We at ^Housing Futures believe it is just as important to learn about those working, living and advocating on behalf of social housing as it is to write about the programs and the housing. We are happy to profile leadership from the social housing industry from a broad array of backgrounds and countries.
Question: What is your background (place of birth, place of residence, education, profession)?
Answer: I was born in New York City – my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe.
My education was mostly on the job training – I finished a year of college and then went to work in the mailroom at New York’s Department of City Planning. In 1986 I received an appointment as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and much later in life, after I moved to Seattle, I earned a Masters Degree in Public Administration from the University of Washington.
On the work front I held a number of different jobs at City Planning and subsequently worked as a community organizer, as a housing aide in the Mayor’s Office and in the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. I was appointed an Assistant Housing Commissioner in 1988 and tasked with setting up New York’s first programs to develop housing for homeless households. I left City government in the early 90’s to help establish the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), which has evolved into a CDFI and a national leader in promoting supportive housing for homeless and at-risk households.
Question: Can you tell us about your organization?
In 1997 I moved to Seattle to lead the King County Housing Authority (KCHA). The Housing Authority owns over 10,000 units of housing and provides rental subsidies for another 9,000 households. Roughly 50,000 individuals in all. We are aggressively expanding our workforce housing portfolio, redeveloping 130 acres in the heart of one of the poorest neighborhoods in the region, expanding access to high opportunity neighborhoods for extremely low income households with children, and working to improve education and health outcomes for our residents. The Authority has some 400 employees and an asset base in excess of $1 billion.
Question: Why did you choose to work in the social housing sector?
Answer: I became involved in political activism early on (it was the late 60’s). My other interests were architecture and stage design. These came together in urban planning and I began working in New York’s Department of City Planning when I was 19. A stint working as a neighborhood planner and then as a community organizer in South Brooklyn led me to safe, affordable housing as a central issue in poor communities.
Question: What do you most hope to achieve in your position?
Answer: In my current position I’m looking to complete the recapitalization of our existing inventory, lay the financial groundwork for continued expansion of the region’s affordable housing supply, connect the dots between affordable housing and education, health and regional prosperity and leave a legacy in terms of a next generation of leaders. The big picture challenge is in advancing the public discussion regarding the importance of government investment in affordable housing.
Questions: What motivates you to push for the achievements you are looking for?
Answers: I believe in communities and in collective responsibility. Senator Wellstone once said “We all do better when we all do better” Working to improve the lives of the poorest members of our community benefits everyone. I see housing as a fundamental building block. It can change lives on an individual level and shape communities on a neighborhood level.
Question: Looking back at your career so far, what societal impact can you point to that means a lot to you?
Answer: I have had the opportunity to save existing communities from the bulldozer, to help create a national organization that has facilitated thousands of units of supportive housing for homeless individuals, and to build and staff almost two dozen community centers. Probably the most lasting (and important for me personally) is the impact on the lives of children – KCHA currently houses some 20,000 every night.
Question: Can you give an example of a moment when you realized the work you were doing made an impact on a family, community or group of people?
Answer: My first project at New York’s Housing Department involved legitimizing land tenure for a community of 223 cottages that were essentially squatting on a city-owned property in the South Bronx. I remapped the streets, installed utilities, legalized the houses, organized a Home Owners Association and financed the acquisition of the property by the community and its residents from the City. The day we closed, the siren sounded at the volunteer fire department and people for the first time owned their homes, was a thrill that’s hard to beat.
Question: What advice would you give someone who would like to grow in their career and have the same job as you some day whether it be an Executive Director or advocate. (Career advice, education advice, professional organization?)
Answer: I’m hardly the poster child for higher education but unfortunately I think it is harder today to take the route my career took. Don’t be afraid early on to switch education tracks (and jobs) to gain varied experience – in the long run it makes you better at whatever you do. And spend time in the field – some of my most valuable lessons came from my time as a community organizer. Work with people, share credit, don’t turf, don’t game – in the end its all about the quality of the results.
Question: Finally; what topics would you like to see covered by Housing Futures? What are the main issues of the day that need attention in social housing?
Answer: In the US today the real challenge is to convince people that taxpayer support for affordable housing is truly beneficial to the larger community. That across the board housing stability is an investment that pays-off downstream for everybody. That this is not only morally necessary – but also fiscally prudent. This argument is swimming upstream against prevailing sentiment, but critical. Only government can intervene on the scale necessary to address the failings of the private housing market. Housing Futures can help by making the connections between social housing and education, health, environmental quality and community cohesiveness. I particularly appreciate the global perspective – I think we have a lot to learn from best practices in finance, design, branding and governance from other countries.