HOUSING

After 19 years on the job, housing authority director Gary Moore, right, is passing the baton to his second-in-charge, Milet Hopping.

Staff photo— Jerry Larson

Gary Moore is retiring after 19 years as Waco’s top public housing official, during which time he expanded the regional reach of the Waco Housing Authority.

But even more change awaits his successor, Milet Hopping, who foresees a day when public housing is no longer part of the agency’s job.

Hopping, who has been with the agency 22 years and is senior vice president, will be promoted to interim president-CEO upon Moore’s retirement in May, and the housing authority board will consider making the position permanent later this year.

Moore, 70, said he has been preparing Hopping for the role for several years, and he said she has a combination of good leadership skills and empathy for struggling families.

“What she’s going to bring to the agency is a strong sense of being an advocate for the people,” he said.

The Waco Housing Authority, created in 1938, is funded by and accountable to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, but its top official is selected by a local board appointed by Waco’s mayor.

The authority oversees 902 public housing units in Waco and 52 in Mart and provides Section 8 federal housing vouchers to low-income families in Waco and other area communities. The authority also operates several market-rent apartments to help shore its finances.

Hopping said Moore has made Waco Housing Authority a stronger organization and made it more visible in the community.

“He really made an effort to make it clear what we were and what we were doing,” she said. “He really professionalized the agency and made sure the staff was certified and cross-trained. He’s very respected around this agency and in our industry.”

No public housing has been built in Waco in 42 years, and the number of Section 8 vouchers has been static in recent years.

Still, the housing authority has grown and moved to a larger building at 4400 Cobbs Drive. That’s partly because HUD has assigned the agency to take over low-income housing programs in other communities, such as Hill County, Somervell County and Mart.

Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said the authority has been given more responsibility through the years because it is known for “fiscal discipline” and good management.

“I’ve always held Gary in high regard,” he said. “When we drive people through our public housing, they’re amazed at the condition it’s in, given its age. The buildings look good, the grounds look good. It looks like model public housing development.”

But public housing is not the long-term future of the Waco Housing Authority, given the direction of HUD, Moore and Hopping agreed.

“Every indication is that they’re moving away from public housing,” Hopping said. “Most of these buildings were built a long time ago, and we still have to maintain them. We can’t ignore the fact that HUD is very clearly letting us know they don’t want us to keep doing that.”

The Kate Ross public housing complex on South 11th Street was built in the 1940s and 1950s, Estella Maxey was built in the late 1950s and 1960s, and South Terrace was built in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

HUD standards

In recent years, HUD standards have prompted the authority to put tougher restrictions on residents, requiring them to work if possible and pay a greater portion of their income in rent. About 90 percent of residents have some income, and many have steady jobs, Moore said.

“We’re much more selective with who can be a resident in public housing,” Moore said. “We’re no longer the housing of last resort.”

Moore said downtown developers have approached him about buying the Kate Ross complex, which is across 11th Street from proposed hotels. He said the agency wouldn’t ignore an offer, but the complex is not for sale, and any discussions about selling it would have to involve HUD and a rehousing plan for residents.

The public housing model has fallen out of favor since the 1980s, when the Section 8 program started, allowing low-income residents to get vouchers for private housing, with some apartment complexes authorized to qualify residents on-site.

The housing authority issues the Section 8 vouchers but does not oversee the Section 8 complexes, a distinction that Moore said the public doesn’t always understand.

In several cases, the housing authority has had to find new housing for residents of failed Section 8 complexes such as Sherman Manor, Parkside Village and Lakewood Villas.

Overall, Moore said, the quality of affordable housing for low-to-moderate-income residents in Waco has improved in the past 19 years.

“We’re in a much better circumstance than when I came,” Moore said. “It’s because of Waco’s community — contractors, developers, city officials and partnerships with Neighborworks, Waco CDC and Habitat.”

He said the city and developers have worked together to create quality rental housing through the federal tax-credit program. Those include the Lofts at Old Waco High, Costa Esmeralda and now Barron’s Branch apartments.

Hopping said she expects the housing authority will branch into tax-credit housing in the future as it reinvents itself as an advocate for affordable housing, not just an agency to run government housing.

In the meantime, she said, public housing can be useful for families as a temporary landing place as they seek to improve their lives.

“I’m a big believer that housing stabilizes families,” she said. “Once they’re stabilized, they can become self-sufficient.”

Several years before Moore arrived, Hopping was working with families in programs aimed at helping them save money and become independent.

Hopping said she and Moore developed a rapport during the years that played on their different backgrounds and personalities.

Hopping, who was born in Austin and lived in Latin America during much of her upbringing, got her professional start as a social worker.

Moore, a native of the steel town of Lorraine, Ohio, worked in real estate and served in the Air Force before going to work for housing authorities in Fort Worth, Houston and Greensboro, North Carolina.

Self-help, responsibility

He said his business background and his upbringing in a hardworking family in a black neighborhood caused him to value self-help and responsibility.

“As I have grown and articulated my own philosophy about what’s going to make people viable,” Moore said, “I became less empathetic and more encouraging to say, ‘You can do it. I don’t want to hear excuses.’

“Milet, with her social work background, is probably not as direct in that way. She can take the same situation, and people will go out smiling, where with me, people go out scratching their heads. . . . I think her approach will work as just as well, if not better.”

Hopping said that in dealing with clients, she and Moore could play good-cop, bad-cop, but his sincerity was never in question.

“I will tell you, inside that very black-and-white outlook is a very soft, squishy heart,” she said.

Moore said he was not immediately sold on Waco when he interviewed here in 1997, comparing it in his mind to the urban vitality of Houston, where he and his wife were living. But his attitude changed as he got to meet more people in Waco and to see attractions such as Cameron Park and Lake Waco.

“My thought was that this was a place I really liked,” he said. “I thought I would retire here.”

Now, though, he will move with his wife to Union, Kentucky, close to where her family lives, but said he will miss Waco. Moore said he hopes to continue working, possibly by teaching classes in real estate.

“I’ve been working since I was 16, so that’s my hobby,” he said. “I will be doing something.”

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