Alphonso R. Jackson Biography
Alphonso R. Jackson heads the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Appointed to the job by President George W. Bush in 2004, Jackson is the nation's top housing chief and one of the few African Americans in Bush's cabinet. "When the president asks you to serve your country, I think it's an honor that you really can't refuse," Jackson told St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist Karen Branch-Brioso. "It's even more difficult when the president happens to have been your friend for a long time."
Jackson was born on September 9, 1946, in Marshall, Texas, and grew up in South Dallas as the youngest of twelve children in the family. His mother was a midwife, while his father sometimes worked as many as three jobs—as a foundry worker, janitor, and landscaper—to make ends meet. Jackson attended Northeast Missouri State University (now called Truman State University) and studied political science there; he also went on to earn a master's degree in education administration from the school in 1969. But instead of taking a teaching job, Jackson enrolled in Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, where he quickly became known as a firebrand. He was an outspoken but articulate proponent for more minority enrollment at the law school, at a time when civil-rights consciousness was helping usher in a new era in America. "I was not very well-liked by most of the professors," he joked in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch interview.
Jackson began his professional career in St. Louis, and in 1977 he was named the city's director of public safety. He became executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority four years later, a job he held until 1983. He left it to work as a consultant to a St. Louis accounting firm and intensified his political activities. Active in both Democratic and Republican circles in the city for many years, he even ran for a spot as St. Louis's municipal revenue collector. He also worked for the U.S. Senate campaign of Jack Danforth, a Republican. His rising profile earned him the attention of officials in Washington, and in 1987 he was made the director of the U.S. Department of Public and Assisted Housing for Washington, D.C.
In 1989 Jackson was tapped to take over the Housing Authority of the City of Dallas as its president and chief executive officer. He was the first African American to lead the formerly troubled agency, which had become the target of discrimination lawsuits. In his seven years on the job, Jackson was credited with fixing the problems within the Dallas Housing Authority (DHA) and improving conditions for the city's poorest residents, who turned to it for help in a time of need. He worked to improve the run-down buildings and unsafe conditions that had become standard in the city's aging public-housing units, and also arranged deals that improved neighborhood conditions. He managed to find funds for a commercial development project, for example, that brought the first supermarket back to a struggling West Dallas neighborhood in several years.
Jackson's seven-year stint in Dallas was not without its challenges. In 1995 the DHA began implementing a U.S. District Court order that came about after a mid-1980s challenge to desegregate the city's public-housing units. The court order called for 3,200 low-income families to be placed in neighborhoods that were predominantly white, and the agency drew up a plan for new units to be built in a section of North Dallas that was predominantly white. The townhouses or duplexes would house just 75 families, but some 2,000 local homeowners organized to fight it. Jackson fought back with the characteristic mettle that had emerged during those law-school days, targeting one committee organizer from the neighborhood in particular. "I'm not going to accept this nonsense anymore," he asserted in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman's Stefani G. Kopenec, "so tell him to come with something that's substantive and not the subterfuge for race, because that's what it's coming down to.… They don't want people of color out there. It's simple."
Jackson even received threatening phone calls and letters for his stance, and found himself at odds occasionally with the Dallas City Council, some of whom called for his resignation. In the end, Jackson left the public sector when American Electric Power-TEXAS offered him the president's job in 1996. He ran the Austin-based utility, a company worth $13 billion, for the next five years. With a new Republican administration in the White House, Jackson was a likely contender for a federal appointment, especially since he had known George W. Bush, the Texas governor declared the winner of the 2000 presidential election, since 1989, when both lived in the same Dallas neighborhood. In early 2001 Jackson's name was approved by Congress to serve as the deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a post that essentially made him second-in-command and chief operating officer of the cabinet department, working under HUD Secretary Mel Martinez.
As deputy secretary, Jackson oversaw a budget of $32 billion and 9,300 employees, and encountered a bit of trouble with HUD regional office employees in Los Angeles, where a union-organizing effort was underway. Jackson visited the office and made remarks interpreted by some as intimidating. Jackson had told the poorly-run regional office to shape up, noting that when he was as a youngster, "it took my father three whuppings to get the message through to me, and that's what I am prepared to do," he said, according to an article in American Banker by Michele Heller. Jackson was investigated and later cleared on charges of making intimidating statements in the workplace, an issue that came up when Martinez decided to step down and Bush nominated Jackson to replace him. "Alphonso is a friend, and one of the most experienced and respected authorities on housing policy in America," Bush said on the day of the announcement, according to a report in Mortgage Banking.
Jackson was approved by Congress on March 31, 2004, and sworn into office as the thirteenth Secretary of Housing and Urban Development the following day. He became the third African American in the Bush cabinet, after Secretary of State Colin Powell and Rod Paige, the Education secretary. Almost immediately, Jackson found himself on the frontlines of a furor over Section 8, a HUD program in existence since 1975 that allows low-income families to search for rental properties on the private market; HUD then covers up to 70 percent of the rent for the program's enrollees, with the tenants responsible for the rest. The program is crucially dependant on something called the "fair-market value," which sets the guidelines for the amount that HUD will cover. The fair-market values are determined after surveys from the rental market in the area.
Drastic cuts had been made to the Section 8 program in the past few years, and housing activists and advocates for the poor believed the Bush Administration was determined to dismantle the program. Jackson even authored a New York Times editorial piece that appeared in August of 2004 in which he pointed out that since its inception, "Section 8 has grown into an overly prescriptive and unwieldy program. It has separate rules for more than a dozen different types of housing vouchers, along with 120 pages of regulations. Costs have spiraled out of control, without a corresponding gain in benefits." He argued that the changes HUD was proposing—to include suburban-rent statistics in determining urban fair-market value—would mean that HUD would not find itself paying a slightly over-market price in some areas. "If Congress passes the flexible voucher program we have proposed," wrote Jackson in the Op-Ed piece, "President Bush and I are convinced that we can better serve the two million families who depend on Section 8—and help even more Americans find affordable housing in the process." Jackson's characteristic method of attacking problems head-on is likely to keep him in the headlines as he proceeds in his important assignment.
American Banker, December 15, 2003, p. 21; January 13, 2004, p. 4; February 23, 2004, p. 14; March 31, 2004, p. 3; June 3, 2004, p. 3.
Austin American-Statesman, July 23, 1995, p. B3.
Community Banker, May 2004, p. 16.
Connecticut Law Tribune, August 30, 2004.
Ebony, June 2004, p. 12.
Economic Opportunity Report, January 19, 2004, p. 18; April 26, 2004, p. 91.
Houston Chronicle, December 13, 2003, p. 14.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, December 11, 2003; April 15, 2004.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 12, 2003.
Mortgage Banking, February 2004, p. 10; May 2004, p. 10.
New York Times, May 21, 2004, p. A16; August 6, 2004, p. A19.
Origination News, January 2004, p. 1.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 2001, p. A12.
"The Honorable Alphonso Jackson," Homes and Communities: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, www.hud.gov/about/secretary/jacksonbio.cfm (October 13, 2004).
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