Dora Leong Gallo is CEO of A Community of Friends (ACOF), one of only a handful of agencies that offer supportive and service-enriched affordable housing for homeless individuals and families living with mental illness in Los Angeles County.
Gallo and the nonprofit organization focus on developing housing for people who have less than 30% of the area median income (AMI) and have a mental, physical, or developmental disability. ACOF houses more than 2,000 individuals and families in its buildings.
What was your first job in affordable housing? What did it teach you?
My first job in affordable housing was as an intern at the L.A. County Community Development Commission when I was a college undergraduate. The county had just [adopted] a Mobilehome Park Rent Stabilization program, and I was one of two staff in charge of implementing the ordinance. My responsibility was to advise residents of their rights under the new rent-control law. I learned a lot in that job—how to read ordinances, review leases, and explain technical provisions in easier-to-understand language to a wide range of mobile-home owners. They gave me a lot of responsibility. I was 19.
Cite a pivotal moment in your career.
After 12-plus years in local government, I had the opportunity to change jobs. My first two interviews were, believe it or not, with major art institutions, not related at all to housing or community development. Maybe it was because I wanted to use my right brain a little more. Ultimately, while those positions were interesting, I think I realized it was too early to move into the art world as a career, and I ended up at A Community of Friends, where I’ve been ever since.
What’s new at ACOF?
Lots! My board just adopted an ambitious strategic plan that will guide our organization for the next three years. We have four projects in construction and two buildings finishing rehab, and we are ratcheting up our marking and communications efforts.
Tell us about a project that ACOF is developing:
Cedar Springs is a small, 36-unit project we’re finishing up with our partner, David & Margaret Youth and Family Services, in the city of La Verne. The project is unique in a number of ways: It’s largely a supportive-housing project for transitional-age youths and those living with mental illness, with eight units made affordable for low-income families. There’s also a stand-alone retail building that our partner will run as a social enterprise, with job training opportunities.
The project includes a number of environmental features, such as a graywater system that will recycle 900,000 gallons of water a year and a rainwater-recapture system on-site (seven tanks!). All the residential units will run on renewable energy, and there’s solar thermal to heat hot water.
How is ACOF changing?
We are growing by leaps and bounds—in personnel, budget, number of buildings, and number of tenants, and we are expanding geographically as well.
An important lesson you’ve recently learned as a developer:
Great question! There are always lessons to be learned as a developer. One I learned a long time ago is to always have a Plan B. Another I learned recently is that no matter how urgent you think your situation is, don’t make a hasty decision. Even in time-sensitive situations, take a minute to quickly run through the scenario in your mind, to determine whether your decision/action would be the same under normal circumstances.
What issue is keeping you up at night?
ACOF serves people with special needs, primarily individuals and families that have been homeless and whose head of household has a mental illness. Finding ways to fund an appropriate level of services is a constant concern, especially as we continue to increase the number of people served.
In addition to service coordination, we also need to fund case management, substance abuse–recovery services, and children’s programming. Expanding our partnerships and increasing fundraising have been critically important for us.
If you could take a crash course in any subject, what would it be and why?
American Sign Language. Through the years, I’ve known people who were deaf. I would have liked to have communicated with them in their language instead of being dependent on them or expecting them to read my lips.
Favorite way to spend a Saturday:
Being able to sleep in until 8 a.m. is a luxury, followed by a leisurely cup of coffee and catching up on newspapers that have piled up over the past week. I like to cook when I have time, or perhaps explore a museum, followed by dinner out with a great bottle of wine.
Favorite business book:
I don’t read books as much as I used to. But the book that I am halfway through reading and thoroughly enjoying is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. It’s about punctuation (commas, apostrophes, etc), which is so important in business or any kind of writing. The book is pretty hilarious.