Meet the city's LeBron James of housing and community development - Generocity Philly

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May 16, 2016 8:08 am

Meet the city’s LeBron James of housing and community development

Fred Purnell is a Philly native returning home, in a sense, after a 15-year stint at Wilmington Housing Authority.

Fred Purnell.

(Courtesy photo)

Fred Purnell launched his career in public housing in his hometown with the Philadelphia Housing Authority in 1983 before taking his expertise to Wilmington for 16 years in 1999.

Now, he’s coming home as the city’s deputy director for Housing and Community Development, where he’ll be overseeing the Office of Housing and Community Development, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation.

“As [Cleveland Cavaliers and Space Jam 2 star] LeBron James would say, ‘I’m very happy to have brought my talents home to Philadelphia,'” Purnell said. 

Except, LeBron wasn’t living in his hometown of Cleveland when he left the team to play for the Miami Heat. Purnell, on the other hand, never left Philadelphia when he was working as director of the Wilmington Housing Authority. He commuted every day for 16 years, a drive that’s “not as bad as people think,” he said.

“I inherited a troubled housing authority that had the basic issues a troubled housing authority has,” Purnell said, “including a long-stalled HOPE VI project that hadn’t gotten off the ground yet.”

"I’m very happy to have brought my talents home to Philadelphia."
Fred Purnell

Wilmington was one of the early awardees of the federal program, a 1990s precursor to HUD‘s Choice Neighborhoods program that targeted the country’s most impoverished neighborhoods and implemented mixed-use development. 

When Purnell stepped down from the position this past march, he had been accused of “turning a deaf ear to the residents for which public housing exists” by a Delaware social services leader. Purnell, who grew up in public housing and whose eldest sister still lives in public housing today, said his record is his best defense.

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“Resident needs are the reason I went to Wilmington in the first place. Part of what we’re responsible for as good stewards is making sure those dollars appropriated and programs set up actually deliver services to those people,” he said. “Despite what some folks may say, I’d invite anyone to tour Wilmington and stop by some of those public housing developments to see them as they exist today.”

Purnell’s new job is not only broader in responsibilities, but his duties are scaled in a larger city with more constituents. The biggest challenge he’ll face is how to deliver housing services efficiently and effectively while federal dollars decrease and needs increase.

“This agency in the last 10 years has probably lost $40-50 million in direct [Community Development Block Grant Programs] funding,” he said. “At the same time, waiting lists have grown because other [departments] who rely on federal appropriations to serve those same people have also experienced the same types of cuts.” 

The first thing Purnell will do is jump headfirst into a strategic planning process to identify the most immediate priorities facing his department.

“There will be some planning and some long nights that go into how this whole thing plays out,” he said. “Fortunately for me, I’m being embraced by a team of very smart people.”

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