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One On 1 Profile: NYCHA Chairman John Rhea Faced Tough Challenges Before Hurricane Sandy, Now Faces More

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Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath once again called attention to the New York City Housing Authority and its chairman, John Rhea, who grew up in a troubled section of Detroit and now leads one of the city's most complex operations. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

In a sense, New York City Housing Authority Chairman John Rhea is the leader of a city within the city, at the helm of an authority that's responsible for housing roughly 650,000 New Yorkers.

"This is the equivalent of the twenty-first largest city in the country," Rhea says. "Just think about that. In the twenty-first largest city in the country, not all is perfect."

But Rhea said he believes that there is also a lot of good within NYCHA.

As chairman, he is focused on its future. But he has a healthy respect for the history of public housing in New York.

"Renaming Bronxdale Houses after Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor will be one of those memories and moments," Rhea says.

"NYCHA has been here for New Yorkers for 78 years," Rhea added. "It's served millions of families, lifted them out of poverty, put them on a road to the middle class."

In Rhea's previous environment, Wall Street, wins and losses were clear. In public housing, however, the notion of success is more nuanced. The reality is you often only read about NYCHA when there are problems, such as elevator accidents.

One such accident in 2008, prior to Rhea's time in office, killed a young Brooklyn boy.

But Rhea says many stories about NYCHA are over-reported and distorted.

"I fight everyday to make sure that that caricature that is put out there, those distortions, actually are not viewed by most New Yorkers as the reality," Rhea says.

But there are legitimate issues, such as the huge backlog of repair requests in NYCHA buildings.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rhea recently announced a $40 million program, which attempts to address all 420,000 open work orders by the end of 2013.

Rhea says NYCHA employees have expressed frustration about this issue since his first day on the job. The problem lies with a lack of funding, a lack of manpower, inefficient scheduling and poor communication.

"That Feedback loop from frontline up to management was not working as well as it should have and that's one of the things we've spent a lot of time on over last 12 months," Rhea says.

Hey says he is proud of NYCHA's performance during Hurricane Sandy, but members of the City Council lambasted NYCHA's performance during a hearing in January.

"There wasn't anyone responsible to go to on the ground," Brooklyn Councilman Domenic Recchia said at the hearing.

A panel of mayoral hopefuls relayed similar sentiments.

"John Rhea is the Cathie Black of NYCHA,” one of them said, referring to the former magazine editor whose short stint as New York City Schools chancellor was much criticized.

Rhea knows his position is not for the faint of heart.

"Life hasn't been a crystal staircase. I've had challenges and tribulations," Rhea says. "I grew up in a pretty tough place, in the inner city of Detroit. That's not for the faint of heart either. But through those kinds of trials you learn how to deal with tough situations -- and so the criticism really hasn't bothered me."

"The same people that are often quick to attack are the first ones to turn around and actually say 'hey, we really need you NYCHA' in order to accomplish what we're trying to achieve," he says. "I chalk a lot of it up to politics."

The battle he's fought since his first day on the job in 2009 is the accusation that he's a rich Wall Street guy who doesn't understand the culture of public housing.

"I lost friends before I was 17 to gun violence who are dead. We buried them. Before I even graduated from high school. I had friends who committed suicide because of the conditions that they were living in in their own homes or in their communities," Rhea says. "I know what pain is."

Rhea says that caricature is inaccurate. He grew up in an urban renewal area of Detroit, down the street from the projects.

"So when people say 'he doesn’t understand it. He’s some Wall Street guy that doesn’t know what’s needed,' I literally don’t recognize who they’re talking about," Rhea says. "At the same time, I appreciate that people want to know that you do understand the condition -- that you empathize."

Rhea says he got into trouble as a kid.

"I did things. I stole my parents car twice, one time crashed it. One time got arrested at 13 years old. I did things that young people do," Rhea says.

He says his father was a furniture salesman and his mother worked in a medical lab.
Rhea credits their insistence on education, along with the priests at his jesuit high school, with his ability to focus on school and later become successful.

"Not only did they care about you in terms of your academic development., but they cared about your personal development, your soul. your character as an individual. what is it that you're going to do to actually make a contribution to this planet? and i began to take that seriously."

Rhea went on to study and play football at Wesleyan University.

At Harvard Business School he befriended a young law student named Barack Obama. Rhea would later host Obama's first presidential fundraiser in New York.

Rhea thrived for two decades in the financial sector. In 2009 he had to make a choice -- work for the president in a job Rhea did not specify or work for the city of New York.

"When the mayor offered me the opportunity to lead NYCHA, and I looked at the population that NYCHA serves, it was a no brainer for me. Also, the president was pushing, at that time, to get the stimulus package through and i knew that quite a bit of that potential would go to cities like New York. So I felt that I could do a lot for the president and his agenda off of a platform like NYCHA," Rhea says. "Let's face it, he was a community organizer in the south side of Chicago in public housing."

Rhea is the most public face of NYCHA, and is eloquent in discussing the Authority's mission.

But perhaps harkening back to his job as a corrugator in a Detroit paper company while in high school, he knows the real work in public housing is done on the front line.

"It's the woman who is working in a NYCHA development in Brownsville in the dark, either early in morning or late at night, in a compactor room by herself that are the true heroes and she-roes," Rhea says. "Those are the people who are doing the real jobs."

But you also need someone to lead the charge, to negotiate with the financial world at a time of government cutbacks.

Rhea says he was brought in by Bloomberg to be an agent of change. There may be questions about those changes -- about NYCHA and about Rhea -- but not from the man himself.

"This decision to come into public service was a leap of faith," Rhea says. "That if I did this, if I left millions of dollars on the table by doing this job, which I do by being in this job, that’s an investment not only in myself, in terms of what I’m contributing, but hopefully I’m making a difference by spending some period of my life trying to do something that's bigger, being associated with something larger than myself."

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