Roger John retired from CILCO after 31 years in progressively responsible management positions. During that time he accumulated extensive experience in providing advice and council to line management along with developing strategies for building or re-building business units and personnel. He has been creative at finding cost-effective approaches to accomplish business objectives.
John currently is employed as the executive director of the Peoria Housing Authority. He was gainfully employed as interim executive director in February 1995 while employed by the Illinois Employer's Association. John accepted the position of executive director in August 1995.
John acquired his bachelor's degree in management from the University of Illinois-Sangamon. He is a current member and/or leader in numerous community and professional organizations dating back to the 1960s.
Tell us about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I've lived in and around Peoria most of my life except for a short period when I was younger. I attended high school in Inglewood, Calif., and spent a four-year enlistment with the U.S. Coast Guard on and around Lake Michigan. When I completed my enlistment in the U.S. Coast Guard I returned to Peoria and worked for a short time at Caterpillar before moving to Central Illinois Light Company to become a meter reader. That started my 32-year career there. Somewhere around my 16th year, I left CILCO for a career advancement opportunity at RLI, and then became director at Wildlife Prairie Park before returning to CILCO. Much of the entrepreneurial philosophy I have today was learned during that period, particularly at RLI. I owe much of what I am to Jerry Stephens and his management philosophy.
Early in my work life I determined I had some serious deficiencies I needed to change if I wanted to be successful in management. Illinois Central College opened its doors at the right time for me to start an 11-plus year quest for a bachelor's degree in management from Sangamon College, which is now University of Illinois-Sangamon.
I've got four great kids and nine grandchildren. Although single for many years, Kathy, my wife, came along at the right time. She possessed the same devotion to running, bicycling and outdoor adventure that I had plus many other wonderful interests that gave us reason to fall in love and be together. We were married half way through a nine-day bicycle ride across New South Wales, Australia, in April 1998.
Explain the Peoria Housing Authority–its purpose, its funding, etc.
The Peoria Housing Authority–what is it? First, it's a hybrid organization conceived under state, federal and local participation. Its purpose is to provide a housing safety net for those in need. The United States Housing Act of 1937, although amended numerous times, formed the basis for public housing as we know it today. It authorized federal loans to local housing authorities that had to be created under state legislation. In exchange for federal funding, local housing authorities had to execute a cooperation agreement. Public housing is not now, nor was it ever, intended as permanent housing. We are working hard to get back to operating under the philosophy of "in, up, and out" for residents.
An Annual Contributions Contract (ACC) formalizes the relationship between PHAs and the federal government acting through the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The ACC essentially states that in exchange for federal funding, PHAs will follow applicable federal laws and regulations, which includes state and sometimes local laws and regulations. America's public housing is one of the most highly-regulated organizations in our society. Appropriations statutes provide annual levels of funding for local housing programs. An unfortunate reality of Congress is that public housing concerns, particularly funding, are not at the top of most members' agendas.
What misperceptions do most Peorians have regarding the Peoria Housing projects? Authority? What do you do to combat those misperceptions?
PHA misperceptions: that the "Projects"–a term considered by those in and around public housing to be demeaning, are full of worthless, lazy individuals; that all PHA residents are gang members, do drugs and embrace criminal activity; and that the PHA is mismanaged and full of incompetent employees. There have been incidents in the past that could have given Peorians reason to have that perception. Is it accurate? No, it's no different than most neighborhoods in any city. Are there residents who don't respond to our rules and regulations? Yes. Do we take action up to and including eviction after attempting to correct a problem? Yes. In fact, on issues like gangs, drugs, guns and criminal activity that threaten the safety and welfare of decent, responsible tenants we aggressively administer a "one strike and you're out" policy. We also have the authority and obligation to deny housing on the same basis. A crack-down several years ago–that includes continued enforcement of housing policies–has made public housing a safer place to live than in many other parts of the city.
Rather than just tell Peorians that the Peoria Housing Authority is doing better, we believe actions speak louder than words. Look around at our properties. Drive by the Taft neighborhood and you'll see–gone are 16 dilapidated, graffiti-covered, gang-infested buildings, and in their place are green grass and trees, like a park. Included in the Taft renovations are new streets, sidewalks, sewer, water, and gas lines. The community has a decorative fence and lighting that enhances both the appearance of the neighborhood and the quality of life there.
This is just one example of bringing a vision and sound business practices to an organization not much different than other housing authorities bogged down by years of mismanagement.
Tell us about the major renovations currently underway–the situation leading up to the demolition of existing housing, current opinion on housing projects, etc. How do you stop that cycle from repeating in the new housing?
There are several significant projects either started or soon to be underway. The new RiverWest neighborhood will be a mixed-income community made up of individual homes for rent and for sale. The old Warner Homes was demolished to provide the site for this new housing. Assessment and self-sufficiency actions (i.e. working families, attending improvement programs, etc.) will determine who will qualify to live at RiverWest.
Renovations of senior housing at Sterling Towers are expected to begin in January. We will modernize units there along with a new all-weather-connecting corridor between the East and West buildings. There will be a complete makeover of the first floor to include a small convenience store, library, beauty salon, computer room, kitchen, dining area, and other enhancements for the residents.
Our next major undertaking will be the revitalization of the Harrison Homes neighborhood. We have quietly been working to build a collaborative effort to bring the City of Peoria, District 150, the Peoria Park District and other key stakeholders to work together on a new South gateway to the city. If we are to be successful in obtaining another HOPE VI Grant to create a new neighborhood like RiverWest, we must have the cooperation and participation of these collaborators.
How cooperative have business and government been to this redevelopment?
We haven't had anyone say, "don't do it," but there certainly hasn't been a stampede to help either. We've had to work very hard to accomplish what we have done so far. The PHA's track record undoubtedly has impacted the amount of cooperation. The exception was the demolition of the buildings at Taft when the City of Peoria, Caterpillar, the Armed Forces Reservists and many others came together and helped us tear down those blighted buildings at virtually no cost to the PHA.
Is it difficult to recruit board members to the Peoria Housing Authority? Why or why not?
Actually we've had very little turnover in board members, and when we did it was not difficult to find replacements. I feel we have a very good board in that the members all have the same vision of where we want to go. Each member is there because they sincerely have an interest in those individuals who live in public housing. It is a very active board and one that takes its responsibilities very seriously. If we didn't have such a good board I would never have agreed to stay on and take the executive director position.
What economic impact has the development of Southtown had on Peoria?
The redevelopment of Southtown took a while to get rolling, and now RiverWest will anchor its southern border. It needed us to revitalize the old Warner site to make the surrounding property more attractive for re-development. What we're doing at RiverWest makes other linkages to the proposed downtown ballpark, and re-development of the corridor in between, more feasible.
Contract negotiations with PHA employees have not gone smoothly. How many employees and what basic functions do PHA employees do?
Although contract negotiations with AFSCME extended beyond the old contract expiration, I wouldn't say they were particularly difficult. In fact, we built a good working relationship that wasn't there in the beginning with AFSCME who represents our office employees.
Our first contract negotiations with the trades set the tone for an excellent labor/management relationship. I am on the Peoria Area Labor Management (PALM) board and we do practice what we preach regarding the "Give and Take Philosophy" in working together to solve labor/management differences.
We see ourselves in the property management business with a defined constituency, so most of our 106 employees perform functions related to that business. Some examples of those functions include: maintenance, housing management, renovation, accounting and supportive services for residents. Although we perceive our core business to be property management, we are also concerned with resident self-sufficiency needs as they work their way out of poverty.
As executive director since 1995, what changes have you seen? Positive? Negative?
I've covered some of those changes already, particularly those related to the improvement of PHA properties. Others include an overall improvement in education, skill, and reliability of the PHA's diverse workforce team–and recognition by HUD, public officials, and the residents of Peoria and its surrounding areas, that we have improved our quality of service.
It's been a more difficult challenge than I thought it would be. Many of the rules and regulations come without the necessary funding to properly implement the mechanics of those requirements. Bureaucracy will always be a factor in what we do to maintain our relationship with local, state, and federal government. The 501(c) 3 we've just created allows us to seek out new revenue sources and accomplish tasks related to our housing mission without some of the difficulty experienced with burdensome HUD intervention. This will write a new chapter in how housing authorities can expand their influence and assist in urban revitalization, homeownership, and other infrastructure improvements.
If you could change the system in any way, what would you change?
Our government agencies should be required to do impact studies before passing legislation, and then fund that legislation before it's required to be implemented. As we put together annual and strategic plans for public comment and submit them to HUD, funding should be committed to those plans that are approved. The inconsistent funding from the federal government creates many problems for housing authorities. How many private sector businesses, which we are trying to mimic, could operate into the next calendar year without the firm financial direction provided by an approved budget? Yet that happens with housing authorities almost every year. HUD–and the way Congress provides funding–needs a major overhaul by someone from the business sector. In addition, the mechanism HUD designed, and continues to change for evaluating the performance of housing authorities, does not provide a comprehensive picture of how the total organization is performing.
How did your previous management experience at CILCO prepare you for your position as Executive Director of the PHA?
I'm a firm believer that good management skills are transferable to any business or organization. Unfortunately, wisdom and knowledge are something you gain over time. It is that accumulation of life's experience that helps us make prudent decisions. I have been able to use the management knowledge gained from working in many different jobs at CILCO, as well as RLI and Wildlife Prairie Park. However, the years of volunteering, networking and building long-term relationships with others in the community has been equally important in what we've been able to accomplish at the PHA. Working as the interim executive director should have scared me away, but I've always had a hard time saying "no" to tasks that seemed insurmountable. I'm not sure any previous work experience could have really prepared me for what I've encountered at the PHA.
How does the PHA compare with other housing projects around the country?
In some areas, we still have deficiencies; take for example our vacancies and turnaround time to lease conventional units. At more desirable locations like Taft we normally run less than 10 vacancies out of the 219 units there. Compare that to Harrison, were we have 761 units and 346 vacancies. Although we usually turn vacant units around in about 21 days, the clock continues to run on the ones that we've purposely left vacant because of the high cost to make those units ready to rent. Also, there isn't a sufficient demand for those Harrison units to warrant the cost of getting them all back on line. We still must count those with the ones we turn around quickly and that causes our turnaround times to be high and seem like it actually takes 318 days average to turn a unit around.
Overall, we are getting stronger and growing steadily. We have actually surpassed many high performing agencies by being creative and entrepreneurial. Although our HUD score says we're a standard performer, that score doesn't reflect our many accomplishments. It doesn't give us credit for the Riverview Child Development Center at Taft–a collaborative effort of the PHA, Illinois Central College and Peoria School District 150. Nor does it look at the Southside Branch Library, which was the outcome of another collaboration between the PHA, the Peoria Public Library and help from Downtown Rotary. The HOPE VI project, the creative demolition of the blighted buildings at Taft, cleaning up Section 8 and our newest creation the 501(c) 3 subsidiary are other examples of performance that does not get factored into the day-to-day activities.
We are saddled with properties like Harrison that drag our performance down. We know what corrections need to be made to achieve high performance status, and we are diligently moving in that direction.
Our next challenge is the vision we have for the Southern Gateway to the city. It will require the City of Peoria and other key stakeholders to collaborate on what could be a 100 plus million dollar revitalization for that part of Peoria. This undertaking would create a business park and its accompanying jobs for residents in that area; a new school to replace Harrison School along with creative programming to meet the needs of children in this urban location could be the envy of all district parents; an extension to Trewyn Park that would blend public park and business park into a seamless green space; and for us a new neighborhood to replace the aging Harrison Homes. Much of the funding for a comprehensive project like this could come from existing state, federal and philanthropic grants.
With this accomplished I'll feel like I can, with PHA board approval, turn the reins over to my able deputy director and ride off into the sunset. IBI