Building Thriving Communities With Eugene Jones Jr.
The public housing industry is about building communities where people can connect with one another. Joining Abhijit Verekar on how this mission can be integrated into the industry is author and advocate for affordable housing and national housing policy reform, Eugene Jones Jr. Eugene shares how PHAs take advantage of the power of technology to innovate their processes, making public housing even more accessible to the public, especially when providing information to nearby establishments and communities. He also talks about PHA’s biggest challenges after being hit by the pandemic and how everyone can bridge the digital divide.
Listen to the podcast here:
Building Thriving Communities With Eugene Jones Jr.
PHAs That Build Communities Where People Can Thrive And Live With Dignity
My guest now is Mr. Eugene Jones Jr. of the Atlanta Housing Authority. Eugene is the CEO of The Housing Authority and has served many large and small housing authorities across the country. He is a well-known name in the PHA sector. Eugene, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here. I’m glad to share whatever I can about what my experiences have led me and all the successes.
As I get ready for my interviews, I went on your website and your LinkedIn. It’s remarkable how much you’ve achieved in this common space that we play in. Tell me a little bit about your story. Where did you start? How did you end up as the CEO of one of the largest public housing agencies in the country?
I was born outside of Detroit, Michigan. My dad was in the United States Air Force, Selfridge Air Force Base. We spent a few years there, went to elementary school, and then my dad got an assignment. We moved to Great Falls, Montana. Back then in the ’50s, there were not too many black and brown families there in Great Falls, Montana. I remember living in a trailer home right next to a farm. I remember snow like I’ve never remembered snow before. In Montana, it didn’t snow a little bit. It snowed a lot. Many times, my dad had to go up under the trailer and unfreeze the pipes so the toilets and the kitchen sink will work. It was a great experience.
After that, we moved back to Detroit. My dad received an assignment to go to Tokyo, Japan. Being 12, 13 going to Tokyo Japan at that age. This was during the Vietnam War. We went over there and had a great time. We lived off post in a housing area. A lot of American friends, a lot of people whose dads worked for the US embassies all over. I had a great experience in high school, all walks of life. It was just not black and brown. There was yellow. There was everyone that was there. We’re all happy. We entertained ourselves. We had a great time.
I was there for four years. I came back to the United States, sixteen, graduated from high school. My dad signed me over to the United States Air Force. I spent ten years in the Air Force all over the country. This was the time when Vietnam War was going off. I wanted to go to Vietnam. That’s why I enlisted. By the time I got in, they closed it down in June of 1973. I never got the chance to go over there. I went to Frankfurt, Germany, and also went to Athens, Greece. I came back and served in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Wichita Falls, Texas, and various other places. I concluded my career in 1983.
I wanted to be a CPA. Therefore, I went to Guttman College for my education. I got my BA degree at the University of Albuquerque, and then I got my MBA from New Mexico Highlands University. At that time, I moved to Oakland, California in the Bay Area in San Francisco. I worked for the US Department of Housing Development, Office of Inspector General. I was an auditor. We audited everything across that region. The region covered Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, all of California. I had a great time. After that, I didn’t want to travel anymore. I wanted to start a family. I quit there and went to the San Francisco Housing Authority. That’s when I started doing public housing.
Before I went to California, I used to work for a development company, Belmont Community Development. I also worked for a bank called the First National Bank of Albuquerque. After I got into the Oakland Area and worked for the San Francisco Housing Authority, that’s where I started cutting my teeth about public and assisted housing. I went from San Francisco to Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City, Missouri was the first housing authority under federal receivership. I worked for a federal judge called Judge Dean Whipple. A great judge and we had a great time. We transformed housing agencies. That’s my experience. How can I take the troubled agency and make it do right financially, operationally, and also working with our residents to make their lives better?
I have many experiences walking properties and development from new to old, or something that has not been in the ground, and trying to think about how would they make this better. I went to Indianapolis on a dare. I didn’t need to leave Kansas City, Missouri. Once I was in Indianapolis, I got a good friend there. I said, “Let me take a free trip to Indianapolis.” I went there. I walked around. I said, “No, I don’t want to come to Indianapolis.” The mayor called me later on. He said, “What would it take for you to go to Indianapolis?” I said, “If you do these things,” I made them egregious and said, “I then will go to Indianapolis.”
When I flew back to Kansas City, they called me and said, “We can do everything. When can you start?” I couldn’t back out of the deal after that. I was very shocked. Indianapolis, then I became a consultant. I went to New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. I was there before and after. After that, I went to Detroit, then I went to Toronto Community Housing. That was an experience. I was the first African-American to manage a housing agency outside of the United States. At that time, Toronto was the second-largest housing agency in North America. After I left Toronto, I went to Chicago.
Chicago was the second-largest housing authority in North America. I worked at the number 2 and the number 3 largest in North America. I have not been to New York. I almost, but didn’t quite make it to New York. I’ve been to over little housing authorities all up in California, from Soledad to Calexico. I was also a City Manager in California. I brought up the first mall down in Perry County. I did a lot of first around the country with New Britain, Connecticut, and Hartford, Connecticut, just about everywhere. There’s not a major city that I’ve not been to, excluding Portland, Oregon. I’ve never been to Portland, Oregon. I’m seeing some beautiful countries from Colorado everywhere. That’s where I ended up. I got married. I got divorced. I have three kids. One lives in Chicago. One lives in Oakland, California. The other one is in Indianapolis. I’ve been here in Atlanta for about a year. It’s been a great experience and I’ve learned a lot.
Let’s switch gears a little bit. How do you think about innovation as it applies to your day-to-day role? How have you thought about it throughout your career?
You think about innovation in numerous ways. You look at what you’re responsible for and how do you look at a holistic approach instead of a singular approach. The reason why there’s a big difference is because singular gives you specific outcomes versus having a holistic approach because it affects a lot of different areas at the same time. You look at the development. What you’re trying to look at, you’re trying to find out, “How can you use technology to fit many units on a piece of property? How do you manage your resource? How do you do project managing so that you get the best bang for your buck?” That means you’re looking at innovation. You’re trying to look at resources. How do you curtail? How do you look at project resourcing? How do you know if the project was profitable or wasn’t? You’re looking at mock projects. You’re looking at resource tracking. You’re also using technology to track the material and do 310 units.
If you look at technology innovation, maybe you can squeeze it to 375, but you have to look at technology to give you those numbers. Innovation in housing to me and my colleagues mean, how can we minimize costs but also achieve the same results of providing quality of life issues for our residents? How can we do that more efficiently and more effectively? That when we’re using taxpayers’ dollars, that we’re responsible and we can show them every dollar that was spent towards the benefit of new housing development or looking at a rehab development doing the same thing.
Innovation has been a driving force for some agencies across the country but not for all. A larger housing authority has additional resources. A smaller housing authority is going to have the same resources, experiences, or capabilities but they try to do all this job with what they have. Also, as a large housing authority or a medium-sized housing authority, we always share our resources through our trade organizations to get them up to par, which would be the CLPHA, which is a large housing authority and trade association, NAHRO, which is the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officers for the medium-sized. You have the smaller ones, the Public Housing Directors Association. We have three entities that are looking at innovation, and then also looking at the adequate resources in order to promote efficiencies and opportunities.
You have a very public profile, Gene. I bet you get hit up a lot. You can’t help it. You’ve done great work but because of how available it seems to be, you probably get sold to a lot. Everyone’s trying to sell you the next best thing. What’s your methodology for cutting through the noise to find the thing that can be impactful and useful? That can be a new handheld or a new piece of software. How do you cut through the noise?
Here’s my take on that. Mostly, what I do is I’d look at my senior staff. We sit down and we talk. I understand what we have and what we need. It’s what we need, but not what we have to have. When I’m going out and taking my staff out on-site tours, we look at Gene or to the staff, “What will make this better? How can we communicate better? How can our residents utilize the internet? How can we provide laptops? How can we provide a computer space where they can communicate?” They look at what we have and say, “Gene, if we upped the ante, this is what we need in order to go over the hump.” I make a mental note and also write things down.
When someone’s cold calling me and say, “Gene,” I get emails every day saying, “We can do this. We can do that.” As a President and CEO, I know exactly what our capabilities are, what kind of bandwidth we have, and what type of technology we have. If I’m looking at someone who’s sending me something, I always go to the staff and say, “What do you think about this?” They would write back telling me and says, “Gene, we already have this. Gene, this is a great idea. Will you allow me to talk to this individual to come and see if we can move this along? We don’t have this. Remember, we have about this a couple of months ago, a couple of years ago? Now, we’re at the point where we can sit there and say, ‘Let’s look into this deeper and then let’s do a deeper dive.’”Innovation happens when you look at things from a holistic approach instead of a singular one. Click To Tweet
That’s the way I started looking at this opportunity. When people send me emails, a lot of them I don’t respond to. A few of them, I take a look at and say, “Let me send it over to our staff.” One of the things I’ve seen one time is locks, “How can we do better locks on our doors?” I said, “This makes sense.” I’m not the expert, so I’ll send it over to my senior staff and say, “What do you guys think about this?” They’ll give me an opinion. If we think that we all need to go on the phone call together and start talking, then we’ll do that. I let them dictate what those things are, what we needed to look at, and how we need to improve that specific part of our operation.
I always try to let the door open because I don’t want to close it. Sometimes I may miss something but the staff would say, “Gene, did you get this text? Did you get this email? Did you get this call?” I said, “Yes, but this is what I thought about it.” It’s communication. That’s what I do a lot and also site visits. When you go out there and look at the site, when you’re looking at people who are sending and selling you something and you sit there, I always go to the residents and say, “What do you guys think if you had this? What do you think if we did this?” You got to go out there. You got to walk the problems. You got to talk to your staff. You got to get that information. You got to have a check-in your brain. You can get through the BS, but you can also address the things that you need to move forward on.
It also sounds like, Gene, you have a pretty strategic outlook towards what needs to happen in terms of outcomes. You’re driven towards the outcomes. Your staff is driven towards the outcomes. Focusing on the outcomes and how we’re going to get there lays the foundation for not just the technology strategy, but overall operational strategies as you move towards fulfilling some of your goals that have been put forward. You mentioned communication. How important do you think having a long-term strategy overall and for technology is for achieving your goals?
It’s always going to be beneficial because it gives the staff something to look forward to. We receive our direction from the board. We get to sit there and talk to our board members and also our senior staff to come up with a strategic plan. When we come up with a strategic plan for the next five years, we look at that. We monitor that on a quarterly basis to make sure that we’re changing our goals and achieving what has been approved by our board of directors and what we have agreed to as a staff. We’re also looking in that strategic plan, where are the opportunities of which we can do better or how can we wretch it up a little bit?
One of the experiences and we talked about this is when people sell you things. I have a meeting with Padsplit Atticus. They’re based in Atlanta. They came up with something innovative about shared co-living. We have a house. You have five bedrooms. How can you have families co-exist? We use technology, which means you could be a member of his organization. You can go in there. You can find a unit that you may want to live with someone. They do the background checks. They do everything. The only thing that you don’t share is your bedroom and maybe a bathroom. You share the common areas, the living room, kitchen, dining room. The cost is less. You don’t have to buy a whole. You can buy parts of it. Does that make more sense? How can we do that?
On our portable side, when it comes to our housing vouchers, how can we get HUD involved in this? Does this make sense? Can we reduce the cost? Looking at all of those types of things, looking at that kind of opportunity, we take that very seriously. We look it past with, “Can we do something with that? Does it make sense? How can we get our colleagues out there to help and assist? How can we test it?” We do a lot of testing, “What’s listed there?” You don’t want to make a mistake. Hopefully, you don’t make a big mistake. We’ll go, then we try to test the system. We talk to people who we have done this with before. What outcomes did they come home with? If these are tiny homes, corrugated homes, container homes, our staff gets us to teach a client and how we can influence them to get them to approve our direction in which we’re going.
That’s such an interesting concept. It’s almost like Airbnb for low-income housing.
You can get on the site. You can pick the size. You can pick the location. Let’s be real when you’re looking at this. With technology, especially in housing and if you look for somewhere to live, you’re looking at, “I’m trying to find the best school. I’m trying to find good transportation. I want access to the parks. I want to be closer to the job if I can be. I want access to healthcare. I want to look at crime.” With technology, when you look at that, you can go inside. You can look at the whole surrounding area, how much crime has been in that neighborhood, where are the boys and girls club, where the community centers are, where the library is at. Is it close proximity to my family members? How long would I have to do? When we look at technology, that’s what we want to present. That’s what we want to provide to our resident population. If there’s not a resident population, how can we make that attractive to people who don’t need assisted housing? How can they take advantage of quality housing across any city in this country?
It’s using technology but also, it’s making you think outside the box in terms of policies and what fits into the model of public houses versus the general population. How open rather is HUD to innovative ideas like that? When you do take an idea to the feds and say, “Here’s an idea. These are the results of a pilot test. Here’s what we need from you?” Is it a long process for adoption then?
It all depends on how easy the innovative picture that you present to a government entity. Typically, we would go through our trade associations. We belong to these different groups. They take what we think that’s innovative. We let them take that information, do a white paper, and submit it to HUD. We sit down and talk about public comments. We talk about regulatory, “Does it violate any regulatory or statutory issues?” The preponderance of the whole inventory of housing authorities across the country, there are 3,300 of us, they take it seriously. They do look at it seriously and also the congressional staff.
We go to congressional staff with innovative ideas. We like to try to push to them that they can push it to their colleagues and push it to Congress, “This seems like a good idea. What do you think, HUD? What do you think, US Department of Transportation? What do you think, HHS?” We try to get everyone involved in a partnership in collaborative ways in which not to say it’s all HUD’s idea or it’s all HUD. They are the only ones that can do it. We try to spread that because it’s about resources. It’s about a holistic approach that we talked about before.
It’s encouraging to hear that not just leaders like you are putting forth new ideas, but also that there’s a community out there that is solving the problems a little better.
Think about this. If your child has gone to college and you don’t want the college, you don’t want the student to live on campus because it’s expensive, but you don’t want them to move off campus because you don’t know how safe it is. If you do some type of technology like that, you can sit there and pinpoint in proximity where the college is at, in proximity to where they can eat at. It goes well because it gives you a foundation. That’s what the technology of what we’re trying to get to in housing is that you can sit in your unit, wherever you sit in a community space. You can understand the surrounding community in which you’re living in.
What a lot of people don’t do is that “I’ve got a house in this area.” What does the community look like? They have two community centers. They have a golf course. They have a bowling alley. They have a library. That’s attractive to me. When I get home from work, I want to park the car. I want to walk to all these entities, get on a bus, a rail, a car, or something like that, and then trying to get somewhere. That’s quality of life.
It’s hard to think of a public housing authority thinking along those broad lines. You think of public housing agencies and they say, “Here are the 15,000 forms I need to fill to get on this list that I may not get a house out of.” Take an example of Section 8 or housing choice vouchers, waitlists, and stuff. Is that changing? Where does innovation stand in solving those problems that have plagued public housing for many years?Always understand what you need instead of what you simply want to have. Click To Tweet
It’s been changing over the last 10, 15 years. We can use a waitlist for a lot of different things. We can build units. If our waitlist is showing that we need more 2s and 3s, then that’s where we’re going to start building. If the information provides that we need to build more ones, we can use that information when it comes out of the waitlist senior housing. That’s a great opportunity to look at our inventory of people on our waitlist. How do we move that waitlist forward? As you know, individuals who are on our waitlist, their income, and family composition changes. That gives us the opportunity to weed it out. If it was $20,000, it should be $10,000. Here’s a need because everybody else had been housed, they moved, or the circumstances have changed. They don’t have five kids. They have two kids. They don’t need a four-bedroom. They need a two-bedroom.
That technology helps us in how we provide those services to our clientele who lives in those cities and how we can share information in other counties, and all the cities across the country. In Section 8 voucher, you have mobility with the vouchers. They can move anywhere across this country. They can take that technology and say, “I’m in Atlanta but I want to move to Biloxi, Mississippi. What’s out there for me? I got a new job. There’s an auto company that’s moving out there. How can I get out there? What can I find out? Where can I afford to live just like I’ve been living in Atlanta?”
Who on your team brings these ideas to you? Do you have a fairly robust IT organization with a CIO- type person that says, “Here’s what’s going on in the private industry. We can use these tools to offer these services?” Do you have somebody like that on the team?
We have a CIO. We also include him when we have our senior staff meetings on a weekly basis. We talk about innovation. We talk about things and best business practices. How do we look at standard operating procedures? How do we look at integration? How do we look at the cloud system? How can we make that better? How can we make sure that our staff and our clients or the public can get to us and ask any questions? Where are those where we have drawbacks and glitches in the system? How do we protect the integrity of our system? We always talk about that, “How do we know we have malware? How do we protect our system that no one can go in there and hack the system because we have confidential information?” We talk about that, “How do we do best practices?” He checks across the country. We were looking at our software provider, hardware provider, and how do we upgrade and keep above the nuances of new technology.
In many ways, Gene, the role of the CIO has evolved. It’s not just making sure the lights are on.
They’ll sit behind the desk and say, “I’ll need to make sure everyone’s computer is working.” That’s it, but not anymore.
It’s all about outcomes and helping you achieve your overall strategy. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing public housing now as it relates to filling that gap? There are a lot of problems in the world. One of them that has been highlighted because of COVID over 2020 is the digital divide or digital equity. Given what service housing authorities provide, very basic housing needs are being met through you. A lot of residents now look at housing authorities as “You gave us housing. I’ve been asked to stay home and do my homework. I don’t have internet.” Where do you see you guys fitting to solve that problem?
Internally, we have great resources in which we can provide those services. We have collaborative partners with Comcast. They provide internet access. We’ve been working on that. All of our developments have internet access. We have a room in which anyone can go in there and go online, do any internet, do any homework, whatever the case may be. We donate laptops. We will buy laptops. We will refurbish laptops, so we make sure that all of our kids and school-age kids have laptops. If they have any have issues that they don’t, we have collaborative individuals that we work with Atlanta Public Schools. We work with a lot of philanthropic agencies. We have Home Depot and Chick-fil-A. We covered all our bases when it comes to bringing technology in and around our public housing sites and also in the surrounding community. I want to point out. We don’t like to be on the silo. As I say, “We’re just housing. We have all those resources.” We try to share those resources with the surrounding community because they may be hurting too. We got to be a part of the whole neighborhood.
Gene, tell me about the book you wrote. Is this your story? What is it about? Where can people find it?
You can find my book called Housing Humans on Amazon. I’m getting ready to write book number two. The book number one, I’ve never thought I will ever write a book. You don’t think about this. When I first moved to Atlanta in October of 2019, I decided and said, “I need to do a legacy. I need to tell people about my travels. Also, to tell people you can be successful in a different industry and still help people who can’t help themselves and be transparent about it.” I moved a lot because I had the ability to move because I didn’t have to drag a whole family. Not to say that I was privileged or anything like that. I just had the opportunity to move where there were conflict and trouble. Using my skills and experience, I was able to fix those agencies and leave them in good standing and better off when I first came in there.
I wanted to tell the story in my book about how you can be successful, how you can gain support and have credibility in your industry, and doing a good job. If you look at my career, there have never been any controversies. There has never been anything like stealing anything or didn’t provide the right resources. Everything has been transparent. I’ve been communicating. There’s a story there. I want to look at our young colleagues who are coming up in this industry. I want the kids to say, “There are other things, when you see something, you can be there. You can be like that person.” I never grew up and said, “Gene, I want to be a president of a public housing agency.” I’ve never thought about it at all.
We lived in public housing on the Air Force base like public houses now, but I never thought I was going to manage or do anything with it. I wanted to put it in a book and also talk about strengthening my position about having a national housing policy. If we all get a national housing policy, we can tie into adequate resources to provide more affordable housing and also try to eradicate homelessness across this country because of the pandemic. People have lost jobs because Congress has not acted yet, not to say they won’t, but they need to make everyone whole.
If you don’t have a job, you can’t pay back rent. If you can’t pay back rent, those landlords can’t provide housing because they have to pay a mortgage. There’s got to be some relief. There’s got to be a stressless opportunity where we get the economy back hopefully, at some point. They can pay rent that they want to pay rent. They need a job in order to sustain their quality of life and providing a roof over their heads for their families, and not turn homelessness into a crisis far worse than what it was before this pandemic.
In 2020, have you seen increased pressure on the demand for your services?
Yes and no. If you increase the services, the scene is, “What do I do?” I have to close the community centers. We’re telling everyone, “Don’t go out unless you have to. If you want groceries to be delivered, we’ll find a way to have your grocery delivered.” If you have to get your dialysis, we’ll cart you over there to get your dialysis. If you need your medication, we watch that. We’re going on every one of our units. We’d do a 100% wellness check to make sure that they have the things that they need, that no one else will provide to them or they’re too scared to go out of their units. We try to protect our residents and looking at their welfare. Has it increased? Yes, it has increased where we can cover the cost and the resources.
Before November and December, we provided each one of our seniors a good meal. We feel like a lot of seniors have been going every day without a good meal because it’s a chore. It’s about medication and food. Not just food, healthy food. They get the right vegetables and fruits. We work with food banks. We work with our partners out there in the City of Atlanta. We check each other to make sure that we’re covering all those bases with the resources that we have. We know we can’t do it all, but we know those community partners across the city that will help in assisting.
That’s how things have increased and how things have been addressed. We’re going to continue addressing until hopefully, at some point, when everyone is vaccinated, that we can open up the community centers again. People can play and interact with each other. We were scared about suicides, abuse, all those types of things. Everyone is getting it across the country. We want to make sure that our elderly are vaccinated and that they know where to go. We can provide transportation. We’re working with Fulton County Health, the Sanders, and so forth, so we can make sure that we’re addressing all the needs of our residents. Is it a daunting task? Absolutely. It’s something that we have adequate resources and good staff that we can put out there, and be very glad that we’re achieving and containing operations.
In many ways, it’s something you’ve trained for all your life through your work. Your goal is not to just build brick-and-mortar high rises, but to affect communities where people can thrive and live. What greater challenge than we’ve seen in 2020. I thank you for your service. Gene, I appreciate your time now. Is there anything that I missed that you want to talk about?
I want to say I have a great staff. They’re working remotely. They’ve been working remotely for almost a year. We’ve continued providing those same services as we were sitting there in our spaces and our headquarters to our community. We’re still communicating. Am I hearing negative news? I get a lot of emails from people who are searching for homes and housing. My staff has done an awesome job, staying with it and doing virtual inspections. I also want to get my hats off to the staff. I want to get my hats off to the mayor, their staff, our community support, and our collaborative partners throughout this city.
I appreciate you, Gene. Thank you for your time. I hope to talk to you soon again.
About Eugene Jones Jr.
Public Housing, Policy Change Agent and Author of Housing Humans – A Vicarious Memorandum, Eugene E. Jones, Jr. advocates for affordable housing and national housing policy reform. Mr. Jones has led housing authorities across the United States and in over eight of the largest housing authorities in the U.S. and even internationally in Toronto, Canada.
Mr. Jones is an innovative leader who partners with those who can help him execute his out-of-the-box solutions to build more than just vertical brick-and-mortar high rises, but more so communities where people can thrive and live with dignity.
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