Clarissa McAdoo looks back on 8 years of challenges, success

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 23, 2002

Four months into her stint as executive director of the Suffolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority six years ago, Clarissa E. McAdoo questioned why she left her view of the Elizabeth River, Waterside and Town Point Park to walk into a storm of controversy that continued to brew.

The SRHA had earned itself a widespread reputation from the federal government down to the local level for its misappropriation of funds and other mismanagement practices. Since the resignation of the previous long-term executive director in 1994, Jan Rountree, two more had come and gone – McAdoo almost didn’t take the challenge.

The housing authority had hired an executive director, Earl B. Pullen out of Charlottesville but on the day he was to show up he decided against coming. McAdoo, 47, a native and resident of Suffolk, grew tired of hearing her co-workers question her about &uot;what’s going on in Suffolk?&uot;

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She decided it was time to step up to the plate.

She applied and was hired, but not with the full endorsement of the Board of Commissioners. The traditionally racially divided board members, who didn’t involve themselves in the hiring of the prior two executive directors either, brought McAdoo to the housing authority on a 4-3 vote, absent the stamp of approval for former Commissioners John B. Faircloth, Jack Vaughan, and Cola Cobb.

This division would be evident throughout the early days of McAdoo’s tenure.

&uot;It was rough,&uot; recalled McAdoo. &uot;It was a true experience. I may have been challenged every board meeting, but I was always prepared and I had always done what was supposed to be done.&uot;

But why did McAdoo decide to walk into the fire in the first place?

&uot;I thought no one would have the frame of reference that I would,&uot; said McAdoo. &uot;I know Suffolk and had been instrumental in some of Suffolk’s development. I didn’t know anyone with the same reference point as I did. And I did not want to continue having the same discussion with peers about how bad Suffolk is. Instead, I wanted to step up to the plate to do something about it.&uot;

And after enduring several rounds with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Virginia Housing Development Authority, Suffolk City Council was asking more of the housing authority. The city had sealed a deal requiring the SRHA to repay several thousands of dollars that had not been used appropriately to meet the intent of a federal loan program to improve the quality of low-income housing.

Because the housing authority’s primarily role in the public’s eyes was to solely manage its five public housing units, there were demands from city officials to see the SRHA operate within the `Redevelopment’ component of its charge. That led to joint meetings between the agency and city council to identify poor communities for revitalization, partly with the use of Community Development Block Grant funds.

But as McAdoo set out fulfill this function, there were fires on the way: First she would have to deal with discrimination claims from white SRHA employees, and eight months later black employees charged that she hadn’t treated them fairly.

&uot;That was the first situation,&uot; said McAdoo, &uot;but I had to stay focused on why I was here.&uot;

Because of this and other administrative concerns, McAdoo moved quickly to create a human resource manager and administrative coordinator position to oversee these functions.

After surveying staff, she found confusion as to who reported to whom and other disjointed functions that explained why some mismanagement issues surfaced in prior years. To help address the latter, an administrative coordinator post became a reality.

There were ongoing employee complaints, EEOC cases, grievances, delinquent bills, and continued resistance to the changes taking place.

&uot;I had to start from the ground up and reorganize,&uot; said McAdoo. And part of this involved hiring the human resources manager to manage the personnel side of these issues, while McAdoo said she made it a point to maintain an open line of communication with employees.

Phyllis M. Harrison, SRHA Section 8 Resident Initiative Specialist, spoke highly of McAdoo’s efforts since coming aboard the agency.

&uot;Mrs. McAdoo has become my professional mentor. It is a great honor to work for her,&uot; said Harrison. &uot;I really admire her open door policy she has established for her staff.&uot;

But even though McAdoo has been touted for doing a good job, this process hasn’t been void of real challenges: In a nutshell, the agency’s image and internal agency infrastructure needed some major repair work, and now McAdoo must show that she’s up for the job, and many sacrifices came with the package.

A newly-wed when hired, McAdoo has yet to take a honeymoon and the challenges of the job have often times meant 14-hour days. In a July 1996 interview with the News-Herald after she was hired, McAdoo, of small physical frame, had this to say about the job at hand, &uot;People are going to look at me and see this little bitty woman,&uot; but, &uot;David whipped Goliath because he ran to his challenge. I am prepared to do the work…everything I’ve learned has been in preparation.&uot;

From 1987-1993, McAdoo worked as a planner with the city setting the framework for numerous housing developments that would consume Suffolk’s landscape.

With Norfolk’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority, she started as a Senior Community Development Specialist and was later promoted to Development Operations Manager, therefore, she was no stranger to the development perspective to which she was asked to channel some of the SRHA’s resources.

For the first time, the SRHA and the city started open dialogue about upgrading the city’s faltering low-income communities. Orlando was targeted as the first spot to breathe some fresh air into with some public and private investments. Streetlights, sidewalks, and new affordable homeownership opportunities were all part of the big picture. Now the housing authority has moved on to Hall Place in South Suffolk to bring about change.

None of this would have been possible, said McAdoo, had the dialogue not been successful with Suffolk City Council.

&uot;Within 30 days of being on the job, we pushed to start establishing dialogue with the city,&uot; said McAdoo. &uot;I heard comments like `We want to do things like Norfolk.’ I was very comfortable with that and it made starting the community development process easier.

&uot;But I had to put the housing authority in the position where the city could be proud of it. I had to publicly work on the housing authority’s image. We had a negative image.&uot;

McAdoo’s first step was to call a meeting of the local media and openly discuss coverage, and how both entities could work better together.

While the housing authority had many more miles to travel, it’s largely undisputed that the agency has advanced during McAdoo’s six-year tenure. SRHA Board Chairman Mary V. Richardson said, &uot;She has brought us a long way as an executive director. I respect her to the highest and I can see that she keeps the board abreast of what’s going on.

I think the housing authority is in better shape legally and financially.&uot;

ILocal attorney Hubert H. Young Sr. had been one of McAdoo’s biggest critics early on, but has changed his tune recently. Many of his complaints stemming from prior mismanagement problems that intercepted timely Section 8 payments to landlords, such as himself. Young said in an interview last week that McAdoo has worked diligently to make &uot;real improvements&uot; in agency operations, and that many of the problems have been resolved.

Resident-at-large Board member Thelma Hinton has been viewed as the thorn in McAdoo’s side. For years prior to McAdoo’s arrival, Hinton had been a vocal advocate for public housing residents. She said &uot;it isn’t personal,&uot; but her main concern has been to plead the cause of the residents. Recent public housing fires resulting in evictions have put Hinton on a campaign to force the agency to make its lease clearer.

Hinton and other public housing residents have charged that the housing authority has not been sensitive in these cases. Currently, the board is reviewing the lease to address claims of ambiguity surrounding its policy.

&uot;Everybody deserves a second chance,&uot; said Hinton. &uot;I’m just not happy with this.&uot;

Civic leader T.C. Williams, also the NAACP liaison to the SRHA, acknowledged that the fires have fueled another controversy for the SRHA, but added that the agency has made significant improvement under McAdoo’s leadership.

&uot;As the civic leader for the Rosemont/Lloyd Place community, I must say that things have become exceedingly quiet. The complaints are few and far between. Everyone is not always going to be happy, but there seems to be peace in regard to the housing authority. I would give her (McAdoo) a B+. She’s done quite well. I can’t find any fault in her performance.&uot;

McAdoo has also come under fire in recent months for not moving fast enough to move a disabled residen t- who resorted to sleeping in her kitchen – to a ground level apartment. Commissioners accepted her explanation at a prior board meeting that these cases are addressed on a first-come, first-serve basis, and are not weighed individually on medical need.

Because of a breakdown in communication among public housing management, McAdoo said that staff had not initially responded to the notice timely. Now McAdoo said the resident has obtained a Section 8 voucher and has agreed to remain in the unit until the process is finalized.

McAdoo was also blamed for the dismissal of Suffolk attorney Jeffrey Gardy, and turning to an outside law firm. The board of commissioners voted in July to replace Gardy with Norfolk attorney Howard Martin, of Crenshaw, Ware, and Martin, the same firm that represents her former employer, the NRHA. McAdoo holds firm that it’s a coincidence, and that the legal firm was the only one to submit a bid along with Gardy.

&uot;I was surprised they (the firm) would be interested,&uot; said McAdoo. &uot;They are an excellent firm and I can’t take that away from them.&uot;

McAdoo said she’s looking forward to a bright future with the SRHA, a place that she says employees are now proud to admit they work for. Previously, she said, the name came with embarrassment. Today in housing circles throughout the country, there is a difference, said McAdoo.

&uot;People come up to us now and say, `You all are doing a good job. I see you are doing a lot of good things,’&uot; said McAdoo. She added that when she was driving into Norfolk everyday to work, she remembered feeling good about where she was going. Today, she gets an energy rush on her way to the SRHA.

&uot;I’m not grudgingly falling up in here,&uot; said McAdoo. &uot;I’m still excited about being here. It’s never a dull moment.&uot;