Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

THA Executive Director Retiring ; 'Changing the River': Johnston Reflects on Approach to Poverty

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

THA Executive Director Retiring ; 'Changing the River': Johnston Reflects on Approach to Poverty

Article excerpt

John Johnston hates to talk about himself.

That can be a problem, since almost everyone he works with seems to want to recognize him before he retires as executive director of Topeka Housing Authority.

A reception from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Echo Ridge Community Center, 2021 S.E. Market, will honor Johnston, who took over as executive director in 1999. THA owns nine complexes with 744 apartments, duplexes and single-family homes. Rents are set at 30 percent of a household's income, with a $50 minimum payment for rent and utilities.

Johnston said he was brought in because of his experience with institutional change as a business consultant. People want their organizations to be strong and stable, he said, but that is the result of a long process that starts with "doing the right thing right" and treating people well.

Some of those changes were a matter of balancing the budget: they had to let go of 21 people, many of them in supervisory positions, because THA's funds were so depleted, and he and deputy director Sophie George shared a computer for six months while working 14- hour days, Johnston said. Others may have seemed small, but carried symbolism, such as painting over the reserved parking spots for the executive director and other staff.

"We said, people we house are going to park next to the building, not the paid help," he said. "It's all those kinds of messages you send about what's important and who's important."

They also worked to improve maintenance on the homes and build partnerships with Topeka USD 501, the United Way and other groups to create programs that go beyond keeping a roof over a family's head and the heat and water on. Some of the accomplishments in the Pine Ridge development include a preschool program for 3- and 4-year- olds, a "parents as teachers" program for families with children younger than 3 and an aquaponics center where teenagers run a business growing vegetables and raising tilapia in an indoor ecosystem that benefits both plants and fish.

Trey George runs the fish-raising program in addition to serving as director of THA Inc., the organization's nonprofit arm. He said he left a career in banking about three years ago, when THA needed someone to help arrange the funding package for the new, environmentally efficient Echo Ridge community. He said Johnston has a valuable ability to think outside the box.

"John's mind works in a way that a lot of people's minds don't," he said. "He's pretty remarkable."

That unusual viewpoint is on display when Johnston explains a systemic approach to improving neighborhoods. He uses the example of restoring wolves to Yellowstone National Park: The predators reduced the deer and elk populations, making room for plants to flourish, bringing in other species and even changing the course of a river that runs through the park, because the new plant growth stabilized the banks and reduced soil erosion. …

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