Director McCorvey retires after 25 years
Cora McCorvey is the founding executive director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) since it became a separate entity in 1991. She will retire February 10 after 25 years of service.
While in the midst of the agency’s first executive director transition, McCorvey spoke to the MSR at MPHA headquarters office on Washington Avenue in North Minneapolis. “I’ve always loved this job…blessed to be happy to come to work every day, and happy to be here,” she declared. “I’ve been very, very blessed.”
As MPHA executive director, “There was a lot to do when I was appointed,” recalled McCorvey. “I did not go out look[ing] for it. [The board] did not do a search as they [are doing] to replace me. I was already here. I made it clear to them that I am different and I am going to make a difference and turn this thing around.”
At the time, McCorvey was often the only Black woman or Black person in general in her field. “I have felt in the past like I was unusual and an anomaly.” But the executive director slowly and surely chipped away at the proverbial “glass ceiling” that Black executives often find themselves confronted with, especially in leading as large a public organization as the MPHA.
“Because I am the first woman to have a job like this, at a housing authority that is one of the largest in the country, there is a glass ceiling,” she continued. “But I never looked at it like that. I looked at how I could remove barriers for people.”
McCorvey was a property manager for 14 years before accepting the MPHA position. “I worked shoulder to shoulder with residents and their families and their advocates and their service providers for many years. I brought with me in this job an understanding about who the residents were and how I valued them,” she pointed out.
“When I came to this job there were some things that I absolutely was going to do. I was not going to shuffle people around, causing more chaos and confusion than was already in place at the time.
“When I took over, there was no infrastructure in the public housing program in Minneapolis,” explained McCorvey. “[This] was a public housing program that was separated from the City and spun off as an independent agency. We had to create the infrastructure to support the property management and the other functions of the public housing agency. That was a big, big challenge.”
The most important key to success, especially in public housing, is partnerships, said McCorvey. She sees MPHA residents as “partners to help us make these major decisions. I can’t run this organization without the cooperation of our residents. Ultimately I am responsible for it, but where they live is their homes. They have a deeper understanding about how these systems in housing are working for them and not working for them.”
Keeping “an open communication line” during her tenure also “has really helped this organization, I think, in being much more successful in partnership with our residents and with the surrounding community,” she added.
“They are just people,” stated McCorvey of MPHA residents. “Wherever I am at speaking, I like to remind people that it might be your grandparents or your brother that will need [public housing]. It’s for immigrants who are coming to this country and you need a place to stay. They are just people who are in need.”
Public housing “is a safety net,” but it still fights a “stigmatization,” she explained. “I would say that the stigma still exists… Housing is second nature to us. We put a key in a door and do what we do in our homes. Everyone should have the right to do that. We are all entitled to basic needs, and some people aren’t able to take care of these needs for a period of time,” especially seniors, she added.
“They have given on an individual level to our society, and they are at a time when they need our support,” said McCorvey. “We have created some rich programs that support residents in the community and the residents of public housing that now exist. They came about by being really in tune with the residents, partnering with them and listening carefully, and working with our many partners…to help our residents and future residents to live in dignity.”
“There are a lot of people” who she credits with helping her at the start as well as throughout her tenure. “There have been a lot of people that have supported me and have paid particular attention to my ability to be successful, and wanted me to be successful.
“[MPHA] is a very strong organization and infrastructure that has been created. I didn’t do this by myself. I was empowered to pick people that I felt had the skills and abilities to do this work. Most of those people stayed with me all these years. That makes a difference.”
Although her days are winding down, her concern about governmental support for public housing, especially in light of the incoming new administration in Washington, still exists, she said. “We have heard rumblings that there may be some reductions in our funding. We already are operating below what the federal government is giving…
“This agency needs to be efficient and has to work to create programs… The MPHA needs more resources, and the City and State has to step up to help support these programs.”
As for life after MPHA, “I am going to need some rest. I have been working hard for a long time. I do want to stay close to these programs because I do believe that I can be an added important voice… I will remain an advocate for public housing.”
After a quarter-century of service to MPHA, McCorvey said, “It’s hard to leave.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.