By DJ Morrow Ingram
Editor’s Note: Greater Tulsa Personalities is a new feature in Newspapers to highlight and focus on interesting people making important contributions in the Greater Tulsa region.
For more than 50 years, the Tulsa Housing Authority () has provided housing assistance to the Tulsa’s most vulnerable citizens. It has grown to include more than 2,800 housing units serving over 20,000 people. But declines in federal funding have left many of the units challenged by deferred maintenance resulting in hubs of poverty.
Enter Aaron Darden, who officially joined as its president/CEO in May 2017. His fresh vision is transforming the agency and changing how Tulsans are provided affordable housing options.
Darden, who came to Tulsa from the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency in Nashville, began by working to change the culture of the agency. Reorganization, new personnel, a focus on employee training and a revamp of nearly every aspect of the agency brought a new level of professionalism to .
“Without a doubt he is a positive change agent,” said Rick Neal, chairman of ’s Board of Commissioners. “Not only does he have the expertise in the field of public housing, he is also a leader with the heart and passion for the organization’s mission and role in our community.”
A -ical Change
Rental Assistance Demonstration () is a way to de-concentrate poverty by creating mixed-income properties. It allows public housing authorities (like ) to convert from Section 9 Public Housing to the Multi-Family Section 8 Program. The U.S. Housing and Urban Development () program began in 2012 as a small pilot. By 2017 Congress had made 225,000 units eligible for such financing; this year lifted the cap to 455,000. So far, 98,000 of the nation’s 1.15 million federal housing units are being renovated under the program.
plans to convert all its properties to .
“This will allow us to own our properties outright, stabilize funding and allow for redevelopment of our aging sites into mixed-income communities,” Darden said.
The first property to be redeveloped is Comanche Park in North Tulsa at 36th Street and North Peoria. is utilizing a community-driven and supported planning process to create the plan for a new mixed-use, mixed-income community.
“While this approach takes a bit longer to implement, it will be a product of the community it serves,” Darden said. “Experience in other communities has shown this provides for better long-term success.”
The project will result in a one-for-one replacement of the Comanche units, enhanced and improved economic and cultural diversity of the area, a mixed-income community and a green, sustainable and financially feasible development.
At the same time, more than $15 million in improvements will be made to the Sandy Park and Apache complexes.
“About $45,000 will be spent on every unit in these complexes on things like granite countertops and stainless steel appliances plus some ‘curb appeal’ changes to the exterior,” he said. “They will be market rate properties where people will be proud to live.”
Tulsa is CHOSEN – Choice Neighborhood Implementation
In July 2018 it was announced that , in partnership with the City of Tulsa, was one of five cities chosen nationwide to be given the Choice Neighborhood Implementation () grant of a $30 million grant.
“Over the next five years, this will transform the Eugene Field community into a vibrant, mixed-income community on the Arkansas River,” Darden said, citing the importance to the more than 40 community partners who were a part of the application.
The Zarrow Foundation has committed $12 million for the project and the George Kaiser Family Foundation has committed $27 million.
“All in all, there is more than $120 million being leveraged for this project and that is only the housing piece,” he said. The program focuses on the entire neighborhood with a focus on people, income growth, health, safety and schools. Key elements of this particular project include a neighborhood grocery store and community center.
“It will be a really cool place to live.”
Construction on the project is expected to begin in 2020 and completed by 2024.
An Emphasis on People
“It is really important to stress that these projects are not a way to replace those currently housed.”
Residents will not lose rental assistance, rents will not increase and current residents will have the first right to return.
“We will relocate residents affected, including moving expenses and assistance in locating new residences,” Darden said. “We will have a team dedicated to easing this process for our residents.
“We want to be a part of the changing public perception of those needing housing assistance,” Darden said. “These projects will help us decentralize poverty in our community as it now exists.”
A Focus on Partnerships
While building and remodeling is a primary focus of , Darden says the social service aspect of the agency is just as important.
“We partner with nonprofits, churches, agencies and companies to provide assistance to our residents,” he said. “From tutoring to life skills classes to youth programs and more, we are here to make life better for everyone in our communities.
“Our goal is self-sufficiency with dignity.”
Darden credits his dedicated staff and Board for the accomplishments in his first 20 months at .
“No one does this alone,” he said, adding that he is always looking for new partnerships.
Aaron Darden started his career in the public sector at the Nashville, Tennessee Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency in 2008. For nearly a decade, Darden served in leadership roles throughout the agency. He left the agency serving as director of recapitalization and was previously chief operating officer of affordable housing. He holds the Certified Public Housing Manager, Certified Occupancy Specialist and Certified Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Specialist designations. Darden also holds a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Memphis and an from Tennessee State University.