Rebecca Flanagan recently retired as the head of the Phoenix office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after 34 years of fighting for affordable housing, stabilizing neighborhoods, finding food and clothing for struggling families and in the end keeping families in their homes and off the streets.
Flanagan's career with HUD started in 1977 after an unexpected discussion with a neighbor as she was pulling out of the driveway of her Denver home.
"Our neighbor flagged me down," Flanagan said. "I unrolled the window and she asked me if spoke Spanish. I said 'si,' and she told me that HUD's Denver regional office was looking for a part-time administrator who spoke Spanish."
Flanagan, who had two very young sons at the time, was interested in a part-time job and interviewed with HUD. Three months later, after she had considered selling hair products part time to bring in some extra cash for her family, HUD finally called back and offered her the job.
Flanagan's role with HUD quickly grew, and when she and her husband moved back to Southern California, she was able to keep working with the agency.
In 1990, Flanagan was named deputy director of the Phoenix field office of HUD. One of her first assignments turned into a project that changed the lives of thousands of Phoenix students and helped revitalize a neighborhood east of downtown. It's a project that spanned her career at HUD in Phoenix.
"One of the first things I did when I reached Phoenix was volunteer to be principal for the day at Wilson Elementary School," she said.
"I asked the principal what else we could do. He sent me a very long list."
The Wilson school, in a lower-income neighborhood in east Phoenix, needed a lot: mentors for both students and families and clothes, shoes, backpacks, school supplies, food and nearby affordable housing for not only residents but teachers.
Flanagan took it on. HUD employees are allowed to be paid for eight hours of non-profit work a month, so she tapped everyone she could to volunteer as mentors for a class of 20 at the elementary school. Chicanos Por La Causa redeveloped two homes near the school to provide more affordable housing.
Then, Phoenix took over a run-down apartment complex across the street from the school and renovated it for low-income residents.
A bank executive got involved, and students at a Tempe school, and soon every student at Wilson had new shoes and more food in their kitchens.
"Some of the kids had their only meal a day when they ate a school lunch," said Flanagan, who keeps in touch with the girl she mentored and went on to junior college and is married with a family.
That is one of Flanagan's favorite accomplishments at HUD.
One of her biggest disappointments is that during the past few years she and the agency couldn't do more to keep people from losing homes to foreclosure.
"It seemed like every federal housing program rolled out, we couldn't use in Arizona," she said.
"We had a special congressional meeting earlier this year to try to get the program adjusted to help the state's homeowners more. Not much has happened from that meeting yet, but I am still hopeful that Arizona be a pilot for programs that will work and help slow foreclosures."
by Catherine Reagor The Arizona Republic Nov. 11, 2011 05:01 PM
34 years of keeping families in their homes
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