RICHMOND, VA. Former transportation engineer Monique Johnson, 32, owes her entry into the affordable housing industry to serendipity. She soon realized that attracting other young talent to the field requires more than just luck.
Johnson has since undertaken an effort to recruit and retain future leaders— which is why she has been named one of AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE’s 2008 Young Leaders.
Now a community housing officer at the Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA), where she relishes helping community development corporations (CDCs) and small developers put together affordable housing deals, Johnson almost missed her true calling.
“Everybody said I was good at math and science so I went the engineering path,” said Johnson, who graduated from the University of Virginia in 1997 with a degree in civil engineering. “But after a couple of years, I realized it wasn’t my passion.”
By happenstance, Johnson came across an article highlighting local CDCs. “There was a profile about an executive director of a nonprofit, and I saw that he was a civil engineer,” said Johnson. “I thought, ‘Wow! He has an engineering background, and he is able to use those skills while making a difference in the community.’ Before that I was clueless about the industry.”
Eager to know more, Johnson arranged for an informational interview. The conversation ended with Johnson accepting a position as an assistant construction manager at the Better Housing Coalition, a nonprofit housing developer of multifamily and single-family properties.
“I moved up to project manager and senior project manager,” said Johnson of her three years there, during which time she also earned an MBA from the University of Richmond. “I really felt like I was making a difference in the lives of the families we served. It was a great experience and my springboard into affordable housing.”
In 2003, Johnson left the Better Housing Coalition to become the director of real estate development for a tiny CDC working on neighborhood revitalization.
“It was a big challenge to move that organization in a different direction,” recalled Johnson. “They were doing maybe two house renovations a year, and we got up to 10 by the time I left. I gained a whole new appreciation for smaller organizations as well as an interest in helping them to build their capacity.”
Latasha Hall, now a housing manager for Loudon County, interned as Johnson’s part-time development assistant there and benefited greatly from working with such a strong leader.
“Monique shaped my work ethic. Monique told me, ‘You have a computer, the files, and the research. If you have questions, you can ask me. But you are in grad school, and I know you are smart. I trust you to figure things out.’ I learned so much because I wasn’t handheld. I became very independent, which has made me very valuable in the workplace,” said Hall. “After three months under her leadership, I was offered a job as project manager.”
Johnson left that CDC in 2005 to take her current position at the VHDA. But she didn’t forget the challenges faced by younger staff at small, often nonprofit, organizations.
“I see many young people who are interested in affordable housing and community development but who don’t feel like they have the resources or relationships necessary to stay connected. We end up losing good people.”
To help increase awareness about the opportunities and challenges within the industry, Johnson enlisted a band of volunteers to form the steering committee for the Emerging Housing Leaders Network (EHLN).
EHLN has since sponsored networking socials, coordinated tours of commercial development projects, organized a panel session for the 2007 Governor’s Housing Conference on “Engaging the Next Generation of Community Development Leaders,” and launched a College Outreach Initiative at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The group is also partnering with Richmond Urban Land Institute’s Young Leaders to host an affordable housing event, working with the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank’s Department of Community Affairs to host professional development seminars for emerging leaders, and continuing the College Outreach Initiative at universities statewide.
Brandi Collins, an urban planner with the city of Alexandria who serves on the EHLN steering committee, said Johnson’s extensive industry expertise allows her to facilitate sometimes tricky conversations between generations.
“I think there’s a big disconnect between the seasoned leaders and the emerging leaders,” said Collins. “And there is a lack of secession planning, mentoring, and personnel development to help my cohort take the reins when today’s directors are ready to retire. We need to help the seasoned leaders realize that there is value in bringing us up alongside them so we can continue their work.”
“There also is a need for emerging leaders for networking to connect with each other so we don’t feel disconnected and alone. When you graduate from college, you are excited to enter the workforce and embark on a new phase of your life,” said Collins.
“But there’s also a great deal of anxiety and isolation: You’re the new person on board, and you don’t know as much as everybody else. So it’s a great comfort to meet other people who are new and excited to contribute to the field. We are eager to come together and trade ideas—and we’ve made a lot of headway in that group from Monique’s leadership.”
Chris Hite is so passionate about the affordable housing business that he and wife Kristen named their daughter Georgia.
Hite, acquisitions director and legal counsel for St. Louis-based Sugar Creek Realty, has spent a lot of time in Georgia over the past couple of years in an effort to help the Georgia Affordable Housing Coalition pass legislation that would allow state tax credits to be transferred or sold from the original investor to a secondary-market buyer. The bill failed in the Senate, and the coalition will try pushing it through next year.
Hite, 33, is one of AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE’s 2008 Young Leaders.
One of Hite’s goals is to help make all states’ low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) more efficient. “That would have increased the equity to affordable housing projects at no cost to the state,” said Hite, referring to the Georgia bill. “Currently, credits can only be allocated, and that causes the credits to be worth less to investors.”
Hite grew up in Clinton, Mo. His father developed housing that was financed by the now-defunct Farmers Home Administration. Hite snagged a clerkship at the Missouri Housing Development Commission when he was a first-year law student and never looked back.
Sugar Creek is a state LIHTC syndicator that also provides asset management and consulting services and owns and manages some affordable properties. Hite has doubled the firm’s annual tax credit investments since becoming acquisitions director in 2006 and has offered free classes to nonprofit groups to help them understand the maze of affordable housing compliance.
“Who doesn’t enjoy working with nonprofits?” said Hite. “At the end of the day, you know you’ve done a good thing.”
Nobody keeps a gazillion plates spinning like Michael Torreyson. Torreyson doesn’t do his show on a Las Vegas stage, but out of the Charleston Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Field Office. That’s where he is supervisory project manager of the Charleston Multifamily Program Center. “We’ve had significant turnover in our office. We’ve had the highest ratio of projects for a project manager,” said Torreyson. “I have 75 to 100 projects for which I do the loan servicing.”
Within HUD, the average is about 60 projects. The 28-yearold also works as the office’s mortgage credit analyst. He’s reviewed $100 million in loans. But it’s not just a job to Torreyson; affordable housing is a passion. “Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time on Amazon.com searching for old housing books,” said Torreyson. “I’m buying used books from the late ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. It’s amazing the deals you can get for under a dollar. Some of the best books I’ve read have been critiques on HUD programs.”
In his spare time, Torreyson is creating a training session that reviews all of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insurance programs. He intends to cover the history of the creation of the various FHA multifamily mortgage insurance programs and the results of each program as well as review and assess the comments of scholars and industry representatives regarding the loan programs.
“Multifamily is the best part of HUD because we have such great products,” said Torreyson.
Torreyson is definitely one of the best parts of HUD, and that’s why he was chosen as one of AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE’s 2008 Young Leaders.