SAN FRANCISCO - Diep Do is helping to change the city's tough Tenderloin neighborhood one building at a time. As director of housing development for the nonprofit Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. (TNDC), she has managed several completed projects and is overseeing another 10 in the pipeline.
What's more impressive is that TNDC's developments are far from ordinary. The group focuses almost exclusively on serving extremely low income and formerly homeless households in a city with notoriously high development costs.
Armed with 10 years of experience and an enthusiasm for community development, Do, 34, is getting tough deals done. These factors help make her one of AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE's 2008 Young Leaders.
Housing holds special significance for Do, who was 2 years old when her family emigrated from Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Her family, which included her parents and seven children, settled in San Diego. Despite working hard and saving what they could, her parents were still challenged to find housing, and the large family lived in crowded surroundings.
“I saw that struggle,” Do said. “They instilled in me the meaning of home. A home is more than a structure. It's a place for family gatherings.”
Working in the Tenderloin
Do began her career as an intern at the Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles and also worked as a consultant at the Culver City Redevelopment Agency in Southern California.
She joined TNDC in 1999 as a project manager. Promoted to director of housing development at the end of 2005, Do oversees a team of eight project managers who are responsible for nearly a dozen development projects that are in the works.
“She has taken on an incredible load of responsibility at a young age, handling it with singular aplomb and great courage,” said Don Falk, TNDC executive director.
Do managed the development of the Curran House, the first family housing project developed in the Tenderloin in the past decade. Many people don't think of the area as a neighborhood for families, but 3,500 children live in the Tenderloin. The 67-unit Curran House, which has earned 10 national and local awards, is helping to serve many of those families.
Do also worked on the complicated rehabilitation of The Dalt Hotel, an aging 179-unit residential hotel occupied by very low income individuals. The rehab work, which was done while the building was occupied, included a seismic retrofit, safetycode upgrades, unit improvements, and the creation of a new community room.
During this project, Do worked closely with residents who were suspicious of TNDC's intentions and wanted to be left alone. It was a difficult and tense situation, but she stuck with the project, slowly building good will and developing relationships with the residents.
She didn't try to sugarcoat the situation. Do told the residents that the rehab wouldn't be easy and their lives would be disrupted.
“The deft way that Diep handled it was beautiful,” Falk said. “Her whole style is understated and modest, yet she is dynamic and even charismatic, and because her commitment to affordable housing comes from such a deep place, she simply persevered in listening to people, responding to their concerns, fashioning a project that would minimally impact them, and altogether winning them over.”
Do's involvement stretches beyond TNDC. She serves on the board of the Non- Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH), an advocacy and policy group that serves as a voice for developers and others in the affordable housing business. She also serves on the board of the Council of Community Housing Organizations and is a volunteer at Hospitality House, a social-services agency in the Tenderloin.
“She's clearly committed to this field,” said Dianne Spaulding, NPH executive director, noting young leaders are especially critical now because a large number of nonprofit executives are nearing retirement.
The loss of leaders is a big issue for the overall nonprofit sector. Nearly 2,000 executive directors of nonprofits of all kinds in eight cities said they did not plan on being in their positions in five years, according to a 2006 survey by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and The Meyer Foundation.
Do not only has nuts-and-bolts development experience, she's got the right academic background for her field, Spaulding said. Do has a master's degree in urban planning and a bachelor's in urban studies, with an Asian-American studies minor, from the University of California, Los Angeles.
“She can sit and listen to a policy discussion and really understand how it's going to affect her in an applied setting,” Spaulding said.
Do serves on a new NPH task force that will examine issues surrounding developer fees.
Seeing the good
For Do, TNDC has been a good fit. “What has kept me here is the people,” she said, praising her colleagues. She said together they share similar values and a common mission to provide housing.
She has also grown fond of a neighborhood that many people ignore or know only by the bad news coming from its streets. Behind the stigma that is attached to the neighborhood, there is a close-knit community, Do said.
“People who don't live and work in the Tenderloin don't see the good aspects,” she said. “It is a good community.”
One afternoon in 2001, Jeremy Liu encouraged locals to drive their cars in circles around the site of the planned Archstone Boston Common luxury apartment tower here. The resulting traffic jam was street theater with a point: If Archstone-Smith wanted to bring more than 300 new cars to Chinatown, shouldn't they also provide a substantial amount of affordable housing? The finished 420- unit tower now includes 46 affordable apartments.
For Liu, performance art, community organizing, and building affordable housing all have something in common. He calls it “the transformative power of bringing people together.”
As executive director of Asian Community Development Corp. (ACDC), Liu, 36, is leading a drive to create a national call center that will connect homeowners in trouble with Asian-language housing counselors across the country. Another ACDC project will create a data map on the Web of opportunities coming to Chinatown, from jobs to new buildings.
And then there are buildings like the Metropolitan, ACDC's own Chinatown tower where sales of penthouse condominiums helped cover the cost of creating supportive rental housing for chronically homeless adults in the same building. ACDC is now assembling building permits for a second 325-unit tower nearby.
From the creation of mixed-income buildings to the sponsorship of Kung Fu movie screenings on a vacant lot in Chinatown, Liu's work helps create the kind of cross-pollination that allows neighborhoods to thrive.
Leading the Way in Rural Minnesota
For many cities in Southwest Minnesota, meeting Lisa Graphenteen is the first step in addressing their housing needs.
As community development director for the nonprofit Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP), Graphenteen works with local governments and large employers in rural areas to plan and execute affordable housing developments.
“Lisa is our front person, really the face of the organization,” said Rick Goodemann, SWMHP's executive director. “She's recognized by many cities and agencies in Minnesota as a regional leader.”
Graphenteen's career began with an internship at the Southwest Regional Development Commission (SWMHP's sister organization) while studying for a local and urban affairs degree at St. Cloud State University.
She then spent four years working on affordable housing and homeless prevention issues for the Central Minnesota Housing Partnership (CMHP).
Before she had turned 30, Graphenteen had already testified several times before the state's legislature on homeless prevention and workforce housing issues, representing CMHP.
Graphenteen, now 34, recently took the lead on two new tax credit developments, a 30-unit project in Pipestone and a 24-unit deal in Worthington. She worked closely with two of the area's top employers, which were bussing employees from up to 60 miles away due to the lack of nearby rental housing. Both projects are green developments and include a supportive housing component.
Graphenteen also does advance marketing for SWMHP. For instance, she established a relationship with the city of Mankato, Minn., where SWMHP is now working on a 101-unit public housing development. She was also involved in the SWMHP's Viking Terrace project, which was nominated for AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE's 2007 Readers' Choice Award.