'I have a sociology degree, so I think it was a natural fit to look for a job helping people,' said Linnie Willis, executive director of the Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority.
Overseeing nearly 150 employees, a $41 million budget, and more than 3,000 dwelling units in 34 communities, Linnie Willis has a big job.
Mrs. Willis has been the executive director of the Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority for just more than a year, having taken over the position in January, 2007. Although relatively new heading up the agency, Mrs. Willis has worked for the housing authority more than 25 years.
She began her LMHA career in 1982 as a housing manager for Weiler Homes and Spieker Terrace on the east side. During the 1980s and 1990s, Mrs. Willis rose through the ranks to supervise the applications department and later served as director of human resources. In 2001, she became the agency's deputy director, and she took over as executive director after Larry Gaster, who headed the agency since 2001, retired.
"I have a sociology background, so I think it was a natural fit to look for a job helping people," said Mrs. Willis, who earned her bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Mississippi.
In her first year on the job, because of a federal mandate, the agency had to completely reorganize how it operates and structures itself, resulting in several staff changes, revising other positions, and shifting resources.
Additionally, the authority is working on a long-term plan to replace some of its oldest housing. The Brand Whitlock Homes, built in 1938, and the Weiler Homes, built in 1940, are still in use. Both facilities have more than 350 units each.
"It's very costly to maintain the [older] housing," Mrs. Willis said. Plans are in the works for the redevelopment of Whitlock and the Albertus Brown Homes, another older development. Between planning and financing the project, she hopes demolition can begin around 2010.
Sitting in her LMHA office, her wall filled with plaques and certificates of appreciation from community groups, Mrs. Willis readily communicates her passion for public housing.
"I would hope that the community would begin to pay more attention to what's going on in Washington as it relates to public housing," Mrs. Willis said. "The community needs to realize having viable public housing is the alternative to increasing the number of homeless. As they continue to play around with those dollars down in D.C., we need the public's support on various initiatives."
The agency's funding, which has dwindled in recent years, primarily comes from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
While it is not a bricks-and-mortar project, Mrs. Willis said she believes her proudest accomplishment is working with the two groups whose success is most critical to the housing authority - its tenants and employees.
"We could not do the things we get done here every day and do them successfully if we did not have our employees," Mrs. Willis said.
She also has worked hard to establish a rapport with residents.
Housing authority board Chairman Bill Brennan said he believes the key to Mrs. Willis' success is her ability to relate to residents.
"Frequently at our meetings, we have residents that come and observe. She seems to have a personal rapport with the residents," Mr. Brennan said. "It's almost like she's on a first-name basis with them."
Barbara Fuqua, vice chairman of the housing authority's board and a resident of public housing, first met Mrs. Willis at a housing function more than 10 years ago.
"She's thought of very highly by all the residents that know her," Mrs. Fuqua said. "She is a very down-to-earth person. She has time to talk to anyone. She's got time to talk to and make herself known to the residents. They all know and love her."
Contact Kate Giammarise