Glenda Goh never actually did the job she was hired for at the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority 13 years ago.
Within weeks of starting there, ostensibly as the director of economic and social development, she discovered irregularities in how the authority awarded contracts to a certain vendor. That triggered a lengthy federal audit of all of the authority’s operations, a “troubled” label for the agency and near constant federal oversight.
Within a year, Goh’s boss went to lunch and never came back, leaving her suddenly in charge of a struggling public agency.
Goh grew up in a sparsely populated crossroads village in Carroll County, where her father hauled moonshine when she was a child, and she started life with no indoor plumbing. She left behind sewing shirt hems in a factory and a life where a girl was mainly expected to find a good husband, for completing her higher education and a life as a nomadic human services executive.
Now 60, she retired from the authority in June, having served there longer than in any other job in her life.
Authority board members and colleagues praise Goh as humble and ethical, low-key and drama free — exactly what the agency needed when she stepped into the breach. She calmly led the authority out of trouble and through the leanest of economic times, they say.
“We’ve had clean audits the entire duration of her tenure. Clean audits,” said former longtime authority board member Gail Burress. “That is wonderful.”
“I think I’m leaving the agency on good solid ground to its next chapter,” Goh said. “I want a next chapter too.”
The move into the mobile home was a step up.
Goh, born Glenda Edwards, lived with her parents and sister in a four room house in the Woodlawn area of Carroll County until she was in fifth grade, with an outhouse for a toilet and a spring they carried water from.
“It’s why to this day I have a problem when people speak in derogatory terms about people who live in trailers,” Goh said.
It was hardscrabble living. Her father ran moonshine when she was very young, she said. Her first trip to a police station was when she was 5 and her father pulled over rather than trying to outrun the police because she was in the car. “And I carry the guilt for that still,” Goh said.
He later worked as a legitimate driver for an oil company and later owned a used car lot, where he put his youngest child to work filling out paperwork for the Division of Motor Vehicles when she was just 10.
“That was my dad’s way of recognizing that if you had a smart kid and you needed to let them develop that, you put them to work,” Goh said.
School didn’t present much of a challenge for Goh. “I made really good grades and I didn’t work hard for them,” she said.
She’s now a member of Mensa, an organization for those who score in the highest 2% on intelligence tests. She fancied a life as a writer and dreamed of visiting the Galapagos Islands, she said, but “in a place like Carroll County, that gets put to rest pretty quickly.”
Her father wanted her to go into business. She wanted to go to college. Her mother wanted her to find a good man and get married, and she did.
Goh married at 18 and got a job in a textile mill sewing the hems into polo shirts for 19 cents a dozen.
A new job on the switchboard at the Southwest Virginia Training Center seemed like a huge step up, and it led to a friendship that changed the course of her life.
‘I just had to find who I was’
They were both voracious readers, but they worked different shifts on the switchboard. So they had a box where they would drop books for each other. Their friendship was born of talking books during shift changes.
When the friend, Sarah Jane Jackson, began to struggle in a math class she was taking at Surry Community College in North Carolina, Goh offered to tutor her.
The next semester, Jackson offered to pay Goh’s tuition to take a math class with her. That was the start of Goh’s college career.
Had it not been for Jackson, Goh said, her life might never have taken the turn it did.
Her parents just didn’t see the value of college, she said, because what use would a college education be in Carroll County?
But Goh never held herself above her roots, she said. “I don’t think there are higher classes of people than the people I knew growing up. It was more, I just had to find who I was.”
Goh continued at Surry and then at 25 earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. She and her husband moved to the Tidewater area where he had some family and he got a job at the shipyard there.
A year in law school at the College of William and Mary taught her she didn’t really want to be a lawyer. Instead, she took a job managing a group home.
“That’s kind of how I found my way into what felt like my place in the world,” Goh said, “which was in human services.”
A new challenge
Goh was looking for a new challenge when she took the job at the housing authority in 2006.
She had changed jobs in the human services field every few years. Her first marriage ended along the way.
The housing authority gig was something new — doing human services work inside an agency focused on housing. But the challenge she got wasn’t the one she came for.
Goh was hired by retiring Executive Director John Baker, who left the authority three weeks after she started.
One of her first tasks under Baker’s successor, Ellis Henry, was researching contracting documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. What she found alarmed her — missing documents, evidence the contracts were handled improperly and signs of conflict of interest.
Henry alerted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds housing authorities and oversees their management and procurement.
Goh documented the problems in a 400-page report for HUD, which triggered a series of audits by HUD inspectors over the next few months , throwing the authority into turmoil and the glare of scrutiny from the media and Roanoke City Council, which appoints the authority’s board members.
“It seemed like it just was never ending,” Goh said.
The result was HUD labeling the authority as “troubled,” which meant stricter oversight, including HUD review of all authority contracts and repayment of $2 million to HUD for improperly awarded contracts. Two board members were forced to resign over conflicts of interest.
At the same time, all authorities were under a deadline to convert to a new business model required by HUD. The longer it took, the more federal funding they would lose as a result.
“At that point I was very much focused on day to day, trying to create enough calmness here that people could do what we needed to do to put one foot in front of another and think about getting out of the trouble that we were in,” she said.
And then, 10 months into the debacle, her boss, Henry, went to lunch one Wednesday and never came back.
‘I could see a path forward’
Goh was out of the office, meeting with a board member, when she got a call that Henry was gone and a television reporter was in the lobby looking to interview someone about his departure.
She wasn’t surprised Henry had left. He was at odds with the board and lacked confidence the agency could recover, she said. The authority sued Henry for $30,000 for what it said were improper expenses. The case was settled for $1,000.
But his abrupt departure — alerting the press, and with no notice in the middle of a work day — was a shock.
Two days later, the authority board named Goh interim director. A few months later, she had the job permanently.
Goh said it never occurred to her to leave. “For me, if there’s trouble and you can do anything to help, you kind of have to,” she said.
She had previously worked as a consultant for agencies struggling with financial and operational issues.
“I could see a path forward … and how we could make a plan to step by step get out of this troubled status,” Goh said.
The authority emerged from troubled status a year ahead of schedule, and also met the deadline for the business model change in time to hold its funding losses to the lowest level.
“Had she not been there, I don’t know what we would have done,” said Gilbert Butler, a former longtime board member.
Butler praised her “understated leadership” as just right for the time. “Glenda walks in the room and she’s just like the girl next door, totally unpretentious, low-key, not overdoing it in the drama department,” Butler said.
“The sky could be falling and she’s not going to let you know there’s any trouble,” said David Bustamante, Goh’s successor who worked for her for seven years.
“She didn’t fret and stew, she was very methodical,” said Burress, the former board member.
Goh also provided an ethical footing for the agency in the wake of the issues the HUD audit found.
She created a policy in which her own professional expenses are reviewed monthly by the board chair, according to Burress. She barred staff from having lunch or dinner with contractors, Bustamante said.
“It was evident to me very early on,” Burress said, “that this was someone whose ethical foundation was hard as granite.”
‘Control what we control’
The subsequent decade of Goh’s tenure was calmer, but challenging. Yet by 2011, HUD had designated the once troubled agency a “high performer” for its management of its public housing program.
The amount of federal funding they would receive, especially during the recession, was always a question, but the authority remained fiscally sound.
Under Goh’s leadership, the authority sold 8 Jefferson Place, the apartment development in an old Norfolk Southern office building that sparked downtown living but was itself a struggling financial proposition, in addition to a number of houses the agency was renovating on Day Avenue. Goh felt in both instances the private sector could do a better job than a public housing organization.
The authority was one of just nine in the country to win a grant to implement HUD’s Jobs Plus program, an effort to get public housing residents into jobs, or better paying ones.
Goh was keenly aware of taking over an agency with a dark history in Roanoke’s black neighborhoods, where older residents still feel the sting from the authority’s role in urban renewal.
The policy of leveling neighborhoods designated as blighted to make room for economic development was carried out by the authority from the 1950s into the 1970s, destroying black institutions and displacing thousands of black residents.
Goh met with elders in the Gainsboro neighborhood, which was partially destroyed by urban renewal. “I’m thankful that there are folks in Gainsboro who were willing to educate me, not just criticize me but give me a chance to learn,” Goh said.
When the authority won a HUD Choice Neighborhoods planning grant to figure out how to revamp the aging Lansdowne public housing development and surrounding area, Goh said she bore in mind the lessons of urban renewal and collected as much community input for the plan as possible.
“If people in a neighborhood are telling you something is important to them, I think you have to listen to them,” she said. “It’s their neighborhood.”
Winning a Choice Neighborhoods implementation grant to carry out the plans, however, was a disappointment for Goh. Despite three attempts, the authority never landed the funding.
At the same time, the authority has built 31 public housing units scattered through neighborhoods across the city.
Breaking up islands of concentrated poverty in public housing developments remains a priority of the agency, Goh said. “It’s a chipping away at, it’s not going to be all in one big project that gets done in short order,” she said.
Bustamante, her successor, said it was a hallmark of Goh’s management to not hang up on frustrations.
“Her biggest issue is ... let’s control what we control and make it the best we possibly can,” he said.
“She led the parade, but she wanted the parade workers to do what they were supposed to do,” said Cathy Wells, who was human resources director during much of Goh’s tenure.
She made those who worked for her better leaders, Wells said.
“Everything that comes out of Glenda’s mouth is a lesson … if you pay attention to it,” she said.
‘Next chapter things’
At 60, Goh could continue working. But something her ailing mother, who has since died, said to her a few years ago, got her thinking.
Goh was about to embark on a trip to Singapore with her new husband when her mother fell ill. Goh pondered canceling the trip.
“You go,” her mother insisted, “because you’re able and you don’t know how long you’ll be able to do that.”
Goh decided she didn’t want to work until she wasn’t able to do some things she wants to do.
Her goal is not to have a plan at first, to just take a break and decide. But she has some ideas.
She remarried six years ago to a Singapore-born Mandarin interpreter who was living in California.
Goh, a chronic insomniac, was awake in the wee hours and playing digital board games on an online gaming site when Steven Goh came into a game. They chatted, and kept chatting after that. Eventually they traveled to see each other before he moved to Roanoke.
The couple is building a beach house on the North Carolina coast where Goh expects they’ll live permanently one day.
Goh hopes to travel, maybe take that trip to the Galapagos she’s been dreaming of since eighth grade, and visit that friend who launched Goh’s college career back in Carroll County 40 years ago. She’s now a clinical psychologist in Austin, Texas.
“I think the housing authority’s going to be fine and I’m going to go do some next chapter things,” she said.
“She left me a beautiful blueprint that she did not have when she started,” Bustamante said.
Still, meetings without Goh at the table were immediately awkward “because you could always look at that chair for guidance and support,” he said. “I’m very happy to be here, but she’s missed.”