributed to the efforts of the Resident Councils in partnership with the NCUC, which incorporate the Tulane/Xavier Campus Affiliates Program (CAP), funded separately, but embedded in the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement, and the Institute for Resident Initiatives, to whom HANO has contracted services citywide:

* More than 700 employed with job retention of 63% over two years,

* 82 graduates of skilled training in computer repair, construction, and other areas,

* More than 500 children participating in after-school tutorial programs at 10 sites,

* 600 children participating in citywide recreational programs,

* Substance abuse treatment and counseling to 37 residents,

* Home ownership by more than 30 residents,

* At least 74 youths participated in ACT preparation programs, and university student assistants worked at seven community schools with large enrollment from public housing.

CAP incorporates the efforts of approximately 450 faculty, students and staff from both universities, focusing its initiatives at three public housing sites and their surrounding communities. The program combines applied research and service delivery to help low-income and welfare dependent individuals become economically self-sufficient through outreach initiatives such as site-and-school- based tutorial programs, athletic program, and others.

"We've had about 500 faculty, staff and students working in and around public housing. The trick is to institutionalize this type of relationship so that it becomes the norm and not the exception," Mason said. "For example, if a student is studying math here at Tulane and he wants to get credit, then he has to take those ideas and teach them at a middle school. By doing this, we're making better students at the university and better students at the middle school."

Mason explained that this type of relationship is called experientially enhanced learning in which both service learning (when service is connected to course credit) and community service (students volunteer because they want to do something good) are at work. "At the Center, we fight a two-front battle. First, we try to do some good in the community we live in," he said. Second, we're trying to change the institution {Tulane} so that it can continue to do some good in the community. We're fighting both battles at the same time. The most positive outcome of the NCUC is that we've broken down the walls between public housing and the universities. In our program, we have shuttle buses that transport people both ways, students to housing developments, and residents to campuses."

Tulane's Institute for Resident Initiatives involves a collaboration with residents who serve as staff at all public housing sites. IRI offers a wide range of community-based programs for approximately 30,000 residents at HANO developments, numerous scattered sites and Section 8 units throughout the city. "Our relationship with residents has worked because we didn't come in trying to be missionaries to the residents doing what we thought was right," he said. "Instead, we listened to what they wanted and needed because they know better than anyone else."

As a result of the NCUC efforts, HANO achieved its first PHMAP score by earning an "A" in resident services. According to Mason, discussions are now underway to export selected programs to other housing authorities in Louisiana. "We've had more success than people have seen in terms of getting people jobs and training programs. If we've done one thing, we've helped people in public housing see that there are other possibilities beyond public housing," Mason said. "In the long run, the real benefit is that we study what we do so that we can pass that information on to other cities and universities."

As of February 2000, Mason leaves Tulane to assume the presidency of Jackson State University in Mississippi. He says that he is adequately prepared to take on the responsibilities of the new job. "I've worked in various other capacities at Tulane and I feel my resume is up to the task. If you can run a university, you can run anything because universities are complicated institutions," he said. "As president, I'll be interested in what the alumni, students, faculty and legislature envision for Jackson State. Their vision is the one that counts. Once we figure that out, then my job is to make it happen."

Linedda Cates-MeIver is a contributing writer for The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans, LA.
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Author:Cates-McIver, Linedda
Publication:The Black Collegian
Geographic Code:1U7LA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
Words:1697
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