Malcolm Hankins’ path to working in city government is not a typical one.

The 49-year-old studied administration of justice in college and has a master’s in ministry.

Hankins, who was hired in November as an assistant city manager for the city of Des Moines, said there’s a relationship between where people live and how they live their lives.

“I hope to do what I can to improve the lives and the conditions of where people live – some of the basic things that people take for granted,” he said. “I grew up around neighborhoods that – I loved them, but they weren’t the best. 

“I thought it was fine that I played in vacant houses – they were our clubhouses. But when you see the impact that [abandoned or dilapidated houses] can have on a community, on individuals, you see where you can start to help them make changes.”

As a teenager and later as a college student, Hankins worked for the city of Aurora, Colo., where his father worked primarily as a trainer for the city. 

“After a period of time, I ended up staying there,” he said.  

Much of Hankins’ 29 years of municipal government experience has been code enforcement and neighborhood revitalization. He’s worked in Aurora, Colo., and Phoenix, Scottsdale and Chandler, Ariz. 

He also was a pastor of a church while he worked in Phoenix, he said. 

Des Moines was attractive to Hankins because of the opportunity to be part of the city’s new neighborhood revitalization effort. As an assistant city manager, Hankins will also assist with city operations, developing operating and capital budgets and program development.

Hankins, whose annual salary is $170,000, replaced Phil Delafield, who retired in July. 

We recently caught up with Hankins.

What attracted you to the neighborhood aspect of city government?
I think part of it was my experience interacting with government. As a teenager, I did some summer work where I literally was the lead inspector. I just posted lots that were overgrown [with weeds]. That was my introduction to the action of government.

I learned a lot about what that meant. And then I started to relate that to my life experiences and how I grew up, and I could see the correlation between the service that we provided in local government and how it impacts people’s lives.

I hope to actually do what I can to improve the lives and the conditions where people live. Some of the basic things that people take for granted.

How did you go about doing that?
In Aurora, and most of the cities that I’ve worked in, you make use of the tools that are available to you. Different cities, different situations. 

Phoenix had some areas that had reached a level of decline that required some pretty aggressive tools. In most cases, the idea is preservation. What you do is try to keep neighborhoods, sustain them so that they don’t reach a place where you have to intervene with heavy tools or tools that require a lot of money and resources. 

Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

In Phoenix, we had properties that had to be razed; properties that we did redevelopment; infill housing. We did everything we could … to make sure the neighborhood was not taken down because of some properties. 

What brought you to Des Moines?
I was attracted by the opportunity to be on the early part of what I see is transformation. I think there are communities that are unique. I drove around when I interviewed and saw the variety of neighborhoods.

You can pretty much choose how you want to live [in Des Moines]. You can be in a neighborhood that is older and mature; you can be in a neighborhood that is up and coming; you can be in a neighborhood that’s already been somewhat revitalized.

And there’s some basic things that you take for granted: the feel of the community and people looking you in the eyes when you say “hello.”

And also, the commitment to neighborhoods through Invest DSM and the infrastructure improvements. I see all of those things coming together … and I’d like to be a part of that.

Why are neighborhoods important to a city?
You hear the tagline that “neighborhoods are the backbone of the community.” But I look at neighborhoods beyond the tax benefit, beyond the infrastructure, beyond the building of houses. It’s the people.

There are people in these homes. These are people who are trying to add value to their situations. And that’s why neighborhoods to me are important.

We all certainly come from one [a neighborhood], and people generally have a strong affinity to their identity and their neighborhood. … People associate where they live to a large part of who they are. 

What have you learned over the years that will be helpful to you and your job in Des Moines?
It’s only been a couple months and I don’t have it all figured out. But, in 29 years of experience, you start to see things that you’ve done [in the past] that aren’t being done and you start to figure out whether or not they would work here.

I’ll be looking at opportunities to try to find solutions, proactive approaches, things that we can start to address before they reach significant levels of deterioration.

Can you give an example?
What processes are we using with regard to the Blitz on Blight, for instance. Maybe there are some informal administrative processes that can be considered, like the possibility of asking owners to voluntarily address those conditions. 

I had that experience from my uncle’s home [which was burned and sat untouched for several years]. … I went back and it was gone. I said, “Did the city make you take it down or did they charge you a lot of money?” He said, “No, they just came by and asked me if they could take it down. And I said yes.” 

I thought that was a novel idea. They didn’t go through a long court procedure. They just consent and razed it.

What do you do in your free time?
I like to read leadership-related books. I’ve recently read Dr. Henry Cloud’s “Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality” and “Our Character at Work: Success from the Heart of Servant Leadership” by Todd D. Hunter.

Editor's note: This story was updated Feb. 5, 2020 to include accurate information about Malcolm Hankins' educational background.