Cora McCorvey, the only executive director that the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) has ever had, will bid farewell to the agency after 25 years.

It’s the end of an era as McCorvey retires Feb. 10, turning over the reins of the housing authority to Greg Russ, who has been named to take over the top post. MPHA manages nearly 6,000 public housing units and more than 5,000 Sec. 8 vouchers, providing more than 21,000 people with affordable housing.

Cora McCorvey
Paul Markert Cora McCorvey

“I love the relationship that I have with our residents,” McCorvey says. “I think it’s a national model, where I brought residents in to be our partners and to advise us. Every major change or policy is vetted through them.”

Navigating the agency through decades of political and social change, she’s credited with turning a troubled housing program into a “high performer.” Her achievements also include developing the nation’s first assisted-living center and memory-care facility for public housing residents with dementia.

“When you’ve been around as long as I have, you have an opportunity to see where the needs are,” she says. “If there’s a will, a political will, and you can figure out how to access funding, you can make things happen, but you have to be intentional about it. That’s all I wanted to do—improve the operations here.”

It’s been a remarkable career for McCorvey, who rose up the ranks, starting as a receptionist in the city’s housing and redevelopment agency. When city leaders decided to spin off its public housing programs into a new agency, McCorvey was selected to lead MPHA.

“I didn’t realize I was being considered,” she says. But when she was asked if she could do the job, she didn’t hesitate. “I said, ‘Of course, I can handle the job.’”

When pressed about why she would be able to lead the new agency, McCorvey still didn’t falter, responding, “Because I care, and I’m willing to work hard, and I’m committed. That started the whole ball rolling.”

At the outset, the agency was judged to be at-risk of a federal takeover, but within about six years it had steadily improved to become a top performer.

Before she leaves, McCorvey, 68, has been recognized by state and local leaders. Gov. Mark Dayton and Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges proclaimed Jan. 26 as “Cora McCorvey Day.” The MPHA board of commissioners also renamed the Heritage Park Health and Wellness Center as the Cora McCorvey Health and Wellness Center, which features a YMCA, the Northpoint Clinic, and other partners focused on the needs of low-income and other seniors.

Russ, who has been executive director of the Cambridge (Mass.) Housing Authority, will take over MPHA this month.

His prior experience includes leadership roles in public housing programs in Chicago and Philadelphia. Russ has also worked for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in Detroit and Washington, D.C. He has served as president of the Public Housing Authority Directors Association and is a board member of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.

McCorvey plans to take time off to rest and be with her family, which includes 12 grandchildren. She says it’s the right time for her to retire, but she’s thinking about what else she can do.

“There are so many things that I’m passionate about, especially the human right for every one of us to have a decent and safe place to rest our heads every night. I’m going to have to come back and figure out how I can be helpful,” she says.