Betty Tamm is executive director of the Umpqua Community Development Corp. (CDC) in Roseburg, Ore.
When she joined the group in 1996, it had just 30 housing units and two employees. Today, Umpqua CDC boasts more than 400 units, with more in the pipeline, and 40 employees.
But the numbers don't tell the whole story. The nonprofit organization has been behind some of the area's most innovative developments in the area, including breathing new life into old buildings like Roseburg's Grand Hotel, a building that sat empty for 45 years. The group has also developed apartments for many special-needs groups, including victims of domestic violence and people with traumatic brain injuries.
Tamm tells us about her latest project, the challenges ahead, and where we would find her when she's not working.
Q: What motivated you to work in affordable housing?
A: Opportunity. I was attracted to projects that have community development, human, or society benefits so I applied for a grant writing position at Umpqua CDC thinking that I could be helpful raising money for an organization like this. Nine months later, to my surprise, I was the executive director, but I still knew little about affordable housing. One benefit to starting with no knowledge was that I didn't know there were a lot of folks out there who could help—so I learned by doing it myself. This industry is amazingly supportive, and I was able to learn on the job. On-the-job training turned out to be a big advantage when negotiating future projects.
Q: What industry issue is keeping you up at night?
A: The tax credit and investment market is causing sleepless nights. Umpqua CDC serves rural communities so our projects have little appeal for tax credit investors; they are small, rural, preservation projects. The current market allows investors to cherry-pick projects with the best return for their time and money; generally big, urban, or new construction investments. This puts us at a significant disadvantage.
Q: What is the biggest challenge confronting Umpqua CDC this year, and how will you overcome that challenge?
A: Meeting payroll while keeping staff from working too hard or suffering too much stress in this economy. I asked my current staff to describe their jobs to a brand new staff member. One of my staff members said she “cries a lot”. She is one of our foreclosure counselors and is feeling intensely the pain of her clients. Oregon was slow to feel the effects of the economic downturn, with lower than average foreclosures last fall. However, we are now feeling the lag effect, with companies shedding jobs in droves this spring. Our resource and manufacturing-based economy is hit hard. We've escalated to fifth in the nation on per capita foreclosures, and our local unemployment rate is 18.7 percent. So our challenge is to try to meet new community needs, train more staff to help with foreclosure counseling, and seek new resources to support this need. Fortunately, I'm finding that there are some foundations and funders who recognize the unique needs we are facing in 2009, and they are showing some willingness to fund nonprofit operations in ways that they have never done before.
Q: Tell us about one of your latest developments
A: I enjoy the challenge of projects with high complexity and multiple benefits, especially projects that blend creating affordable housing with restoring historic buildings, or those that include a community and economic benefit by eliminating blight or brownfields. One of our current projects does all the above. The Hotel North Bend was the biggest and the ugliest building in North Bend on the Oregon Coast. It was half empty and derelict, dragging down the marketability and the economy of the downtown. It had an in-ground bunker C fuel oil tank in the basement that was half full but had been ignored for 30 years. It had asbestos, and it needed seismic upgrades. However, the architecture was beautiful, and the views of the bay from the residential units were stunning. It will be a centerpiece of the city, and will provide three commercial and 33 residential units in this rural city. Plus, with construction started in mid-2008, it is providing employment for over 100 tradespeople for 15 months, an unexpected benefit in our current economy.
Q: What's a favorite amenity or design feature at one of your projects?
A: Preserved wetlands. We have set aside wetlands and created attractive open spaces. In one development, we amassed several tiny wetlands onto one lot and then donated it to the city. In exchange, the city waived the System Development Charges and added another parcel to ours, creating a park with a pathway that wanders through native wetland plants. Our residents can now take the safe and attractive path as a shortcut to the commercial district.
Q: What makes Umpqua CDC unique from other CDCs?
A: We are recognized as one of the most entrepreneurial and innovative nonprofits in Oregon. We find ways to initiate unusual projects that are environmental and customer friendly; we don't shy away from challenging projects and we take calculated risks. We understand the relationship between jobs and housing and focus our energy on asset building and economic development. This mode of operating has yielded a diversity of programs such that even in this economic downturn several programs are thriving. We serve small rural communities in a traditionally distressed region of Oregon. This diversity has sponsored our survival.
Q: What was your very first job?
A: My first job was teaching gymnastics and coaching a girls gymnastics team. This put me through grad school.
Q: What's the best business advice that you have received?
A: Cut your losses. I have a soft heart and tend to agonize about staff separations. One of my supportive board members reminded me that there are times when one has to cut one's losses. The other critical piece of advice is: Tell your story. It is the stories of the people whose lives we transform that remind us all why we do what we do.
Q: Besides the usual work papers, what's in your office?
A: Each memento that we've given away at each of our grand openings. There must be 18 of them on my counter.
Q: If you unexpectedly had the day off, where would we find you?
A: On my kayak on one of Oregon 's coastal lakes, and, if my husband had any input, it would be somewhere where there is no cell phone or e-mail connectivity.
Q: What's the latest book that you read?
A: “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. It helped me see how drive and reasonable intelligence need to be paired with luck or opportunity to create the incredibly successful individuals that are found throughout society.
Q: What industry Web sites or blogs are must-reads for you?
A: NeighborWorks. It portrays industry trends, training and funding opportunities, upbeat stories of outcomes, and realistic representation of housing and community development in this country.