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New BHA chief of staff brings unique perspective

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
New BHA chief of staff brings unique perspective
Trinh Nguyen in her office at the Boston Housing Authority (BHA). Nguyen has just completed her first six months as BHA chief of staff. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

An immigrant who grew up in public housing, Trinh Nguyen now works to bring self-sufficiency to Boston’s increasingly diverse public housing population

A week or so into her new job as chief of staff at the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) last October, Trinh Nguyen called up Lewis “Harry” Spence, the man who worked wonders during the agency’s low point 30 years ago. Spence, appointed by the court to take charge when the BHA went into receivership in 1980, is widely credited with putting Boston’s violence-torn and physically deteriorated public housing developments on a path of improvement that continues today.

“He ran things effectively,” Nguyen explained, sitting in her BHA office in December, “so I wanted to learn how you can work effectively in a short period of time.”

Coming to the agency from the outside — her previous job was vice president of development at Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts (ULEM) — Nguyen wanted to hit the ground running. She felt taxpayers and public housing tenants would want her to do so.

“People are not going to wait ten years for a service delivery model to be published in a paper at Harvard,” she continued. “We need to know what’s effective and cost effective right away.”

The BHA serves about 50,000 low-income tenants, including a growing number of disabled and elderly residents and an increasingly diverse new immigrant population. About half of BHA’s tenants reside in its 60 housing developments, and about half use Section 8 vouchers to subsidize rent in other buildings.

Meanwhile, funding cuts loom; the agency faces a possible $13 million cut in capital and operating funds in the Federal 2011 budget, still under fierce debate in Congress six months into the fiscal year.

Slightly built, soft-spoken, with long hair worn loose, Nguyen appears younger than her 37 years. But she speaks with authority when it comes to her job and her mission. She is a “fiscal conservative,” she said, seeking to do more with less — sharing support staff, for example, and opting for conference calls over travel when studying the best practices of housing authorities in other cities.

Nguyen is intent on empowering public housing residents, she said. Her goals include increasing job training opportunities for residents, helping tenant organizations reach across language and cultural barriers and building partnerships with outside agencies so the BHA can be an effective “social service broker” for tenants.

BHA Administrator Bill McGonagle said in a January interview that Nguyen had already reenergized the BHA’s Section 3 program. Section 3 is a set of federal guidelines ensuring that contractors doing work at housing developments make jobs available to public housing residents whenever possible. He described Nguyen as “tough,” especially as she negotiated a project labor agreement with Ameresco, the energy company installing $63 million of water and energy conservation improvements in BHA developments. Nguyen made sure the Ameresco agreement guarantees pre-apprenticeship training for residents to help prepare them for the work force, he said.

McGonagle was seeking new blood when he hired Nguyen.

“Quite frankly, I wanted to fill the position with someone outside the organization,” he said. “I wanted someone who could come in with a fresh set of eyes.”

Nguyen brings firsthand experience of living in public housing (as does McGonagle, who grew up in South Boston’s Old Harbor Village development) and in poor urban neighborhoods. In addition, as a minority and a refugee, she has a deep understanding of upheaval, relocation and discrimination.

Her family fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, when Nguyen was 4 years old. She remembers clinging to her mother’s neck in the water as her parents and her five siblings swam toward a far-off boat.

After days at sea, where her mother feared they would all die, they were rescued by a Japanese boat. The family stayed in a Kyoto refugee camp for two years before the Refugee Act of 1980 enabled them to come to the United States, miraculously intact.

“My mom always says angels brought us here,” Nguyen said. “A lot of families didn’t make it.”

They lived first in Macomb, Ill., then New Orleans, where her parents worked as dishwashers and the family lived in public housing, and finally Worcester, Mass., where Nguyen attended high school.

She learned English quickly, she said, but felt the sting of anti-Asian sentiment and low expectations for immigrant children. Guidance counselors steered her toward ESOL classes she didn’t need and toward community college or work as post-high school options.

Instead, she won scholarships and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Clark University and a master’s degree in international development and communication at Ohio University.

Returning to Massachusetts, she worked as a youth organizer at UMass-Boston’s Institute for Asian American Studies while completing a second master’s degree in human services and helping to found the Vietnamese American Community Center in Dorchester.

Her research at UMass-Boston on immigrant voting patterns expanded her reach to Haitian and Chinese communities as well as Vietnamese.

“I didn’t want to be tied to a certain identity just because I was Vietnamese,” she said. “I wanted to know that I could cross those boundaries effectively.”

She continued studying diverse communities and urban issues as an adjunct professor at UMass-Boston teaching community research methods, and through subsequent jobs in development and public relations at the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians, the Boston Women’s Foundation and Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts (ULEM).

At ULEM, she played an integral role in planning for this summer’s National Urban League Conference in Boston, “twisting arms and convincing people Boston is a different place than in 1976,” said Board President Jeffrey Musman.

ULEM President and CEO Darnell Williams praised her passion and focus. “Trinh cuts through the red tape, gets results and helps people,” he said.

Much of Nguyen’s day-to-day work is spent in meetings: with internal staff, with BHA tenants and with outside agencies.

“I’m at the table with city agencies and nonprofits,” she explained in a recent phone call, “in order to bring whatever they’re talking about to the BHA, and to make sure they don’t forget about public housing residents.”

In her first six months on the job, Nguyen has gained the respect of many tenants, according to Willie Mae Bennett-Fripp, executive director of the Committee for Boston Public Housing (CBPH). The Committee was established by the court in 1981 as an independent agency to ensure tenants had a voice in BHA decisions.

 “Trinh’s been a woman of her word,” Bennett-Fripp said. “She says she’s going to come to a meeting, she comes. So far she’s been including residents. And she hasn’t lied yet.”

Bennett-Fripp grew up in BHA housing and she appreciates that Nguyen, too, knows public housing.

“I see her supporting all public housing residents, regardless of color,” she said. “I think she has a unique perspective, and has come in respecting everybody and wanting everybody to have an equal shot.”

Boston’s public housing diversity has dramatically expanded from the black-white racial dichotomy of the 1970s and 80s. Current BHA demographic charts break out categories for at least nine languages, a sign of new challenges the agency faces to translate information into multiple languages and to ensure diverse tenants have a way to participate in tenant decision-making.

Nguyen’s arrival at the BHA added a bit of diversity to its predominantly white senior staff (the 46 people in the top four pay grades). According to figures provided by the BHA, the senior staff is 74 percent white, 15 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and (now) 4 percent Asian.

Of the BHA’s entire 857-person work force, just under half are white, 32 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian.

As for BHA tenants, Latinos have become the largest group, making up 42 percent of the housing development population as of May 2010, the most recent figures the BHA has tallied. Asians have risen from about 2 percent in 1988 to 10 percent in 2010. The black population declined slightly during that period, from 36 percent to 32 percent. The white population — which in the BHA’s early years comprised more than 90 percent, has dwindled to 16 percent.

Housing experts and tenant representatives generally see the BHA today as vastly improved over the days of its well-known struggles to desegregate and reduce crime and violence.

But despite the improved living conditions, Nguyen is discovering there is no shortage of serious issues.

“Some of the challenges for the residents — mental illness challenges, and being disabled and unemployed when the economy is down — are just so huge,” she said. “And the demand is increasing, while funds are decreasing. That’s a concern,” she said.

Reiterating some of her missions, she added, “Now and in the future, we have to be creative in finding resources. That’s why partnerships are so important — with schools, hospitals, community clinics, grassroots organizations and work force agencies.”

Nguyen feels she has found her calling in helping others move up and out of poverty the way she did.

Her parents had different dreams for her, however. They hoped she would be a lawyer or earn an M.B.A. In her parents’ view, Nguyen said, a public service career is not well paid or respected.

 “But I love what I’m doing,” she said. “I think it’s what I can give back to this government, as a citizen of this country, as an American.

“And those are great values to have — to give back, to make sure others receive the access you’ve received. And to ensure that low-income communities get the right resources, not just to succeed, but to thrive, the way I did. It’s hard — but it’s a mission I have.”