Denise Muha never set out to work in the affordable housing industry. But when she moved to Washington, D.C., in 1985, in need of a job, she landed in an administrative position with the National Leased Housing Association (NLHA), the membership organization focused on federally assisted rental housing.

Denise Muha, executive director, National Leased Housing Association
Lauren Bulbin Denise Muha, executive director, National Leased Housing Association

Just three years later she took over as executive director of the organization, a role she now has held for over three decades. She credits Janet Charlton, the former executive director who hired her, and longtime affordable housing attorney Chuck Edson, founding counsel of NLHA, for showing her the ropes.

“It’s a very specialized industry and not for the faint of heart,” says Charlton, who is now vice president of public policy at Foundation Housing. “Denise related very quickly with the members, and when I left, there was no one else I would suggest to take my place. She had a little bit of catch-up to do, but she did it so quickly and so painlessly.”

Muha says she learned on the job, and it didn’t take her long to become passionate about Section 8 and other housing voucher programs.

“I realized it was important to develop an expertise and not just be a lobbyist,” she says. “I made it my mission to really understand the subject matter, read the regulations front and back, study the legislation, and develop those relationships that are important to facilitating the exchange of information.”

The NLHA provides a voice for its 550 member organizations—including for-profit and nonprofit developers, managers, investment bankers, syndicators, and public entities—on national housing policy as well as program and funding decisions that are made on Capitol Hill, at the Treasury Department, and at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

While its main focus is on Section 8, project-based rental assistance, the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, and tax credits, the NLHA is also heavily engaged in other related issues, such as disparate impact, fair housing, and tenant screening.

Charlton calls Muha the most authentic person she knows and says that quality has earned her a lot of respect in the industry.

“NLHA represents every segment of the industry involved in Section 8, and members are not always on the same page. She has almost seamlessly gotten us to agree on positions because they are so thoughtful and well-drafted,” says Charlton, who remains active with the organization. “And she certainly doesn’t back down to the folks on the Hill or anyone at HUD.”

Muha and the NLHA have been key players in the development of landmark housing legislation that addressed the preservation of more than 1.5 million affordable housing units under Section 8 as well as legislation that facilitates the continued preservation of the Low Income Housing Preservation and Resident Homeownership Act portfolio.

“Denise is a forceful and effective advocate on issues of critical importance to affordable housing providers. She’s been a champion of affordable housing preservation, and we frequently call upon her to gauge industry sentiment on a variety of issues,” says C. Lamar Seats, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for multifamily housing programs. “Her depth of knowledge and positive outlook ensure that we will continue to advance our shared goals.”

Bob Moss, principal and national director of governmental affairs for accounting firm CohnReznick, recently ended his one-year term as NLHA’s president.

“Year after year, through many administrations, Denise continues to be the go-to person on HUD issues,” says Moss. “Her access to information is a result of her genuine interest in helping families and seniors who need affordable housing and her institutional knowledge of programs.”

Charlton agrees. “While residents are not members of NLHA, Denise always recognizes that that’s our client and those are the people we are serving. It’s one thing to want policy, but it has to work for the residents.”

In addition to NLHA’s policy work, one of Muha’s greatest accomplishments at the organization was the establishment of a separate nonprofit scholarship program in 2007. The NLHA Education Fund has provided over $1 million to residents of federally assisted rental housing. Just this year, it granted 47 scholarships to students from all over the country.

AIMCO is a primary donor of one of the scholarships, while the other three are named in memory of longtime housing advocates. The scholarship programs are designed for traditional undergraduate students, nontraditional students, graduate students, and graduating high school seniors interested in studying a specific trade.

“It’s very rewarding, and we help a lot of students. It’s really something to see these kids grow up in trying circumstances, and yet they put forth the effort necessary to go to school to create the opportunity for self-sufficiency,” Muha says. “As someone who works in Washington, I don’t often have the chance to interact with residents, but this gives me that opportunity.”

Muha also is a jack-of-all-trades and a self-proclaimed multitasker around the office, handling everything from educational programming to serving as the personnel manager and 401(k) administrator. “We have five employees, and we know how to do a lot with a little,” she says. “I like to work, and I don’t mind putting in the hours. Plus, I have a good staff.”

Outside of work, she serves on the board of directors for The Bollinger Foundation, which raises funds for the education and support of children who have lost one or both of their parents. She and her husband also are avid golfers and enjoy traveling.