Carol Galante takes on the tough jobs. That’s what she’s done throughout a career dedicated to providing affordable housing.

Carol Galante
Carol Galante

She’s developed thousands of units in one of the nation’s most expensive regions, helmed the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in the years following the housing crash, and now she’s grooming the next generation of leaders. Each role has put Galante in the center of making housing more affordable for low- and middle-income families.

“I’m one of those people who fortunately found that passion for what they want to do pretty early,” she says, tracing her interest back to an urban geography class while an undergraduate at Ohio Wesleyan University.

She didn’t know she would work in affordable housing then, but Galante was hooked on the idea of marrying place making and development with social purpose. Perhaps, this desire goes back even further.

A favorite childhood toy was a wooden peg board populated with little wooden light poles, homes, and other items. “I remember it well,” says Galante, who grew up in a working-class family in Pennsylvania. Her father, who didn’t graduate from high school, worked for the telephone company, and his father was a stone mason. Galante’s mother, who went to college when her children were in elementary school, became a teacher.

Focus on impact

That grit was passed down to Galante, who’s been known to say that if a job was easy somebody else would have done it.

She’s always been willing to take on the hard stuff, which often translates to delivering high impact, according to Ben Metcalf, director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

“She has a really good sixth sense about knowing where she could push a little bit harder than anybody else is willing to,” he says.

Galante has never been one for doing something just for show. Instead, she’s focused on delivering results by combining a strong desire to make a difference with a healthy dose of pragmatism, says Metcalf, who worked with Galante at BRIDGE Housing, a top San Francisco–based nonprofit developer, and then at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“She would go big, but she would do work that would actually get done,” he says, citing her ability to mobilize diverse stakeholders around transforming a distressed industrial neighborhood in Oakland into a new residential community when she was at BRIDGE Housing and her work pushing through a portfolio conversion of the city of San Francisco's public housing inventory through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) when she was at HUD.

After serving as vice president at BRIDGE, she was named president of the organization following the sudden and tragic 1996 death of the organization's co-founder, housing icon Don Terner. He died when a plane carrying a delegation led by Ron Brown, U.S. secretary of commerce, crashed in Croatia.

It was a tough position for anyone to be thrust into, but Galante stepped up to lead BRIDGE through this challenging time. “It didn’t just happen to me, it happened to the entire staff,” she says.

First, she worked to be a stabilizing force for the organization and then steadily grew BRIDGE Housing to be one of California’s top affordable housing developers and owners, building cutting-edge communities in Oakland, San Francisco, and other cities.

After nearly 20 years at BRIDGE, she joined the Obama administration first as deputy assistant secretary at HUD and then assistant secretary and FHA commissioner at a time when the nation was recovering from the economic crisis. Once again, she had to be a stabilizing force, working to bolster FHA’s single-family loans and other programs during a turbulent period.

On the single-family side, she oversaw the Distressed Asset Stabilization Program, which helped thousands of people remain in their homes while helping FHA get payments from these properties instead of taking them through foreclosure.

On the multifamily side, Galante helped craft and implement several programs, including RAD, which gave public housing authorities, as well as owners of properties that utilized three HUD legacy programs, a new tool to preserve their developments and begin address a daunting $26 billion backlog of deferred maintenance.

“Carol is a treasure, whose visionary, relentless leadership has transformed lives and communities in the Bay Area and across the country,” says Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader. “Whether developing affordable housing in the Bay Area, helping families recover from the foreclosure crisis, or supporting ground-breaking new models to bring affordable, quality housing to working families, Carol has spent a lifetime defending the dignity and humanity of every person. Our nation continues to be enriched by her leadership and service.”

The San Francisco Housing Authority was at the front end of using RAD on a portfoliowide basis. With much of the success of the new program hinging on what happened there, Galante worked through the complexities to see that RAD worked on a portfolio basis in San Francisco as well as other communities.

After six years in Washington D.C., Galante returned to the Bay Area, where she lives with her husband, James Roberts, an attorney. They have two grown sons.

Galante is on the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned a master’s degree in city and regional planning. She leads the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, which works to develop new strategies to house families from all walks of life in vibrant affordable homes and communities.

She also teaches a housing policy course as well as a studio class that brings together architecture and other students to compete in designing and financing an affordable housing project. The class brings Galante back to her developer roots and allows her to pass along her expertise with a new generation. Her advice for people coming up in the industry is don’t let the existing systems stifle your creativity.

“I feel that the industry has gotten maybe a little too routine,” she says. “We need thinkers who are going to push the envelope more and push the decision makers and the policy makers on how we can do this better.”