September 6, 2015

Q&A with WHA executive director Alex Corrales

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Fred Hurlbrink Jr./Worcester Sun

Alex Corrales, soon to be executive director of Worcester Housing Authority

Alex Corrales, who started working at the Worcester Housing Authority in Great Brook Valley as a 21-year-old temp, was tapped by a unanimous vote of the WHA Board of Commissioners to replace Executive Director Raymond V. Mariano upon the latter’s June 2016 retirement.

He has been the project coordinator of the authority’s “A Better Life” program — championed by Mariano and controversial in its tact — which assists participants in pursuing work and/or school requirements to maintain their housing eligibility. The WHA is advancing the work/school requirements to all state-subsidized households, regardless of “A Better Life” participation. And three of the commissioners who appointed Corrales, 41, were to see their terms end last November.

Clearly, he ascends to a position of prominence during a critical time for the housing authority and its residents. How he got here, though, seems to have prepared him for just this type of moment.

The beginning of your story  — moving to Worcester from New York City, living at Plumley Village, attending East Middle, North High  — is fairly common, but where you’ve taken it from there is anything but. Describe what’s behind your accomplishments.

Alex Corrales, soon to be executive director of Worcester Housing Authority

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

Alex Corrales, soon to be executive director of Worcester Housing Authority

I give a tremendous amount of credit to my parents, because although I have parents who had a fourth-grade and sixth-grade education, education was really important to them. I would come home and they wanted to make sure my homework was done, for me and my three siblings, and when report cards came out, they better see A’s. … Sometimes they would say, we don’t understand all the subject matter, and we can’t help you, but we know what the alphabet looks like and we know what A’s look like. For my parents, they really set the foundation for us, that the ticket to get out of poverty was through education.

The other piece of it, I look back at all the people, the support systems you have along the way. I can remember living in Plumley Village, and there was a gentleman who had a music group, he’d teach kids how to play instruments, and he would just do this volunteering, and he was extremely supportive. … I can remember him saying, “You can do it, you can do whatever you want, you can be president.”

John Monfredo (current School Committee member) was my principal at Belmont, and he was a huge influence on me at a very young age, in helping me understand the importance of education. … Then I think of a guy like John Bergantino, who was one my first bosses, when I was a busboy at I-HOP, and I actually reached out to him last week and I thanked him because a lot of the principles I learned of what it is to be a good supervisor, how to manage staff, manage business (came from him). He was in essence a role model for me. So, I think back to all those folks.

Then, of course, last but not least. I have Ray Mariano, who to me —  a lot of people, they see him as just my boss  — he’s been a mentor for me for 14 years. He’s also someone that I consider a father figure, he’s a family man, he’s loyal, I’ve learned a lot from him. … I can talk to him about home life, and he’s been through it. I can talk to him about work issues and he’s been through it. So he’s just been a great mentor. I’ve learned a lot from him.

What was it like growing up in the city in the ’80s with parents who didn’t speak English?

I remember getting here, it was, I think, 1980. … I remember looking out the window in New York City at my aunt’s house, and just the craziness, the cars, the people; I remember my mom just saying, “We cannot live out here, this is no place to raise kids.” And we had family who lived in Worcester, so when she came to see Worcester, she said, “This is much better.”

Growing up  — listen, we grew up in Plumley Village  — I have to admit as a kid I loved it. I mean, I would step out of my house and I would have 20 to 30 kids I could really play with, you know, we could ride our bikes, play soccer or football or baseball, basketball, you name it. With that said, yeah, there were kids there that were doing things they weren’t supposed to be doing, and kids that would try to peer pressure you into doing things, but again I think because there was a strong foundation on the homefront … it really helped me make some good decisions on the kind of people you wanted to hang out with.

So I enjoyed my time there, but I understand that, when I look at it from my point of view now, it needs to be short term. Living there long term is not the answer, and I think my parents, maybe they didn’t really know it at the time, but when I look back on it they had a motivation to leave. They never enjoyed having subsidized housing. They would always say, “We need the help now … but we gotta get out of here.” And so there was that motivation. I remember us moving out and moving to a three-decker, and my parents thought they owned their own house because they were out of the projects.

When I look at the folks that live with us, sometimes what I don’t always see is the belief in them that they can achieve better. And there’s a slew of reasons why that may be. But I think what we’ve been trying to do the last 14 years is trying to get folks to really believe that they can do better.

They city has changed a lot since you grew up, but how do you feel the community has changed, the way folks in the city interact with each other these days?

Well, I mean, when I see the kids, I see kids interacting, I see kids playing, and I see them riding their bikes and doing those things, I think … when I look at the folks that live with us, sometimes what I don’t always see is the belief in them that they can achieve better. And there’s a slew of reasons why that may be. But I think what we’ve been trying to do the last 14 years is trying to get folks to really believe that they can do better. That with support, with encouragement, with motivation, that they can go get their GED, that they can go get a better-paying job, that they shouldn’t feel inferior when they go on an interview, that they have just as good a shot as the next person.

So that’s the piece that’s really intriguing for me, which is I see our clients come in and I get to see them from the very beginning. … And more often than not, in talking to them, you can see that they’re not confident about themselves, that they almost are waiting for someone to say, “You can’t do it.” … Then you see them 6 to 9 to 12 months later in the program, and they have this certain swagger to them. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t put in stats, but lets me know that we’re moving in the right direction

Tell us about your middle/high school years and what led you to Syracuse University.

Like I said, listen, there are certain things that happen in life that stand out for you, and you look back and you say that was a moment that I can go back to and change. I was one of those kids that I would do well in school, but I didn’t always do my homework and (would) get in trouble in that sense. … I remember my first year at North High I was in an honors class, and one of the students in the class essentially questioned why I was there, almost like, “They made a mistake by placing you here.” And I’m a pretty competitive guy, so that became my motivation, to say not only do I belong in this class, but I’m going to get a better grade than you by the time this class is over. … And I did.

Because of that, I really enjoyed getting myself involved. I was involved in all the clubs I could get myself involved in, whether it was student council, I played soccer for four years, I was captain of the soccer team, I was president of the National Honor Society. … I ended up at Syracuse because I loved writing. I just enjoyed covering stories, whether it was news or sports. Newhouse School of Public Communication is well known, so I was fortunate to get there. … Luckily, I was ignorant to the weather, because that might have influenced my decision had I known how much it snows there.

I had a pretty good sense of my friends. There were kids there  — I had this conversation actually with my (four) kids not too long ago, where I told them, “Who you hang out with will tell me a lot about the kind of person you are.”

In light of the city’s violent summer, did you ever have any run-ins with gangs, violent crime, growing up? Do you think it was harder or easier to avoid trouble back then?

Listen, there was trouble. Again, I was very fortunate, that I credit having strong role models around me that helped me make good decisions. … I had a pretty good sense of my friends. There were kids there  — I had this conversation actually with my (four) kids not too long ago, where I told them, “Who you hang out with will tell me a lot about the kind of person you are.”

One of the things I can recall, growing up in Plumley there were some kids there that were exceptional students, I was friends with them and our link was that we were motivated to do well in school. … Then, naturally, there were kids there who you’d play sports with that didn’t always have those interests, and they were involved in gang activity and they would try to rope you in. … I remember one time, these two brothers, they actually said, “We’re going to break into a store, come with us.” And one of the kids I was with decided to tag along with them. And for me, crediting my parents, having the fear of my parents’ punishment  — I can recall I didn’t go. I said, “No, no no.” I was afraid and that fear kept me out of trouble. … Sure enough, those two kids and my friend all got arrested for breaking into a store that was closed.

Do you feel secure sending your kids to school, and do you think they feel safe?

The short answer is, generally.

There’s been  — listen, I went to public schools, so I’m not one of those parents who say “Oh, don’t send your kid to public school.” It was good for me, and I went through it, enjoyed my time, and I learned a lot. It’s helped me get to where I am. …There’s been a few times, my daughter, for example, will come home and she hears things or sees things that may happen and sometimes it’s a little concerning for her.

I remember being in high school and there was a stabbing, a death at South High, and it just kind of shocked all of us. … And it’s kind of sad that now you see 14-, 15-year-old kids having a shooting, gang war.

Overall, the schools that my kids attend, they feel safe, they’re getting a good education and they enjoy it. And there’s a lot of good kids there, a lot of excellent teachers, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues that need to be addressed.

Alex Corrales, soon to be executive director of Worcester Housing Authority

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

Alex Corrales, soon to be executive director of Worcester Housing Authority

How did you get your start at WHA? What did you do; what did you learn? Why did you want to stay?

Once I came back from Syracuse, I was going to move to Miami with a roommate and we were going to work in radio — didn’t pay much —  but they didn’t need me to go down there till close to the end of the year. So I had time available, so I went back home and I didn’t want to sit around the house and just do nothing, so I decided to call a temp agency and just work.

I was supposed to manage the smallest property we had over at Wellington (Apartments), and then my first day on the job, they did a switcheroo and put me at Great Brook Valley, which at that time was the largest. There were about 1,200 apartments that I had to be responsible for at age 22.

And they said, “Well, listen, we can’t get anyone to go work down in Great Brook Valley, they need help in the office, would you want to do it?” I said, yeah, I grew up in Plumley, so we come to Great Brook Valley all the time. That’s fine, not a problem. … “Really, are you sure?”  … Literally my job was to greet customers, answer the phone, photocopy, file, file a lot, and check empty apartments

At that time, there were a lot, we used to have 100 to 150 empty apartments in Great Brook Valley alone, and there was a lot of vandalism, people breaking into them, so literally every day I had to go check empty apartments. … And I would do that very quickly, so by the middle of the day I’d run back to my boss and say I’m done, and they’d say, “Well, geez, we don’t have any more work for you,” and I’d say, “Well, do you need help with your work?” … Through that, it gave me the opportunity to learn the operation, and by the end of the year, I was really working hands-on with the property manager.

And, the director at that time of the property managers came down and said, “You’ve been doing an awful lot.” … I started taking all the forms they were handwriting and I said, “Well why don’t we put these in the computer?”

So I started really getting myself involved and they came down and a property manager position opened up; and I applied and I was fortunate to get it. I was supposed to manage the smallest property we had over at Wellington (Apartments), and then my first day on the job, they did a switcheroo and put me at Great Brook Valley, which at that time was the largest. There were about 1,200 apartments that I had to be responsible for at age 22.

Corrales was promoted after a year to director of property managers, a post in which he served for several years before moving onto the Springfield Housing Authority for three years, where he would be the assistant executive director and eventually, for a time, interim executive director.

What Springfield was able to offer at that time was the ability to manage other areas of the agency … I had been focused on property management, but going to Springfield would allow me to do that plus oversee admissions, IT and other areas, finances, so in essence it was a promotion. … It was a lot of work, a lot of learning experiences, which was great.

What made you come back to Worcester?

Well, listen, I never moved to Springfield. … Worcester is my home. Although I’m very appreciative to the time and what I learned in Springfield, I always missed Worcester, I missed working here, I missed working for Mr. Mariano. I mean, he’s got a vision, he’s direct, he knows what we need to do, and so working with someone who has that kind of leadership  —  you know you’re always moving forward. So I missed all that, and so when the opportunity came up that allowed me to come back, I did, I jumped on it, because it felt to me like coming home.

As we received the (A Better Life) grant for the planning phase and we were able to do the pilot year — although there certainly were moments when we weren’t sure where it was going  —  at the end of the day, we knew that we were onto something special and we were changing people’s lives.

Describe the genesis of the “A Better Life” program.

Since I had come back, Ray had always talked about wanting to do more for the residents. You know, fix the windows, fix the doors and the walls, it’s nice, and picking up the trash, that’s all important, but we’re really going to be measured, our success is measured, by how many people were you able to help. Because at the end of the day, if someone doesn’t move forward it doesn’t matter how nice your property looks, and so that had a profound effect on me in just viewing what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

So when there was an opportunity for a grant, and we started, the ideas were put in in terms of how we could potentially help folks. That’s kind of when it got started and he said to me, “You know, I need you to lead this in terms of the day-to-day operations if we get this grant,” and so that excited me and scared me a little bit, but very exciting to be able to put the team together and working closely with him not only in the day-to-day stuff but shaping this out, designing it out.

As we received the grant for the planning phase and we were able to do the pilot year — although there certainly were moments when we weren’t sure where it was going  —  at the end of the day, we knew that we were onto something special and we were changing people’s lives. And so that itself I think was certainly extremely motivating, and for me to be part of it from the beginning and know that I’m going to be part of where it is going, that certainly is very exciting.

The Health Foundation of Central Mass. has funded the WHA’s A Better Life self-sufficiency program since 2011 with $2.4M in grants. The authority received its largest annual allotment, $604,657, in 2015, the third year of implementation.

One of the nice things is that our program is funded by the Health Foundation of Central Mass. It’s important for me to say that I’ve never worked with a funder like them, and I say that in a way that I want to be clear that it’s been fantastic working with them. They’ve been very involved, they will work with you to make your program as successful as possible, and they’re there all along the way.

WHA is also working with Boston University Professor Emily Rothman, who is evaluating the program independently. She and a partner released an interim evaluation report of A Better Life in July that noted marked progress in certain critical areas for residents pursuing employment and education opportunities.

We know that the program is working. Those results speak for themselves.

Corrales said the WHA had about 400 families across its properties involved in various self-sufficiency programs, about half of those families are enrolled in A Better Life.

Obviously for us the goal is to continue, as we grow the program, to secure additional funding. We are aggressively searching and working with city, state, federal opportunities to get the word out on our program and to be able to secure funding for the long term and to expand it.

(Mariano is) working with the lieutenant governor on the possibility of having the A Better Life program be introduced at a few of the housing authorities around the state as a way to expand the program, and that’s an important piece, because you’re going to get some folks who say, well, it only works in Worcester because of Ray Mariano, or it only works in Worcester because of these particular reasons, and so being able to show that the model can work in different housing authorities, I think, will speak volumes.

I think what’s important and I think the objective of this program is that, we need to raise the bar; and, you know, you have to be careful, you don’t want to raise the bar so high that you’re setting people up for failure.

With the WHA’s new work/school requirements for its state-subsidized units, residents not in compliance could face eviction. How is that going to work?

First and foremost, our objective is for no one to lose their housing. We certainly are not doing this program in order to do that. One of the things we want to make sure, is that folks are repeatedly informed about the requirement  but also about what’s available to them. So we have about 14 points of contact that we are establishing with folks at different measures along the way. So for example, next week I’m attending our local resident meeting here (at GBV) and I’m going to go out of my way to talk about this program but also use it as an opportunity to remind folks about our program and what we have available. We’re sending notices out to folks consistently, we’re knocking on people’s doors, we’re going to be calling folks into the office. With that said, if someone has an obstacle that’s preventing them (from pursuing work or study), they’ll be able to apply for a hardship.

We want the emphasis to be that folks are going to try, we want the effort to be there. And we’re willing to work with anyone that’s trying. For the folks that just don’t want to do it, and they’re not even going to try, those are the folks I think that are probably at the highest risk.

Do you think too much leeway defeats the purpose?

I don’t know that this has too much leeway. I think what’s important and I think the objective of this program is that, we need to raise the bar; and, you know, you have to be careful, you don’t want to raise the bar so high that you’re setting people up for failure. And I think what we’ve done here is we’ve raised the bar so that it’s attainable for residents.

The fact that you have a 70 percent unemployment rate in a community (GBV), that’s a problem. You drive in, you don’t see trash on the ground, the place is well-maintained, public safety’s great down here. But 70 percent are unemployed, 40 percent don’t have a GED. You know, the color of the book is nice, but we need to open that book and now start looking at how we can change these folks lives.

Outside of A Better Life, what would you say you’re proudest of during your time at WHA?

It’s a great question because there’s so many things you could list. At the end of the day, I think what you always look back on, wherever you were, in terms of your fondest memories, are the people that you interact with, the people you work with. I have a fantastic team, they make my life easier, they’re very passionate about the people they work with, and the residents in this program, when I hear them speak of there success stories …

So being able to work with folks that share the same passion, being able to work with residents that have that motivation that I look at and it reminds me of my childhood and seeing my parents and what they did to try to get out of Plumley Village, those are certainly things that come to mind in terms of pride and feeling a sense of accomplishment.

(Disclosure: Fred Hurlbrink Jr.’s father worked more than three decades as a municipal employee in Worcester, spending the last several years as a WHA director, first of leased housing and finally of information technology. The Sun’s managing editor had met Alex Corrales but once, to shake his hand at Fred Sr.’s retirement dinner about four years ago.)

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