Novak Hired to Lead Housing Commission

Job oversees Ann Arbor's public housing, Section 8 program

Officially, it was an interview. But with just a single candidate vying to head the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, there was little doubt about the outcome.

On Wednesday evening, the commission’s five-member board listened to a 30-minute presentation by interim executive director Marge Novak and voted unanimously to take the interim off her title after posing fewer than a dozen questions during a 40-minute Q&A.

With 10-plus months as a temporary leader of the commission, Novak has considerably more time with the organization than some of the commissioners who endorsed her. Effective today, the hiring comes less than two months after the Ann Arbor city council dissolved the previous board. [See Chronicle coverage: "Housing Commission Set to Hire Director"]

Despite the unusual circumstances, the decision was well received by most of the roughly 30 residents of commission-run properties who attended Wednesday’s special meeting.

Gathered in a modest meeting room at Miller Manor, a public housing complex on Miller Avenue west of downtown, the onlookers applauded when the commissioners voted to keep Novak in the post.

“She inherited a mess,” said Jane French, who serves on the Miller Manor residents’ council. “A big issue was trust and trust has been restored. It’s a huge, huge thing.”

The commission operates 67 buildings that provide 355 units of low-income public housing. It also administers the federal Section 8 voucher program that subsidizes the cost of rent in privately owned properties.

The commission has been without a permanent director since last summer and has faced financial and other strains for years. Those challenges – documented in a report by a consultant retained by the city last year – were also reflected in Novak’s presentation. [a .pdf file of the consultant's report is downloadable here]

The lone candidate after the withdrawal of a second finalist for the job, Novak reviewed her professional background and – as the board had requested – detailed priorities for her first 120 days as permanent director.

A Background in Affordable Housing

A graduate of Brandeis University near Boston, Novak said she has worked in affordable housing for almost 20 years. That experience included stints with state programs in Wisconsin and Illinois, and with Fannie Mae. The latter was not in the government-sponsored organization’s now-beleaguered single-family mortgage program, she said, prompting some laughter, but with its low-income housing investment arm.

“I want to take what I’d learned and apply it at a local community level,” said Novak, who moved to Ann Arbor last summer.

As for those near-term priorities? Most build on efforts begun during Novak’s extended tenure as interim executive director. They include:

  • Improving financial management and securing financial support beyond the funding provided by the federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. HUD funding simply doesn’t cover the cost of running housing programs, said Novak, echoing the consultant’s assessment. Housing agencies elsewhere have learned to tap other sources to meet their costs.
  • Restructuring property maintenance to beef up preventative work and handle repairs in vacant units for efficiently. Consistent with the consultant’s recommendation, the commission has begun to outsource some of that work, Novak said.
  • Improving communication with residents and building collaborative relationships with other public, nonprofit and related groups.

Following Novak’s presentation, the housing commissioners collected questions submitted by residents. Board president Jayne Miller interspersed those questions with her own queries and those from other commissioners.

The questions that appeared to be from residents dealt with parking and the safety of handicapped residents. The commissioners’ questions focused on administrative issues, board-staff relations and funding.

Commissioner Mark McDonald asked Novak whether there was a single housing authority that provided a good model to emulate. Novak said Grand Rapids would be an example.

McDonald also asked whether a less than full-time commitment to grant writing would yield the needed financial resources. Deputy director Nick Coquillard has become the commission’s primary grant writer. While that is only one of his duties, it is a big improvement from no grant writing, noted commissioner Marta Manildi, the only member of the previous board still serving since the city council dissolved it earlier this year.

For her part, Manildi asked Novak how the commissioners could help the staff. Novak suggested community outreach and connection with potential funders, among other things.

Miller, who until recently was a ranking administrator for the city, quizzed Novak on how she might handle any breach of resident privacy and how she handled making unpopular decisions. Commissioner Ronald Woods asked Novak to talk about her approach to delegating authority.

Following the interview, there was no debate on the board about moving forward with the hiring.

Some 40 minutes after the Q&A had begun, the commissioners were polishing a resolution to hire Novak. Several took the opportunity to praise their new executive director.

In addition to a strong technical background, Novak has leadership skills that have helped put the housing commission on track, said Manildi. “We could do another national search and not do any better.”

Miller, whose previous city-hall portfolio included oversight of the Housing Commission, agreed. “This is a turnaround like I’ve never seen before,” said Miller, who now heads the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.

The other finalist for the job, John Hurt, took another position, Miller said.

The resolution to hire Novak authorizes Miller to negotiate compensation on the board’s behalf.

One Comment

  1. May 13, 2010 at 5:16 pm | permalink

    Marge has a tough job ahead of her. Managing 67 low income housing buildings. I wish her good luck and it sounds like she is the right person for the job.