When Moon Landrieu was confirmed by the Senate to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1979, top staffers paraded around the HUD building with a jazz band from the new secretary’s native New Orleans. At the head of the line of dancers following the band was 6-foot-4-inch Terrence Duvernay.
Many people have provided national leadership in affordable housing and community development, but no one exerted as much influence in as many ways with as much grace, good humor, and infectious energy as Duvernay.
Whether he was talking housing policy, managing a government agency, or cooking up his famous gumbo and entertaining dinner guests by singing a gospel tune, Duvernay made a lasting impression on most everyone he met.
From his participation in the very first group of domestic Peace Corps volunteers in 1964 right through his two stints on the 10th floor of HUD and at the head of two different state housing agencies, he provided inspirational leadership on housing again and again.
Duvernay died from liver cancer in 2001 at the age of 58, but his legacy lives on in the way state and city housing agencies do business today.
In his many roles in housing and city government, Duvernay set new directions, using his charm and friendly persuasiveness to win friends and overcome obstacles.
“His potential was unlimited. You would have walked through a wall for him,” said Dwight Robinson, a senior executive at Freddie Mac and a friend and former co-worker of Duvernay’s.
Duvernay first made national news in 1976, when he was head of the New Orleans Model Cities program and Landrieu was mayor. Landrieu defied the racial attitudes of the Deep South by appointing Duvernay to be the city’s chief administrative officer, the first time a black man had held a post that was second only to the mayor in New Orleans or in any Southern city.
Landrieu knew that Duvernay had the guts, smarts, and wits to make that job his own.
Later, when Landrieu was named HUD secretary, he brought Duvernay with him to Washington to be his executive assistant. With Landrieu often traveling, Duvernay spoke for him on many management issues.
Duvernay cut his teeth running one of the most innovative urban initiatives of the 1960s. The Model Cities Program was a bold experiment that gave mayors of selected cities great power to direct a wide range of federal resources toward improving urban life. It marked a radical departure from the controversial Urban Renewal program that preceded it.
Duvernay took full advantage of the opportunity for innovation to help New Orleans and other cities find new ways of addressing their development needs. He headed the National Community Development Association, which grew out of an association of Model Cities program leaders.
Before 1974, many city leaders viewed housing as something their housing authorities did, and not as a concern of elected officials, said Ron Gatton, who worked with Duvernay and is now operating affordable housing projects in the Chicago area through his firm, Redevelopment Services Corp.
Duvernay helped convince city leaders that they should view affordable housing as an integral part of their community development efforts, Gatton said. “Terry helped explain that housing was a crucial part of community development,” he said.
In the early ’70s, HUD was the primary agency for housing development, Gatton added. Today, as a group, major cities are doing more on their own than HUD is doing.
In 1983, Duvernay took the helm as executive director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) at a time when MSHDA, like most agencies, had a fairly narrow business model based on home mortgage lending and financing apartment projects subsidized under the federal Sec. 8 program.
Duvernay guided the agency into new ways of doing business that seem routine today but were innovative at the time, said Gary Heidel, director of program policy and marketing at the agency.
As head of MSHDA, Duvernay helped get the fledgling low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program off the ground.
He also served as president of the National Council of State Housing Agencies and on the commission that recommended major changes to the tax credit program in 1989.
If not for Duvernay, state housing agencies might not have been designated by Congress to take charge of allocating credits under the LIHTC program, said Gatton.
Duvernay’s formidable political skills came into play as he advised Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard on urban affairs. Even some of the feistier politicians in Michigan, including certain big city mayors, “were butter in Terry’s hands,” Robinson said.
In the early ’90s, Duvernay was executive director of the Georgia Housing Finance Agency before going back to Washington, D.C., as deputy secretary at HUD under Henry Cisneros.
“He was a problem-solver, who was good with people. He was a kind and unifying figure in the department.” said Cisneros.
“What I valued most was his instinctive feel for dealing with people and problems,” Cisneros said. “He could work things out, like the wise uncle who everyone would attend to.” It didn’t hurt that he would cook up dinners of New Orleans-style gumbo and red beans and rice for his fellow senior staff.
In the ’90s, Duvernay served as a member of the commission to develop a plan to revitalize public housing that led to the creation of the HOPE VI program.
Duvernay finally left government to enter the private sector in 1994 as director of public finance for CS First Boston. In 1998, he launched his own business, Duvernay + Brooks LLC.
Duvernay made his home in the later years of his life in Atlanta, and is survived by his wife, Alma, and two children, Terrence Jr. and Danielle.
He is remembered in Michigan each year when MSHDA gives out an award named for him to an affordable housing leader in the state.
He is also remembered in New Orleans.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Volunteers of America (VOA) lost 1,000 units of living space in the New Orleans area. Duvernay, who served on the VOA board, would have been happy to know that it only took three months for his colleagues to restore and reopen their 70-unit single-room occupancy facility on Canal Street.
The Duvernay Residence for formerly homeless adults was named after him, and for a man who did so much for housing and so loved his native New Orleans, it’s a fitting honor.