Tell us about you.
Most of my experience for 25 years was in corporate communications and public relations for national organizations. I was public relations director for US Airways and for the National Aquarium in Baltimore; VP of public relations for Priceline.com; and communications director for the VCU Massey Cancer Center.
I volunteered on the Better Housing Coalition?s resource development committee for four years. My predecessor was recruited to head up another local housing organization, so the CEO asked me to apply for her position. I joined BHC in January 2012.
Tell us about the focus of your organization and your work.
We recognize that housing is the foundation of community prosperity. The need for affordable housing in Greater Richmond is critical. Our mission is to change lives and transform communities through high-quality, affordable housing. The Better Housing Coalition (BHC) has developed and manages 15 communities of multi-family homes, eight of which are for low-income seniors. We also build or renovate single-family homes for first-time buyers. Our homes fit into the neighborhood character, are aesthetically pleasing and are built to high standards of environmental sustainability.
We also provide social support services for our residents such as out-of-school programs for kids, health and wellness programs for seniors, and skills training for adults. As a result, we have helped children become the first in their families go to college, no teen pregnancies among program participants (including the boys), seniors are reducing their blood pressure and blood sugar and exercising more, and adults are becoming more self-sufficient.
BHC serves as a catalyst for other developers to invest in communities, too. Typically our investments in high-quality housing are leveraged three to four times by private developers. In the last 25 years, our $350M investment in housing has stimulated more than $1B in additional economic development, and our work has helped to stabilize and transform many neighborhoods and reduce blight and crime.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
On the people side, I love seeing the ?firsts,? such as kids taking their first field trip or their first service project. I enjoy meeting people who became the first in their families to own a home. We recently sold a home to couple in their 70s who never thought they?d become homeowners in their lifetime.
I enjoy the story-telling aspect of my work. Photos tell a good part of the story from a before-and-after perspective, but the human interest stories grab me. As an example, one of our older disabled residents used to live in a non-accessible home where the landlord didn?t make repairs, and she was trapped inside the house for lack of mobility. She took 31 pills a day and said she was literally sitting around, waiting to die.
After moving to one of our apartment communities, she now has great access, lots of activities, and her health has improved dramatically. She is down to 5 pills a day. Having the opportunity to talk to folks like her recharges me and reminds me that this really is life-changing work.
What is a major challenge you have faced in your work and how did you handle it?
BHC has an aging donor base. It?s small and fiercely loyal, but we need to expand it to sustain our growth. We started a junior board (called 3HC) that is developing some activities for the 20- and 30-somethings, and I am looking at ways to reach the 40- and 50-somethings.
A lesson learned, believe it or not, is asking for money. It wasn?t part of my DNA before. We give community bus tours to prospective donors, which illustrates in a very tangible way the impact we have on area neighborhoods. My predecessor always did a great job directly stating that we need money to do the complex work that we do. I danced around ?the ask? the first few times. By my third tour, I finally found words that felt comfortable. Rather than asking folks directly for money, I said that I hope they agree that we are worthy of their future support. That approach seems to be paying off, and it?s easy to follow up with a written appeal.
What?s coming next for you and/or for your organization that really excites you?
We are undergoing a CEO transition this summer. Our one and only CEO, T.K. Somanath, is retiring, and we will miss his vision and passion. Fortunately, our search committee really hit a home run in hiring Greta Harris as the new CEO. She has been in community development at the national level, but her roots are in Richmond and she knows all the local leaders and partners.