Gregory Russ has only served as the head of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority for a little more than two years.

But come mid-August, he will be the new leader of New York City's sprawling public housing system — its lead paint, mold, and scandals included.

Gross: Have you ever been in a NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] apartment?

Russ: I have walked the NYCHA sites, but I have not actually gone in the buildings. Usually I've been in town and I kind of walk by public housing just to check it out … but I haven't been through the buildings yet.

So Russ has never seen all of its problems. Even without that firsthand experience, the incoming CEO believes the price tag to fix up NYCHA is well above the $32 billion that officials here estimate.

Russ: The number to do it is probably north of $40 billion.

Gross: So you think it's much higher.

Russ: I would say it's probably 45 right now.

NY1 went to Minneapolis to meet the new chair and CEO of our housing authority to get his take on what it will take to fix our struggling public housing system, a system that is now under the thumb of a federal monitor and a settlement agreement between federal prosecutors, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and City Hall.

"I think it could be helpful … because you can use it to drive changes to meet those goals," Russ said. "I have talked to the monitor several times now and we both agree this has to be a partnership."

Russ is less than two months away from taking the reins, and even so his selection has already sparked controversy: a $402,628 salary and a promise to return home to Minneapolis for weekends to spend time with his family are chief among the complaints.

Gross: You are making more than the mayor, the governor, the president of the United States. There has been some criticism of how much money you are making.

Russ: I understand, but the bottom line for me is ok, I have to go there, I have the salary I have, but I have to have results for the residents or — that's the bottom line, and I think that in some ways it's a sign of how much dedication I had to this job … because I really believe in what we are doing here.

Gross: How often will you be visiting here, [Minneapolis]?

"I haven't done any final scheduling. My family and I have some ideas about that. They are going to come see me. It's not going to be always out-of-town kind of thing," Russ said. "The job is going to take many more hours a day than a regular job. So for example, I would imagine 10-12 hour days. Plus, even with this job, I am working on the weekends."

"Those things are going to happen if I am sitting at a desk in New York or I am sitting here at the house working through something," he added.

In Minneapolis, the problems in public housing are certainly less pronounced.

 

We toured one vacant apartment with Russ. Willie Sanders, a resident we spoke to, said his issues have been relatively minor, even if he is waiting for a leak to be fixed in his ceiling.

"Other than that, it's just little knick knack stuff like I was saying," Sanders said.

When we showed them what residents face in New York City, they were shocked:

 


"That is messed up," one resident said, looking at photos of dilapidated conditions in NYCHA units that we showed her.

Even though the Minneapolis public housing system is clearly much smaller than that of New York City, Russ has still managed to get some critics.

"He is a very charming man, so when you meet him," said Ladan Yusuf of Defend Glendale & Public Housing Coalition. "people always have a positive response, until you see what he does on paper."

Russ has built a reputation for using a federal program, known as RAD, which turns over properties to private nonprofit developers to infuse developments with funding to make repairs. It has stirred controversy in the Twin Cities and given fuel to Russ's critics.

(An anti-Gregory Russ sign that some Minneapolis advocates created. Shanel Dawson/NY1).

"There has been a lot of opposition. I wish I could say I share their passion for protecting the units, but there is a lot of misinformation in those materials," Russ said.

"Get him out of New York City," Yusuf said. "We call him the czar of privatization and gentrification, and there is a reason for that, because his track record is that."

Still, we asked local officials, who were less quick to criticize Russ's tenure in the heartland.

"He's got a lot of ideas, he understands the system really well, and he's got a lot of energy to see how he can make a difference and change things," Minneapolis Councilman Cam Gordon said. "He's been adept at trying to figure out the … federal programs and figure out what they are and how to leverage those to get money into public housing."

The issues Russ will face in New York are far more daunting. Our public housing system is about 28 times the size of the system in Minneapolis.

"I've worked in Chicago, which is usually in the top five or six agencies. Nothing is as big as NYCHA," Russ said. "But my thinking is that we have to have a picture of the whole portfolio. How will NYCHA present to the community ideas and plans for preserving 174,000 units?"

Part of that plan from the Bill de Blasio administration is considering more controversial approaches to fixing public housing, like tearing down buildings and building market-rate housing on vacant or underutilized NYCHA property.

It's something Russ wouldn't rule out.

Russ: In that model, you are never abandoning the property and you are never abandoning the residents; it's incremental.

Gross: But you think if they have fallen into such disrepair, you can tear them down?

Russ: Well, that kind of plan, I would not attempt unless we had resident buy-in to the whole phasing schedule.

First, Russ has to get here. He told us he plans to move to lower Manhattan. It's unclear how long of a lease he will sign.

Russ says he's begun to receive calls from public housing tenant leaders, and says he wants to meet regularly with tenants.

------

Looking for an easy way to learn about the issues affecting New York City?

Listen to our "Off Topic/On Politics" podcast: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | iHeartRadio | Stitcher | RSS