Willie Jones has always worked to make a difference. That’s just who he is.
Before he was old enough to go to the polls, he was taking part in voter registration drives in the segregated South where he was raised. When he graduated from college, he dreamed of being a union president.
As a young man living in Detroit in the 1980s, he worked with his neighbors to repair the boarded buildings on his block. When he later moved to Boston, he fought redlining, the evil practice of denying mortgages in certain neighborhoods based on race.
And, most notably, for nearly 30 years, he developed affordable housing in some of the nation’s most broken neighborhoods.
“I’m not great at anything, but I’m good at several things,” says Jones, who recently retired as senior vice president, regions, at The Community Builders (TCB). “Development is a multi-disciplinary environment. It touches on several pieces of who you are. I felt this was a job that really stretched me and challenged me to learn all the time.”
He’s never stopped and counted, but he estimates that he has been involved in the development of 4,000 affordable housing units. His work includes leading or influencing the 15 HOPE VI projects that TCB has taken on to redevelop some of the most distressed public housing projects in the nation.
For his longtime work, he is being inducted into Affordable Housing Finance's Hall of Fame.
Becoming a developer
Jones,63, grew up on his family’s tobacco farm in South Hill, Va. He worked on the farm and attended the same two-room elementary school as did his grandmother and his father. When he was 14, he earned a scholarship through the A Better Chance program to attend an elite prep school in New Hampshire.
“My parents being people of incredible wisdom made the sacrifice to allow me to go there,” Jones says. “It was one of the things that changed the course of my life.”
Jones would go on to graduate from Brown University with a degree in sociology, concentrating in urban planning. After college, he drove a city bus for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for several years. He then moved to Detroit, where he worked at an auto plant, helping build Ford Broncos. On the side, he worked part-time as a software engineer before taking over that small firm’s practice.
In 1984, Jones and his wife relocated to Boston, where he served as an assistant to the dean at the College of Engineering at Northeastern University.
Redlining was still being practiced, and Jones was denied a mortgage to buy a home in the Roxbury neighborhood. A group of activists came together and formed the Greater Roxbury Neighborhood Authority to stop an effort similar to urban renewal in the area. The organization then began working on the redlining issue and initiated the call to create the Community Investment Coalition, which Jones was the board chairman. The banks eventually changed their policies, and Jones purchased a home in Roxbury.
He was soon introduced to TCB. He recalls going into the Boston-based nonprofit’s offices and seeing blueprints on the tables. His days working at the auto plant taught him how to read technical drawings, so he showed a knack for understanding building blueprints. He joined the organization in 1986 as a project associate.
Developing affordable housing became the perfect vehicle to channel his skills and fulfill his desire to make a difference.
“It’s hard to find work where you are able to bring a love of equality for the oppressed, people who have come up disadvantaged,” he says. “How do you give them a level playing field?”
As senior vice president he managed the full range of real estate services that TCB offers, including new project and program development, managing planning and entitlements on all new projects, evaluating business opportunities, and assisting in corporate policy development.
One example of his work is the Villages at Park DuValle in Louisville, Ky. The HOPE VI development has transformed Louisville’s most crime-ridden and distressed neighborhood into a new safe and attractive community. The revitalization effort included developing more than 1,000 mixed-income rental and homeownership units.
He was a pioneer of the HOPE VI program, says Bart Mitchell, TCB president and CEO, explaining that Jones’ influence extends beyond those completed by the organization.
“The successful ability to introduce mixed-income housing to former public housing sites at this scale was unprecedented, and the best practices that Willie established—in great design, in sequencing the introducing of mixed-income housing, in partnering with housing authorities, and in creating meaningful chances for local and minority business to participate in business growth opportunities—continue to shape neighborhood-scale redevelopment across the country today,” he says.
Jones also served as the lead writer of a successful Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 application, which resulted in TCB receiving $78 million to revitalize distressed neighborhoods in nine states 2010.
TCB’s housing and mixed-use developments will stand for years to come, lasting monuments to Jones’ work. He has also made a difference in another important way. During his career, Jones shaped the next generation of affordable housing builders by serving as a mentor to dozens and dozens of affordable housing project managers and development directors of all races at TCB and throughout this country.
One of those professionals is Chrystal Kornegay, undersecretary of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. One of her early jobs was as a project manager at TCB in the 1990s.
“Willie stressed that everybody brings value,” says Kornegay. “You need to recognize what that value is, even if it doesn’t come in a way you are accustomed to seeing it,” she says.
Jones and his wife, Pam, who recently retired as director of policy and planning of the Boston Public Health Commission, have three children.
Although he has retired, Jones hasn’t slowed down. He is pursuing a master’s degree in theology at Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, N.C., near Charlotte. He is assisting church groups to become more active in the redevelopment of their neighborhoods, and he’s also looking at creating better ways to reintegrate formerly incarcerated people into communities.
The common theme is service to communities in their quest for social and economic justice.
“Theology has provided a comprehensive framework for the mission-driven work at The Community Builders, for revitalizing neighborhoods where churches are anchor institutions, and where returning citizens need support in successfully integrating or re-integrating into a community,” Jones says.