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Credit: Tim Klein

At the MacArthur Foundation, Julia Stasch is responsible for millions of dollars in grants that are helping preserve affordable housing and better explaining housing’s role beyond shelter.

CHICAGO—Developer. Housing commissioner. Grantmaker.

Julia Stasch has been all three during her influential career. In her roles, she has been an advocate for women and minorities and a champion for affordable housing.

For the past nine years, she has been vice president of the program on human and community development at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She is responsible for millions of dollars in grants, including those aimed at increasing access to affordable housing.

Last year, the Foundation awarded $32.5 million to 12 states and cities to launch innovative projects to preserve more than 70,000 affordable rental units. It is part of MacArthur's ambitious $150 million Window of Opportunity initiative to save housing at risk of losing its affordability.

Stasch's program awarded $6 million this year to 13 institutions to explore how affordable housing matters to children, families, and communities. They were the first awards under a new $25 million initiative that looks to deepen our understanding of the importance of housing.

“We think there needs to be a more robust body of evidence on what really is housing's role in not only housing outcomes but in outcomes related to educational attainment, attachment to the job force, health, and family stability,” Stasch says.

From secretary to president

Stasch began her real estate career as a secretary and one of the first four employees at the Chicago-based development firm Stein & Co. in 1977. When she left in 1996, she was president, and the business had grown to 220 employees.

The firm was responsible for a number of prominent projects in Chicago, including the Metcalfe Federal Building and the expansion of McCormick Place, the city's convention facility.

Stasch insisted that women and minorities be part of the firm's construction workforce. The company had a policy for contractors to meet affirmative-action goals. As a result, Stein was known for employing about three times as many women as the industry average.

Stasch showed early on that she wasn't afraid to cut her own path. She dropped out of college to join Volunteers in Service to America and tutor high school dropouts on an Indian reservation in Arizona.

She eventually returned home to Illinois, where she worked during the day and took classes at night. It took 10 years, but she eventually graduated summa cum laude from Loyola University. She also has a master's degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Transforming Chicago

After Stein, Stasch held several notable posts, including deputy administrator of the General Services Administration during the first Clinton administration.

Stasch also worked in the public sector in Chicago, where she was at the center of overhauling Chicago's public housing.

Prior to joining MacArthur, she served as commissioner of Chicago's Department of Housing and then as chief of staff for Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“Julia Stasch has devoted much of her outstanding career to increasing access to quality, affordable housing in Chicago,” says Daley. “As my housing commissioner, she directed the first five-year affordable housing plan that guided the creation of almost 50,000 units of affordable housing, and set a standard for planning and accountability that has continued through four subsequent housing plans. As my chief of staff, she helped oversee the design and negotiation of the $1.5 billion Plan for Transformation of public housing in Chicago.”

With Stasch in the lead on behalf of the mayor, the city put together a transformation program that led to the demolition of the public housing high-rises that had become unlivable and created new neighborhoods that would be able to sustain themselves over the years, says Andrew Mooney, executive director of LISC Chicago.

“She has a unique way of being able to combine policy and practice,” he says. “Both policy and practice are better because of her.”