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Jackson determined to turn embattled agency around

LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / August 31, 1998

LUTCHER – Don’t bother asking St. James Parish Housing Director R.M.Jackson what her initials stand for – she won’t tell you.

There’s a purpose behind that stand and good reason for it, all a part of her determination to make the troubled St. James Parish Housing Authoritydevelopments a model for public housing.

“I can visualize what it can be,” she said, adding that all her life she has been drawn magnetically to problem-solving. “I wanted to be an attorney,but I didn’t like compromising.”Now, as executive director of St. James Parish Housing, she is projectingan uncompromising, no-nonsense, businesslike image to reinforce her position of authority. And that includes the initials, so people take herseriously.

Jackson, 40, came to St. James Parish in March at the climax of anationwide search for a new director ready to take on the challenge of a troubled agency. She is here on a three-year contract with two one-yearextensions.

“Right now, I’m trying to survive my first six months,” Jackson said. “I’vealready made enemies.”She’s come to her present position the hard way, working under various housing administrations, and she’s seen some of her own good ideas and innovations swept up and trumpeted as other people’s ideas.

The situation she stepped into was almost a model for what can go wrong with public housing. Vacancies were up because maintenance was poor orabsent. Rents went uncollected. Programs for youth were absent. Programsto help adults escape the chains of poverty and aim toward independent living were absent. Units were abandoned. No inspections were done on aregular basis. Favoritism was rampant.”Everything that could be wrong, was wrong,” she said.

On a Public Housing Management Assessment Program scoresheet, St.

James Public Housing failed miserably, Jackson pointed out. With a topscore of 100, St. James fared 47 in 1996 and 32 in 1997. “A straight-up, solid F,” she said.

The policies to turn things around were in place. The trouble was, thosepolicies weren’t being enforced. “My job is to enforce the leases andenforce the policies,” Jackson said.

Along the way, she is also working to bring the parish’s six public housing developments up to national standards. “There were several years ofdeferred maintenance and neglect,” she said.

St. James Housing Authority operates six developments, totaling 318units. These include the Oscar Banks development in Lutcher, whereJackson’s office is, Convent, Union, Magnolia in Vacherie, Welcome and Bay Tree.

“This is the type of problem most people run away from,” Jackson commented, adding this is exactly the type of problem which attracts her.

Some positive, common-sense changes are already in effect. New streetlighting helps cut crime. Each resident age 16 and above must carry aHousing Authority photo ID at all times. Each vehicle of housing residentsbears a fluorescent parking sticker. “We’re responding to complaints aboutcriminal activities,” Jones pointed out.

Other ideas, innovative here, are being tried out and implemented. Many ofthese are directed for the protection of senior citizens, too often easily victimized. Mailboxes placed in a secured area. Making agreements withlocal banks for collecting rent. Arranging direct-deposit for residents ongovernment assistance programs. Providing a secured laundromat area foreach development.

The photo ID cards can have magnetic strips added to them, coding them for electronic cardkey access, and she plans that to further safeguard both residents and housing facilities. A community policing program is alsobeing contemplated with both the St. James Parish Sheriff’s Office andLutcher Police Department.

“I like new ideas,” Jackson continued. “Anything can be tailored up ordown.”She is working to bring in job skills programs, GED classes and basic education skills classes to help residents get jobs.

“We have people who want to work but don’t have the skills,” she said.

“And we have the facilities.”Jackson said she has met with resistance, but she is unwavering in her goal – to provide residents with a decent, safe and sanitary facility.

Residents will have to accommodate changes as well for that common goal to be met.

“I’m turning around a lot of bad practices,” Jackson said. “You have tostart somewhere. This is do-able. I can see that.”

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