For 25 years, Cora McCorvey has essentially been the landlady for tens of thousands of public housing residents in Minneapolis. Friday is her last day running the housing authority, but she plans to continue advocating for public housing.
Earlier this week, a small group of McCorvey's soon-to-be ex-coworkers at the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority gathered in a hallway on the third floor of the agency's downtown headquarters. Some offered hugs and small gifts to their outgoing boss. Others corralled McCorvey, the agency's longtime executive director, to pose with them for group pictures and selfies.
McCorvey's advocacy for public housing began several decades ago. She worked in the city's public housing authority before it became an independent agency in 1991.
At that time, McCorvey says the agency was poorly managed. HUD, which provides the vast majority of its funding, nearly took over operations, partially because the agency couldn't keep track of what it was doing with that federal money.
McCorvey was the first woman and first African-American to run the housing authority.
She encouraged coworkers to take on important roles, said Bob Boyd, the authority's director of policy and special initiatives who worked with her in those early days.
"Cora has surrounded herself with people where she said, 'I want you to take the lead on this and make it happen for our residents,'" he said. "That's quite an honor when you're charged with that kind of responsibility and then supported the whole way through."
Over the years, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has upgraded the authority's status from nearly being designated as a troubled agency to being classified as a "high performer."
In 1992, the NAACP and Legal Aid Society sued HUD alleging that public housing residents in north Minneapolis lived in concentrated poverty. Under a consent decree signed three years later, hundreds of public homes and buildings were torn down and thousands of residents were displaced.
Critics of the relocation plan said dispersing poor people to scattered site housing didn't alleviate poverty. And in some cases, residents complained of feeling isolated. Heritage Park, the development that arose from the consent decree, also drew criticism as some affordable housing advocates feared there wouldn't be enough room there for the people who once lived in the former housing projects.
Earlier this week, McCorvey told MPR News host Tom Weber that Heritage Park, which includes a mix of public, affordable and market rate housing, has been a big improvement for the neighborhood.
"Anyone that knows about the work that has transformed there, over the last almost two decades now — it's been a long time — will have to admit that there's been a great improvement in that community. We have 200 public housing units there," she said.
McCorvey said there are still challenges ahead for public housing in Minneapolis and across the country. Dr. Ben Carson, HUD's new head, has no housing policymaking experience. McCorvey said he's going to need some help and she'll be ready to offer advice.
"I believe that the incoming secretary needs to listen to those of us that have been on the ground in these communities for many years, doing the work, understanding how these systems work, he needs to talk to us, he needs to reach out," she added.
McCorvey's successor, Gregory Russ was recently the director of public housing in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He starts his new job next week.
McCorvey said she will miss her coworkers and the public housing residents she has visited with on a regular basis.
"What I will not miss is being an advocate," she added, "because I'm going to continue to be an advocate and hopefully, from my experiences, be able to get someone's attention about the importance of these programs."