Shannon Nazworth is president and CEO of Ability Housing, a nonprofit based in Jacksonville, Fla., that focuses on developing affordable and supportive housing for low-income residents, including some of the most vulnerable—families and individuals who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness, seniors, veterans, and adults who have a disability.
Under her leadership, Ability Housing’s portfolio has grown from a group home providing housing for six adults with development disabilities and 15 scattered-site houses to more than 500 units housing more than 1,200 Floridians.
In 2019, the nonprofit completed two new affordable housing developments that nearly doubled its portfolio: the 166-unit Village on Mercy in Orlando and the 80-unit Hyde Park in Jacksonville.
What are some lessons you learned on these two developments?
It reinforced for me that having the right team—the architect, the general contractor, property manager, and the funders—is critical to all be in line and marching together to make this happen. The partners and the service organizations, I can’t commend them enough for how hard everyone worked. For the Village on Mercy project, we had almost every unit leased before Christmas and every unit leased before the end of the year so all of those families started the new year in a brand-new place to live, and over half of them had been homeless. They got to start 2020 with a safe, secure home. It was a lot of hard work and everybody on the team kicked butt to get across the finish line. There’s something about real estate, the last 10% is always the hardest, but we all collectively pushed and pushed. When we got to see the families moving in, the kids playing on the playground, the bikes on the racks—all the things that make a home a home—was fabulous.
What skills have helped you the most in your career?
I think honestly finance. You really need to understand the numbers, especially if you’re going to do affordable housing with all of the IRS technicalities and all of the budgets and pro formas and the like with the housing finance agencies as well as understanding long-term operating needs financially to make sure projects are very successful. I also think the ability to work with others. Again, we are creating projects that are designed to serve the people, and it’s critical to have partnerships so that residents have access to resources so they can move out of our housing as quickly as they want to so that they are successful in their career path and their children’s education. Having those skills to build those partnerships and those bridges are important.
What do you think developers, even experienced ones, could do to be better?
We all can always be trying to remember that we’re using public resources, and we need to use them to the highest and best use. Being as prudent as possible without skimping on quality is really important. We have to create as much quality housing as possible with every dollar that is allocated to it. We need a triple bottom line: We want to keep the physical asset strong, we want to meet our financial obligations, and we want the resident outcome to be the best possible. We need to make sure everybody has these priorities in place to foster the quality of life for the residents to the best degree possible. We can always all do better with that.
What’s a valuable lesson you can pass on to other developers?
My most valuable lessons are to have a good team and remember why you’re doing this. Keep your eye on the prize, focus on the people, and then the rest will work itself out.