Since last August, Brenda Coates has been the executive director for the Peoria Housing Authority (PHA). During her 18 years of public housing experience, she has held various positions within the agency. She was deputy executive director for nine years before being promoted to executive director in August 2006. In 2001, she was selected to receive the Women of Achievement Award from Women in Management. She received a Bachelor’s degree in business administration from Augustana College and is also a 1996 graduate of the Peoria Chamber of Commerce Community Leadership School. Currently, the Peoria resident serves as a board member for the Peoria Area Labor Management, Women in Leadership and Women’s Advisory for Financial Literacy and is a member of the Rotary Club of Peoria. Coates and her family attend Peoria’s Church of the Living God, Temple # 130. She and her husband, Anthony, have been married for 23 years and have two sons, Michael and Matthew.
Tell us about your background, schools attended and your family. How did you, a former Chicago resident, end up in Peoria?
I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago and was the second oldest of four children. Having been the only daughter, my mother often left me in charge of the household while my parents worked. Both of my parents, Willie and Rutha, were hard-working, middle-class individuals who pushed us to take advantage of the opportunities that were non-existent when they were growing up. They stressed that the “sky was the limit.” As a result, we took tap, ballet and piano lessons.
My mother was employed with the United States Postal Service and climbed the ladder due to her work ethics—holding various positions on the mailroom floor and in the accounting/budgeting department. My father worked for the Chicago Transit Authority during the day. In addition, my parents owned a record shop and a TV repair service, W & R. Each of us worked in the shop to earn an allowance while listening to the latest sounds. Two of my brothers, Anthony and Harold, currently hold management positions with the United States Postal Service. My youngest brother, Gregory, is deceased. My parents often preached that we could do anything we set our minds to and kept pushing us to think about our goals. I was very fortunate to have my mother as my mentor.
Every year, we traveled to Chatham, Louisiana to visit our grandparents who owned a 40-acre farm. Learning about our heritage and farm life was interesting. I believe that in order to know where you’re going, you need to know where you came from. As a result of this experience, I learned that you must work hard and persevere. To hear a rooster crow at dawn, to know what a real chicken looks like, to gather eggs, pick vegetables and milk cows were all experiences I wouldn’t trade.
Growing up, I attended St. Helena of the Cross grade school and graduated from Academy of Our Lady High School in 1973. Both were Catholic parochial schools where we learned the mass in Latin and attended mass weekly as part of our school day. In high school, the Sisters of Notre Dame were strict in my teenage opinion, but as I grew older, I realized that they taught us good values that have remained with me throughout my life. I enjoyed working with numbers and took pleasure in figuring out mathematical equations. In school, both math and spelling were my favorite subjects. During my junior and senior years as the class president, I had the opportunity to listen to the ideas of my classmates, make some decisions and dream. I enjoyed interacting with people. At the end of my senior year I was awarded the American Legion Award for Leadership and was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by my classmates. For recreation, we went roller skating on weekends. I owe my parents credit for encouraging me to believe in myself, be a leader instead of a follower and stand up for the beliefs and ideas of others.
After high school, I entered Augustana College in Rock Island and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration. After graduation, I accepted an accounting clerk position at Caterpillar Tractor Company in Davenport, Iowa. While on a trip to Peoria, I met my husband, Anthony. After dating for two years, we were married in March 1983. Unable to obtain a company transfer, I resigned my position after working at Caterpillar for over five years and relocated to Peoria.
What influenced or motivated you to take on a career in public housing and return to it?
When I relocated to Peoria, I was simply looking for an accounting position. Since I wasn’t familiar with the Peoria area, I utilized the newspaper and the unemployment office for open positions. A friend encouraged me to complete a job application at the housing authority. A couple of months later, I was interviewed and hired as the accounts payable clerk in the finance department. Initially, the work was performed manually until a computer conversion took place. Six months later, the accounting manager position became vacant and I was offered the position. Several years passed and when the finance director position opened, I applied and was promoted. I left the PHA after six years of working long hours, coupled with raising two small children. I went to work as an accounting manager for a small printing manufacturer. When the finance director position opened again in 1994, I applied for the position and made the decision to return to the PHA. What motivated me most was the fact that I have the privilege of working with employees who are not only dedicated individuals working at a fast pace who have a passion for people, but more importantly, they truly have an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. Being part of our clients’ lives and making referrals to community resources, we help to remove some of the barriers such as childcare, transportation and counseling that prevent our residents from moving forward. We keep the “American Dream” alive for those who want it. It has been very satisfying to play a role in helping some of our residents become homeowners.
How does the PHA operate and receive funding?
The Peoria Housing Authority is a municipal corporation created under Illinois law and funded by the federal government. The mayor appoints a Board of Commissioners. The passage of the United States Housing Act of 1937 renewed the federal government’s commitment to providing decent, safe and affordable housing for eligible families. Under this act, the federal government created the federally-funded and locally-operated public housing program that still functions today. Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) entered into an Annual Contributions Contract (ACC) with the U.S. acting by and through the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The ACC incorporates regulations issued by HUD for the development, modernization and operation of public housing contained in Title 24 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). PHAs have the responsibility of providing decent, safe and sanitary housing for eligible families in a manner that promotes serviceability, economy, efficiency and stability of the developments as well as the economic and social well being of the residents. PHAs receive funding through the Operating Fund formula. In June 2003, HUD contracted with Harvard’s Graduate School of Design to conduct a public housing operating cost study. Based on this landmark report, HUD revamped the current funding formula system in place at that time. Although the basic formula—expense minus income equals operating subsidy—did not change, effective January 1, 2008, HUD will fund each property based on a Project Expense Level instead of an agency-wide consolidation of total projects. This new system has been termed by HUD as the Asset Management Program.
Under the new decentralized system, federal funding will go directly to the Asset Management Properties, instead of the new Central Office. The four Asset Management Properties (AMPs) are: Harrison Homes, Taft Homes, Sterling Towers and Scattered Sites—which includes the new RiverWest South neighborhood. The Central Office—which is made up of Executive, Accounting, Human Resources and Information Systems— will remain to provide services to the Asset Management Properties.
Beginning in 2008, the funding calculation forms for each individual AMP—for approval and submission to HUD—will be completed. The calculation assumes eligible funding at 100 percent. Unfortunately, until Congress appropriates the fiscal year funding, the Housing Authority doesn’t actually know what the funding level for the current year will be until later in that year. The Central Office revenue will come primarily from various fees charged to the AMPs, which they will pay from their subsidies received. AMPs receive funds from rent, charges to the residents for late fees, maintenance charges and legal fees.
How many people are living under the roof of the PHA? How many central Illinois residents are on the waiting list?
There are 735 families living in public housing in central Illinois and 1,491 families that are Section 8 participants. There are also approximately 1,506 central Illinois families on our waiting lists for housing. There is a great need for public housing and I would suspect that a large number of central Illinois residents may qualify and don’t realize it. We have housing for persons who make below 60 percent of the area median income. According to a 2000 census, the average annual income for Peoria County is between $30,000 to $39,999. Depending on family size, the average person in Peoria County could be eligible.
Based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new restructuring mandates, the Peoria Housing Authority must downsize. What does this mean for the PHA, now and in the future?
Under a new regulation, housing authorities shall manage their properties according to an Asset Management Model, consistent with the management norms in the broader multi-family management industry. Also, PHAs must implement project-based management, project-based budgeting and project-based accounting. Under Asset Management’s decentralized system, each individual AMP and the Central Office are considered a separate business entity. This is a shift from the current agency-wide or consolidated system to a property-specific system. For now, the transition to Asset Management means approximately 25 positions should be eliminated. The actual number of employees that were affected by the layoff was 15, leaving PHA with an approximate workforce of 67 verses the original 82 employees. As part of the transition, eight new positions—for Asset Managers and Assistant Asset Managers—were created. The Peoria Housing Authority worked hard to utilize the skills of our talented employees. With fewer staff, services—such as completing maintenance work orders and delivering resident services—have already been impacted.
In the future, it means greater responsibility and more decision making at the property level plus employees performing even more work with less resources. It also means that PHAs must continue to evaluate each property, reduce costs and deliver services while operating with fewer staff, increasing utility costs and operating subsidy shortfalls. But having an Asset Manager with more accountability will mean more efficient daily operations at each site. The PHA could lose approximately $372,411 in operating subsidy over a five-year period if it does not convert to the new Asset Management model.
With the recent cuts, the PHA has had to make some tough decisions. In your opinion, what are the greatest needs of the PHA?
Funding is our greatest need. Historically, public housing authorities have received less than full funding from the federal government. Since 2002, the funding level has dropped from 100 percent to 86 percent in 2006. The PHA predicted to receive 80 percent of the federal subsidy in 2007, but the first quarter funding for 2007 was only 76.4 percent of the actual amount submitted to HUD as the PHA operating subsidy eligibility. In December 2006, the PHA Board approved the FY2007 projected expense budget at $6.6 million with a $45,000 operating deficit. The budget, based on an estimated 80 percent operating subsidy, could climb to an operating deficit of $245,000.
Without increases in operating subsidy, it will be difficult to retain the minimum level of staffing required to deliver the services residents need, and will pose challenges for operating an efficient operation. The government is cutting costs, but it’s our public housing residents who are paying the price.
How has the public housing climate changed over the last 10 years?
Public housing in Peoria has changed immensely in the past 10 years. For years, public housing was made up of high-rise developments and row houses which were concentrated in certain areas across the country and became permanent housing. Ten years ago, the PHA consisted of 1,800 units of public housing that had been neglected for so long they barely functioned. There were few rules about who could live in public housing and it had become a convenient dumping ground for criminals.
Currently, Peoria Housing Authority has 866 units. As we were able to enforce rules with the help of funding from HUD and various grants, we were able to turn the tide and begin helping the people who really needed help. We have been able to tear down the housing that was long outdated and unsafe. We continue to enforce who is able to obtain the benefit of housing assistance through our programs. While no program is perfect, public housing is much safer than it was 10 years ago.
Also, with increased technology, through the HUD Enterprise Income Verification System, housing authorities have access to the earned wages of residents to ensure that all income is being reported. This has increased accountability and caused several residents to either surrender their assistance or be terminated due to fraud.
As a member of the Women’s Advisory Board for Financial Literacy and talking with PHA residents, do you find educating young people on financial matters should be a priority?
Absolutely! It is important that we continue to educate our residents about maintaining a budget, taking control of how you spend money, how to repair credit and how to live within your means. If we can show residents that if you establish goals, pay your rent on time and pay yourself first, even if it’s only $1 a day, it will eventually add up. Some of our residents resort to high-interest payday loans—renting furniture, using credit cards and purchasing items that don’t fit the category of basic needs.
What personal qualities suit you in your role as the executive director for the PHA?
Patience and integrity. With the HUD bureaucracy being a highly regulated institution, we jump through many hoops to accomplish critical goals that sometimes take longer than we would prefer. Without patience, it would be very difficult to survive in the housing arena. I’ve always tried to take an approach where I never asked an employee to perform a task that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. I am a hands-on individual who follows the rules, practices what she preaches, works closely with staff and makes time to listen to residents. I’ve learned over the years that patience and integrity are two main ingredients essential for success.
As one of the first housing projects in the country, what is the history behind the PHA?
The PHA began when local interested parties heard about a new federal plan to offer funds to communities to replace housing or substandard housing during the depression. The area where Warner Homes was built was filled with cottages in the mid-1800s when Irish and German canal and railroad workers needed quick, cheap housing. Not well built to begin with, those cottages became shacks by the late 1920s and were nests for disease. Sometimes nine families were sharing facilities. During the depression, some of this housing was torn down through the Works Progress Administration projects and the rest completely neglected. The public housing program provided funding to buy the land and houses, tear them down and build clean, solid, modern apartment complexes with meeting rooms, play yards and more. In 1936, Peoria began to seriously consider the improvement of its housing situation. After a 1934 Real Property Inventory survey and following approval to organize a Housing Authority, a certificate of need was presented to the State Housing Board. The United States Housing Authority (USHA) made the first earmarking of $1.5 million for the Public Housing Agency in December 1937. The Peoria Housing Authority was organized on January 11, 1938. The first Board of Commissioners was appointed in 1936. Out of nine possible housing sites that were studied in 1938, two sites were selected that became Colonel John Warner Homes and Harrison Homes. On October 18, 1938 a cooperative agreement was entered between Peoria and the Peoria Housing Authority to provide municipal services. On June 19, 1939 a public ceremony was held for the first demolition in preparation for the construction of Warner and Harrison Homes which began in November 1939. The PHA demolished 238 substandard dwelling units. The demolition and construction of Warner and Harrison Homes relieved unemployment by furnishing urgently needed jobs to Peoria labor. A total of 991 men were employed at the peak of the construction in August 1940 and major portions of the materials needed were purchased in Peoria. This employment opportunity came to our community at a time when it was badly needed.
The first demonstration homes at Warner were open to the public on February 9, 1941 with 7,376 visitors. Harrison Homes drew a crowd of 1,389 visitors at its opening day on June 15, 1941. More than 54,000 visitors came to see these four demonstration homes before the year ended. One of the most famous visitors was Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited Warner Homes on April 21, 1941. The Peoria Journal-Transcript and the Peoria Star each carried a special 12-page section of news items, pictures, facts and advertisements concerning Peoria’s Low-Rent Public Housing Program on June 15, 1941. The PHA received 11,260 applications for housing through June 30, 1949. The first 26 families moved into Warner Homes on June 16, 1941 and Harrison Homes on October 1, 1941. All vacancies were full at both sites by the end of 1943. The weekly income per family living at Warner and Harrison Homes in 1943 was $32 per week. The PHA contributed to the war effort by providing homes for over 1,700 war-affected families and by June of 1942, Warner and Harrison Homes had public health nurses stationed in health centers on each site. Residents were responsible for maintenance and there was a curfew for children. Everyone looked out for everyone else.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited Warner Homes shortly after the buildings opened in 1941. Do you think she would be pleased with the PHA today?
Eleanor Roosevelt wanted her husband to give Americans decent places to live. Eleanor once said “I could not at any age be content to take my place in a corner by the fireside and simply look on.” She would probably be thrilled with RiverWest and pleased with Scattered Sites and Section 8 housing. She would recognize that Taft Homes—and even the remaining units at Harrison Homes—are much better than what people were living in at the time she began the program and that they do offer a way out of poverty for those who want to take advantage of the programs. It is hard work, but it is possible through family self-sufficiency programs offered today.
What is the biggest misconception the public has regarding the PHA?
The biggest misconception is that all PHA residents living in our developments stay up late, are involved in drugs and crime, spend their days watching soap operas and don’t have any desire to better their life. No one decides at a young age that they want to live in public housing when they grow up. We have residents who work, are going to school full-time and keep their apartments immaculate. If I blindfolded you and took you on a tour of some of our apartments, I guarantee that you would be amazed at their condition and would not be able to tell that you were inside a public housing development. Is every resident a role model? Of course not, but every resident deserves an equal opportunity. Our PHA developments are no different than any other neighborhood in the city. When the River- West neighborhood located at MacArthur Highway and Jefferson was leased up, we receive numerous telephone calls and were proud to answer that all of the rental units are leased. When we were asked, where are the residents? We answered, “They are working full-time and going to school.” Through our Family Self-Sufficiency Program, we have helped residents achieve their goals, purchase homes, complete their education and move out of public housing.
What is the biggest challenge that the PHA has had to overcome over the years?
Being removed from HUD’s troubled warning list. This warning meant that the PHA was not meeting HUD’s minimum operational performance standards. In 1998, a HUD team visited Peoria to review supporting documentation for the Public Housing Management Assessment Program’s 1997 fiscal year. As a result, the PHA was officially taken off the troubled warning list with a score of 67.92 percent. A passing score is 60 percent. I remember how much excitement there was among staff the day when the head of the Office of Public Housing, Debra Torres, arrived for the reception to announce the passing report card. This was definitely a milestone since the PHA had not received a passing grade since HUD’s inception of the performance grading system in 1992.
What has been your most satisfying achievement while working for the PHA?
The building of our new neighborhood, RiverWest South, located on MacArthur Highway, makes me proud. The PHA, along with the National Equity Fund, Illinois Housing Development Authority, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the City of Peoria, opened Peoria’s newest affordable housing neighborhood. RiverWest South offers beautiful, newly-constructed two and three bedroom homes. The PHA acted as the developer to acquire sufficient property across from the RiverWest HOPE VI neighborhood to construct 33 single/multiple family homes. Several dilapidated houses were demolished and families were relocated. Under the leadership of model resident Willie Anderson and working with the City of Peoria, a neighborhood watch program was implemented. These homes were built to satisfy the need for affordable rental housing and to replace some of the housing income lost through the demolition of Colonel John Warner Homes.
What are the future goals of the PHA?
The first priority is to complete the transition to Asset Management, submit the documentation and pass a HUD assessment by improving the operational efficiencies of our public housing assets.
Secondly, to redevelop Harrison Homes, part of the Southern Gateway area, as a mixed-income community by continuing to collaborate with community stakeholders. In the summer of 2007, PHA plans to build eight new homes and is currently working on a master site plan for the entire development. Once this goal is accomplished, our next venture is development at Taft Homes.
Third, to increase the number of families who are meeting family self-sufficiency goals and purchasing homes through the Section 8 Homeownership program. Another goal is to become a high performer under HUD’s performance measuring tool, the Public Housing Assessment System. A housing authority must score at least 90 percent out of 100 possible points on four performance indicators: physical condition of developments, financial indicators, management indicators—such as completing work orders—economic self-sufficiency, unit turnaround and resident surveys. The score for 2005 was 79 percent. With a high performer rating, the PHA would be eligible for additional HUD benefits and could evolve into an organization that becomes a model for public housing.
Lastly, our goal is to be viewed positively—as growing and competitive. It is also to develop affordable housing in mixed-income communities and to utilize public and private sector entities. With this accomplished, we plan to expand services beyond our core competencies. TPW