How do you create affordable housing for all Tulsans?
Q&A with Becky Gligo, City of Tulsa's first housing policy director
Becky Gligo became the City of Tulsa's first housing policy director in June. Prior to accepting the position, Gligo worked for Tulsa Public Schools as the director of portfolio management, overseeing seven charters schools.
TulsaPeople sat down with Gligo to discuss her new role in Mayor G.T. Bynum's administration, what the City of Tulsa hopes to accomplish in terms of housing and how Tulsans can take part.
You are the first housing policy director for the City of Tulsa. Why was your position created?
It's something that they've been talking about for a while, not just in the mayor's office, but in a variety of places around the city. There's a lot of really great stuff happening in different nonprofits and different funding streams, but they needed somebody to kind of quarterback it at the City level to take all the work that's being done and kind of focus it in the right area and be full time thinker about housing for the City. So I think it's been about two years in the making, and getting it nestled in the mayor's office, because that was the other conversation is where does it sit best.
The hope is that we can have a strategy that everybody can kind of turn to to get a clear picture of what the city is message is regarding housing.
So why the need for housing director? I mean, what is the problem? What needs to be fixed?
Good question. We have a lack of affordable housing in Tulsa. We have folks that can't find a place to live, even if they're working, and we have a lack of quality, affordable housing. So people will look at our landscape and say that compared to other cities in the country, we're still fairly affordable, but our housing prices have been rising, and our wages have not caught up to that here in Tulsa. The housing stock that we do have that is affordable for people is not always decent, safe and sanitary, or in places that have a lot of connectivity for folks. So we need to solve the lack of affordable housing. And we need to preserve the affordable housing that does exist in the places that might be quickly and rapidly developing, like the downtown area, or the surrounding neighborhoods that are kind of seeing the spread of economic development.
We also are the 11th highest evictor in the country. So we know that for folks who do obtain housing, that doesn't always mean housing stability. We need policies and procedures to support folks to make sure that they can stay in the most appropriate setting possible.
So you get hired in June and dive in. What's your current focus?
What we're doing right now is we're engaging in the downtown area housing study, and part of what that looks like is inventory and all the affordable units we have and then comparing that to the express need. And figuring out what that gap is. We do know that our percentage of homeless folks rises every year and that we are now in the thousands. When we did our point in time counts, we had 800 or 900 that night, but we know that if we include people who are in shelters, or even couch surfing, we have thousands of Tulsans who are under-housed or who are homeless. So that right there we know is a gap but then for people who are rent burdened, that's part of the housing study is kind of inventorying people who are paying more than 30% towards their rent.
You touched on something I want to expand on, which is safe and sanitary housing. A lot of the section eight type housing that's in place now are not in really great areas or in great shape. It's good to hear that's something that is be taking in consideration. There's obviously a push to help get people off the streets, but you have these challenges. How do you find those areas to place people when you're trying to help find them housing?
Everybody calls it Section 8, that was its old name, but it's actually the Housing Choice Voucher Program. And I think the compelling aspect of that program is the choice part. So when it was birthed by HUD, instead of putting people in traditional brick and mortar housing, where they had to go to a specific building, to live in affordable housing, give them the means to choose where they want to live. What we've seen over time, is that that still resulted in concentrations of poverty and that is very much the case in Tulsa.
What we need do is break the stigma around affordable housing programs. Most people probably have somebody who's receiving some type of housing subsidy living in their neighborhood. They're just like the rest of us. They're wonderful neighbors. They just have a different way of paying their rent. So what we need to do is make sure landlords with quality units are educated on the benefits of taking somebody who has housing subsidy, so their only choices aren't the few large scale permit complexes that might be ready to take section eight.
You came to Tulsa to work for Tulsa Public Schools, but your background is in housing, right? Is that what you did in Chicago?
Well, I was all over the country, but my base was Chicago. So for the 10 years before I came to Tulsa Public Schools, I worked for a firm called Nan McKay and Associates. I started with them as an affordable housing trainer. I worked with agencies on fair housing regulations and compliance and a variety of other compliance pieces. And then I started to doing things like fair housing assessments via consulting engagements. Then I worked for the program management division. We worked within the Chicago Housing Authority, the Miami Dade Housing Authority and we worked with Amarillo as well as a variety of agencies across the country. They would either outsource their programs to the company I worked for or we would work with them on best practices and technical expertise. So my background is in housing.
So you move here to work for Tulsa Public Schools then the mayor opens this job. Was it a hard decision to leave TPS for this job, and what made you do it?
That's a great question. I loved working for TPS. I love what Dr. (Deborah) Gist and TPS is doing right now. It would have taken the exact right dream job to make me turn my head, and that's what came up. So as somebody who worked in running programs for so long, the idea that a city cared enough about housing to create a position to really focus and have a stance on housing for all Tulsans and to be able to kind of shape that housing policy and work with the really smart people that live in Tulsa, this was the unicorn job for me. There was no way I wasn't going to try for it. So it took a lot to get me to leave TPS, but this was the one job that would do it.
What motivates you or inspires you every day to keep doing this? Because it's a tough job. You're dealing with depressing statistics. You're battling in an uphill fight when doing this job. So what gets you going in the morning?
I fundamentally believe housing as a human right, that it is not an entitlement or it is not a handout. For us to function as the country and the society we want to be, every person needs to have access to stable affordable housing that meets the needs of their family. I have great hope that if it can happen anywhere, it can happen in Tulsa. We're the perfect size. We have such smart entrepreneurial folks here working to solve these problems. We have a mayor who truly believes in this enough that he created a position in his administration, to focus solely on housing.
We have concerned citizens who want to get involved. Everywhere I go, people care about housing. I'm used to being the housing nerd that like, I'm the only one in the room that cares, and here everybody wants to talk about it.
It inspires me to be specifically in Tulsa working on this. I truly believe that we can be the national standard for not just cities of our size, but even larger places on hopefully in five years, how we eradicated homeless, how we solved our eviction crisis and how we created affordable space for everyone, while also continuing to economically thrive.
You have launched a housing study, which is one of of the first steps in solving this problem. What is it and how can Tulsans participate?
So it sounds cheesy, but we truly want to hear from everybody. We haven't done a housing study like this in 10 years. And the last time we did it, it was just within the inner dispersal loop. Now we're expanding this study coverage to a number of neighborhoods that have traditionally been just dis-invested from, like the Crutchfield neighborhood or Crosby Heights. We've included the Greenwood area in the study. We're looking at what are the housing needs that are specific and unique to all of those areas. So it's really important everybody's voices heard, even if they don't live there.
The survey even asks questions like, "What would make you want to move to one of those neighborhoods?" even if maybe you live in south Tulsa right now. The way you can access the survey is you can go to our website. It's anonymous, all we ask for in terms of an identifier is your zip code. The reason for that is we want to see who participated and what their views are. Then that information will inform the housing strategy that the City is going to be rolling out for the entirety of the city in the next few months.
It is open to anybody and everybody, and it only takes about five minutes. The deadline is Sept. 1, so everybody has a couple more weeks to get it done.
You've been on the job for a couple months now. What is like working in the mayor's office under Bynum?
There is so much energy there. I'm lucky that I report to Nick Doctor (chief of community development and policy), who is doing phenomenal things for our city and has a deep understanding of kind of all the nuance and the history of Tulsa. I love the fact that we're so focused on the equality indicators. So we have Krystal Reyes (chief resilience officer) who's there that's really kind of keeping the resiliency strategy at the forefront of all of our conversations.
There's just an energy and excitement there about both the mayor's administration, but also the people that he brought in the room that make it a really joyful place. To think about the things that we're trying to solve and tackle, but that it's still got an air of hopefulness there every day is really inspiring. I think that there's a lot of clarity amongst the mayor and his team about what they want Tulsa to look like. And it's a place that everybody feels welcome and safe. I have a lot of respect and admiration for that focus.
What does it say about this city as a whole to you to see all of these social causes being worked on by the mayor's office like improving equality, working on diversity, overhauling policing and then on top of that housing?
It's ambitious. I think what we're discovering, and I think what a lot of people are discovering, is that change has to happen at the local level. Nobody's going to come in with a cape and save your city. You have to do it yourself, which is whether you work in the mayor's office or not. I think it says how we all believe it's important to at the local level really affect change. We can't just wait for somebody else to do it for us.