Championing Safety: Marilee Arsenault's Leadership Shines at North Providence Housing Authority

Since taking on the role of executive director at North Providence Housing Authority in 2021, Marilee Arsenault has prioritized safety and security within the organization. She began her journey with the agency in December 2018 as a public housing coordinator before moving to the role of executive assistant. Two years after becoming executive director, Arsenault was named HAI Group’s 2023 Risk Champion of the Year.

“It seemed like everything happened in a flash,” she said.

Arsenault’s career path exemplifies dedication and excellence in the housing industry, noted HAI Group Risk Control Director Elizabeth Owens.

The highly esteemed Risk Champion of the Year award is part of HAI Group’s annual Risk Management Awards program, which acknowledges outstanding achievements in public and affordable housing safety and risk mitigation initiatives across five distinguished categories.

“It’s truly an honor to be named HAI Group’s Risk Champion of the Year because, like all of our Risk Management Awards, it’s voted on by your peers within the housing industry,” Owens said.

The Risk Champion of the Year award recognizes housing agency employees who demonstrate exceptional commitment to implementing effective risk management practices. Nominees are recommended by colleagues or peers within the housing agency and are evaluated based on their contributions to fostering a culture of risk management excellence within their organization.

23 Risk Champion of the Year 300_175 Marilee Arsenault, left, poses with HAI Group Chief Risk Officer Dr. Reginald Freeman after accepting the Risk Champion of the Year award at HAI Group's Fall 2023 Board and Committee Member Meeting. 

Arsenault was nominated by Katherine Candelario, an executive assistant who has been with the agency since 2021. Like Arsenault, Candelario began her career in the housing industry as a public housing coordinator with the agency before transitioning to the executive assistant role. Candelario said it has been a privilege working alongside Arsenault.

“Marilee’s hard work, determination, and dedication to residents and staff clearly show,” she said. “She has a multilevel approach to her safety plan to minimize risk and protect all who work and visit the North Providence Housing Authority. I get to learn so much from Marilee, so it has been a joy to be on this ride with her.”

The agency also received the Resident Safety Award as part of HAI Group’s 2023 Risk Management Awards, an impressive accomplishment, Owens noted.

“To win not just one, but two awards exemplifies the strides North Providence Housing Authority has made in prioritizing resident and staff safety under Marilee’s leadership,” she said.

Owens added that the agency’s employees actively participate in HAI Group’s risk control training programs “and are clearly very engaged in the betterment of the community as a whole.” 

From the ground up

Reflecting on her early days with the agency, Arsenault said she didn’t have much of a housing background but had a knack for finding answers and learning on the job.

“So, I did pretty much learn from the ground up,” she said.

Along with the learning curve of being in a leadership role, Arsenault faced challenges as several positions opened during her transition into the executive director role, necessitating the hiring of an almost entirely new staff. Because the transition occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, hiring was challenging, so many of the new hires were completely new to the housing industry, including Candelario.

“Once [Candelario] came on board with me, we basically just worked from the ground up,” Arsenault said. “We were both helping and teaching each other, and we have since created a very successful housing authority which now, in the eyes of HUD, is a high performer.”

The agency manages 146 public housing units along with 212 Housing Choice Vouchers. Arsenault said North Providence is a close-knit community, and the agency is relatively small compared to other cities in the state, with nine employees on staff, including two full-time maintenance workers who handle all agency properties.

Last year, HUD reclassified the agency from standard to high performer, a recognition that Candelario said has brought immense pride to staff.

“I consider our agency the little train that could,” she said. “One project at a time, we’re getting it done.”

Safety by design, not by chance

Due to its smaller size, Arsenault believes the agency needs to prioritize modernization to create efficiencies and free up staff to attend to resident needs, voucher management, policy compliance, and risk management.

“We’ve successfully done that,” Arsenault said of modernization efforts.

The agency obtained a reimbursement grant through HAI Group’s Loss Prevention Fund to help fund a new state-of-the-art security camera system, part of a security initiative Arsenault has emphasized. The previous system did not record properly, resulting in unavailable footage when staff sought evidence related to security incidents.

The new system mirrors what is used by the local police department, ensuring continuity. Arsenault noted that the police department often proactively contacts her when there’s a break-in to inquire about available footage. The new system has helped capture alleged perpetrators wanted for some time, Arsenault said.

“That right there is a milestone because it fosters collaboration between the North Providence Housing Authority and the local police department,” she said. “So, whenever we call, [the police] come because they know that we're working together.”

Screenshot of Cameras North Providence Housing Authority's new security camera system was funded in part by HAI Group's Loss Prevention Fund. This screenshot, courtesy of the agency, shows camera angles throughout the agency. 

Arsenault has also prioritized staff training, including de-escalation techniques for tense situations with residents or applicants.

“That training includes mandatory active shooter training,” she said, noting that not every decision made by the agency is popular. “We have to ensure [agency staff] are protected as well.”

The agency installed a video doorbell in the office (pictured below) using reimbursement funds provided by HAI Group’s Loss Prevention Fund. Office doors remain locked, and with the camera, staff can assess an individual’s demeanor before granting access. ring

“That has been incredible to ensure that staff feel safe in their work environment, which is very important,” Arsenault said.

To enhance overall security, Arsenault hired a third-party security company to patrol the property regularly and ensure doors are secure and common areas free of trespassers. The measure has provided residents with a sense of relief, she said. The agency also hired an in-house security guard to monitor and address security-related issues.

The guard “has become a member of our family,” Arsenault added.

WATCH: Arsenault explains how HAI Group's Loss Prevention Fund helped catapult her agency's safety and security measures


Communication is essential

Arsenault said security is paramount for residents in communal or public housing. For example, many residents live alone after being widowed or downsizing and feel nervous and scared.

“I want these folks to know that our main priority here is to provide safe, secure, and sanitary housing,” Arsenault said.

She achieves this goal through regular resident outreach, and hosting informal gatherings with residents in the spring and late fall. The events include coffee, pastries, and an opportunity for residents to meet with Arsenault face-to-face and share their concerns.

“I take that feedback and prioritize it as best as I can,” Arsenault said.

She leverages her experience working in a physician’s office to provide customer service to residents. At the physician’s office, patients often felt anxious about test results. Even without immediate results, Arsenault said she would reach out to comfort patients, letting them know that they were heard and cared for.

She takes the same approach with residents, ensuring they feel heard and their concerns are addressed promptly.

“Listen to your tenants,” Arsenault said. “Understand what they need most.”

Owens said this approach is wise and something other organizations should consider.

“Residents should serve as your eyes and ears, and open and clear communication can facilitate this relationship,” she said.

Arsenault said residents now feel comfortable speaking freely to staff, especially maintenance workers on the front lines. Open communication helps catch maintenance issues early, preventing larger problems.

“The key is prevention because letting issues linger leads to disaster,” she said.

The journey continues

While the agency has made significant progress, Arsenault said she’s not complacent.

She recently focused on implementing a new management software system, despite warnings about potential challenges.

Arsenault said she pursued the implementation to set the agency up for greater efficiency.

Going forward, Arsenault plans to continue modernizing the agency. She aims to implement a new emergency call system for units connecting with local emergency services and finalize a project for a modern intercom system to enhance unit entry security.

As a leader, there’s often a temptation to focus on the big picture. Arsenault advises the opposite, urging those in similar positions to focus on smaller projects that accumulate into larger successes.

“The next thing you know, you’re winning an award from HAI Group,” she said.

View all of our 2023 Risk Management Award winners and honorable mentions:2023 Risk Management Award Winners

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