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Beaumont Housing chief to retire after 40 years in public service

September 19, 2018

Back in 2003, with the Beaumont Housing Authority’s reputation in scandal-plagued shambles, friends and colleagues told Robert Reyna he had to be out of his mind to apply for the executive director’s post.

He did it anyway.

“We were in receivership and a mayor and city councilman went to jail for all sorts of illegal and immoral activities,” he said Tuesday. “Federal agencies were investigating tax dollars being abused.”

Fifteen years and many successes later, Reyna has decided to retire in December. At 65, he is looking back with satisfaction.

“I knew we could do better,” he said. “It wasn’t magical at all. We do the right things for the right reason. It’s not our money, after all. It was tax dollars being abused so I knew we needed to identify the problems and fix them.”

Reyna said it took 14 months to get the local public housing agency back on its feet.

“I got calls from HUD in Houston and they asked, ‘What have you done with all of your residents?’ and I said, “What are you talking about?’”

Reyna was told by the local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which had receivership over the Beaumont Housing Authority, that residents here had been calling multiple times a day to complain. But now no one was calling. They wanted to know how he did it.

“I asked the residents to let us try to solve the problems they were having at the lowest level first, and then if they were still unhappy we would give them the number for Houston HUD ourselves,” Reyna said.

When the Houston office suggested it was time to return the Housing Authority to local control, Reyna said then-Mayor Evelyn Lord feigned concern — “Why? Everything is going so well!” — which he knew was her way of complimenting his progress.

His accomplishments did not stop there. After Hurricane Rita hit in 2005, Reyna applied for and received one of only four $20 million grants and then leveraged it for $34 million more.

He used the money to buy the old fairgrounds to build Regent 1 Apartments to house people displaced by the storm.

“That began the turnaround of the agency,” Reyna said. “We had been a pariah for so long. No one wanted to do business with us because of our reputation, and I can’t blame them. When you’re being investigated by federal agencies, people don’t really want to give you money.”

The reputation of the BHA is “head and shoulders” above where it was when he started, Reyna said, and he’s having mixed emotions about retirement.

“It’s like my baby is all grown up,” he said. “And whoever takes over after me, will they appreciate what we’ve done? Where we’ve come from?”

Reyna spent 40 years working for public housing agencies, but his experience dates back even earlier. The Dallas native lived in public housing until he graduated high school and started college in San Antonio.

Reyna worked as a maintenance worker after marrying his wife, Rosemary, to provide for his family. After making the move to social service work, he moved from San Antonio to San Diego, then to Fort Worth, then Houston and finally Beaumont to take on the onerous task of rebuilding the Housing Authority.

He said it will be hard to leave people he’s worked with for years, including a woman he hired straight out of college 20 years ago to work for him in Houston. He then brought her to Beaumont six months after he made his move here.

“We have people who really care here,” Reyna said. “You know, the staff wont get rich working here, but they’re great people who are improving the quality of life of countless people. That’s what it’s about.”

Reyna said working in public housing is what he was meant to do.

“I’ve been there, I’ve been on both sides of the fence and I’ve seen how it can lift people out of a tough spot,” he said. “Are there people who abuse the system? Sure. But I truly think our impact is generational. Look at me. A kid who grew up in housing and has had a career and all four of my kids have jobs and homes. It’s a ripple effect and it changes lives.”

Haley.Bruyn@BeaumontEnterprise.com

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