A longtime community development leader, Bev Bates has helped develop more than 20,000 housing units for needy individuals and families.

For the past 35 years, she’s been a cornerstone of The Community Builders (TCB), one of the nation’s largest nonprofit affordable housing developers and owners, recently retiring as senior vice president of development operations.

“Life sometimes grabs you by the back of the shirt and says come this way,” says Bates about a journey that began as a student at Springfield College, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts that had a strong focus on social work. She thought she might become a history teacher, but those plans changed when she stumbled upon elective courses in community leadership and development.

It was the late 1970s, and the classes on social change, racial justice, and community development spoke to her. One of her professors had set up a small nonprofit that was a mini version of the Peace Corps, so after graduating, Bates spent about six months with the organization building a rural leadership center in Honduras.

When she returned home, she joined Brightwood Development Corp., a small community development corporation that was established by the same teacher to boost a poor Latino neighborhood in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bates jumped at the chance to fill a Vista volunteer slot, earning $47 a week and qualifying for food stamps.

The job was eye-opening for a kid from the suburbs. “It crystallized me for how powerful it can be when you support people and try to help them change their own personal destiny but also the destiny of their neighborhood,” she says.

After that first job, Bates went to work for the commonwealth of Massachusetts, providing training and outreach to community-based organizations. Bates’ career continued to progress when she rejoined Brightwood. By then, it was a much bigger development organization and would hire the Greater Boston Community Development (GBCD) to consult on a complicated project.

GBCD would later become TCB, a change that signaled the organization’s growth beyond its hometown. Bates joined the organization when it opened a Springfield office. In the early years, TCB largely assisted nonprofits and CDCs that didn’t have the experience or capacity to develop projects. As TCB expanded, it evolved to become a developer in its own right and started to acquire its own assets.

Bates has been at the center of that growth. She’s established the nonprofit’s presence in several regions, including its successful Pittsburgh office. She flew back and forth for a few years, but it soon became clear that there was a lot of great energy and work to do in the city, so Bates moved to to be on the ground in Pittsburgh for five years.

She was involved in developing several hundred affordable units and transforming the gateway into the East Liberty neighborhood. In addition, Bates has helped attract and develop talented team of real estate leaders to TCB offices throughout the country. In her most recent role, she managed a development team of about 60 staff members.

“She started as a community organizer from western Massachusetts, and she never forgot that the purpose amidst all the growth and real estate development and creative finance was that all people deserve a fair chance at a good life for families of all races and backgrounds,” says Bart Mitchell, president and CEO of TCB. “For people in big cities but for people outside the big cities, too.”

Throughout her career, Bates has been a bold innovator of new approaches to large-scale neighborhood transformations and creative financial structures, according to Mitchell.

“She has also brought three invaluable personal characteristics that make all the hard work possible for her TCB colleagues—a great ironic sense of humor, the joy of collaboration, and generosity and skill at mentoring younger leaders,” he says.

Industry Leader

These qualities have carried over to the larger affordable housing industry. She’s been active with the National Affordable Housing Trust (NAHT) and the Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF) and has served on the boards of numerous community-based and industry groups.

As NAHT board chair over the past few years, Bates was instrumental in bringing different groups together and launching several key initiatives to fund affordable housing. “Bev has a way of getting all parties to agree and move forward,” says Lori Little, NAHT president and CEO. “She will be missed, but we will see lots more from her in her retirement.”

She’s been a beloved member of the SAHF collaborative, serving as a leader in its developer peer group. “Bev not only shares her own experience and expertise, but has lifted up a number of young leaders in the time I have known her and left our group in a better place for it,” says Andrea Ponsor, SAHF president and CEO.

“At a gathering of women in the field late last year, she handed out some valuable advice on work life balance that I have been carrying with me since,” Ponsor says. “She said something along the lines of ‘look, we all do this work because we want to create a world where people have better lives. You have to start with yourself. Take care of yourself and enjoy the work.’ ”

A passionate music fan, Bates also enjoys hiking, visiting national parks, and spending time at her family’s new lake house in Maine. Her wife, Chris, is an executive coach and consultant working in in the nonprofit and higher-education sectors.

“I feel very grateful that I found my way to this work because it has been the most gratifying work I could ever imagine having done,” she says.

Bates continues to consult with TCB on a variety of strategic initiatives and plans to remain active in the industry.