MEET RENEE ROOKER, executive director of the Walla Walla (Wash.) Housing Authority. She has led the agency since 1991, and during her tenure, the organization has received local and national recognition for its housing and economic development programs.
Rooker recently has stepped into another role. She was elected president of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO), a membership organization of 22,000 housing and community development agencies and professionals.
Q: One of your experiences is working in a rural Korean orphanage. Tell us about that time and how it influenced you.
A: I lived in a rural village about 20 miles south of the DMZ for a year when I was 18. Home sweet home was an 8-by-10 dwelling with no indoor plumbing, and charcoal was used for both heating and cooking. I washed clothes by hand, used the local bath house, and purchased food at the local outdoor market. My time at the orphanage was as a volunteer. The children that lived there were of mixed blood and lucky to be alive. At that time, a good percentage of children of mixed descent were killed at birth. The children were so loving and trusting, just wanting hugs and attention. I wanted to adopt them all. The whole experience made me appreciate being an American and not taking for granted what I have. From that experience I have a greater appreciation of the quality of life and how I live it.
Q: What's an innovative move that your agency has recently made that others in the industry may learn from?
A: We are taking the lead in our community by shrinking the lots and incorporating green design for multi- and single-family construction. Multifamily properties are in very short supply in our area, so we are land banking infill lots that can accommodate increased multiple units for future construction. This strategy not only eliminates dilapidated housing and vacant lots but also assists in being a catalyst for change in marginal neighborhoods. This direction is cutting-edge for our community.
Q: How is the Walla Walla Housing Authority changing?
A: We are looking at housing as being more of a part of neighborhoods versus projects. We are integrating designs that are green and that do not bear the signature of low-income housing. Our organization is working hard to change the image of being the housing of last resort, but instead [being] an organization that provides viable housing options for income-challenged families. We are all about partners-the more the merrier-to accomplish our mission.
Q: What will be the biggest challenge for you and the agency this year?
A: I feel we have two huge challenges before us. One, given the constant federal disinvestment in operating and capital funds for low-rent public housing, is to develop an implementable plan that will sustain this part of our portfolio for the long haul. The second challenge will be to secure funding at a price that makes affordable housing developments work given the current financial market conditions.
Q: What are your goals as president of NAHRO?
A: To strengthen the organization both internally and externally so that it is positioned to provide continued excellent service to our industry and its members for the next 75 years.
Q: What inspires you?
A: A challenge. When I am told I am unable to accomplish a goal, I am more than determined to make it happen.
Q: What's the best business advice that you have received?
A: To remain focused on the end goal and not allow outside forces to distract you to the point that you are unable to achieve the goal. You have to believe.
Q: If you unexpectedly had the afternoon off, where would we find you?
A: I would be on a nice long hike in the nearby Blue Mountains, taking in nature at its best. Several places on the hike provide an opportunity to look over the entire Walla Walla valley.
Q: Besides the usual work papers, what's on your desk?
A: A bouquet of pink tulips. They brighten any day.
Q: If you could meet anyone, who would it be and why?
A: I would like to sit down and have a conversation with Penn State's head football coach, Joe Paterno. It would be interesting to find out what drives him to hold this position for 42 seasons with as much enthusiasm as if it was the first season. I would also like to learn how he has successfully merged academics, sports, and his convictions to make him such an effective leader.
Q: What's next for Renee Rooker?
A: I want to continue advocating for responsible housing and community development policies that respond to the needs of families and communities. I want us to be a stronger nation because of it. This is where my passion is, and I find it rewarding that I can make a contribution, however small it may be. On a lighter note, I am planning on throwing in a few of days of deep-sea fishing in Alaska to catch "the big one."