As a teenager, Sue Reynolds worked in a neighborhood near downtown Youngstown, Ohio, where she would paint houses so dilapidated that her brush would break through the boards and meet families starving for opportunity.

“I made a grandmother cry when I told her very simply that I’m going to college,” she says. “I knew the reason she was getting teary–eyed. To her, my being ordinary about a woman going to college was an amazing thing. I was angry that it was amazing and angry at her housing conditions.”

Reynolds grew determined to make a difference, and providing affordable housing would be her super power.

She began her career working for a housing advocacy organization in New York City and soon closed her first low-income housing tax credit deal at midnight Dec. 31, 1988. It was the early days of the housing credit when participants were still figuring out just how the new federal program worked.

Fast-forward. Several decades and a cross-country move later, Reynolds has been president and CEO of San Diego-based Community HousingWorks (CHW) since 1997, developing some of the nation’s most innovative affordable housing communities.

The homes will stand as a lasting record of Reynolds’ work when she retires this year.

“Sue Reynolds is a champion of improving access and equity within the housing industry and our community,” says Toni G. Atkins, state senate president pro tempore, who represents part of San Diego County. From construction of San Diego’s first LGBT-affirming affordable senior apartments to the county’s first affordable apartment community for people with HIV and AIDS, Sue has changed the landscape of housing in our region and beyond. Throughout her career, Sue has shown us what is possible when we think big and put the needs of the community first.”

The organization’s early developments include Marisol Apartments, the area’s first community for people with HIV and AIDS at a time when misconceptions about AIDS were still prevalent. It was also one of the first to be built under Reynolds’ watch.

CHW also preserved and rehabilitated a challenging development that was the center of San Diego’s large Somali refugee community. Reynolds has seen plenty of troubled buildings in her career, and this was in the worst shape of them all. Other developers wouldn’t touch it. The renewal of Bandar Salaam Apartments is one of CHW’s many preservation victories over the years.

In addition to rescuing housing that could have been lost, the nonprofit continues to build new homes, including the award-winning Solara, a 56-unit development in Poway, California, that was the first apartment community in the state to be fully powered by the sun.

More recently, CHW opened North Park Seniors, a 76-unit community that’s San Diego’s first LGBT-affirming affordable senior housing complex.

“When I came to the organization, it was already innovating,” Reynolds says. “… I just built on that for the future.”

A Lasting Legacy

During her tenure, CHW has become a nationally recognized leader in sustainable building development and operations, adds San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer.

“Her work as a passionate social entrepreneur has had long-term positive impacts that have changed families’ futures for the better,” he says. “San Diego is a better place because of Sue Reynolds and her work to create a better future for all of us."

Under her leadership, CHW has grown from about 300 to 3,700 units owned. It’s never been the biggest housing developer, just one of the most determined. It’s also been about more than shelter, the organization has initiated important after-school programs and other services that reach thousands of residents each year.

Somewhere, there are grandmothers crying tears of appreciation. It’s also certain that Reynolds’ impact extends beyond the walls of CHW’s properties.

One of the people to recognize her skills early on was longtime affordable housing leader Helen Dunlap, whose credentials include serving as the founding CEO of the California Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that combines technical assistance and advocacy leadership. Dunlap hired Reynolds to open the organization’s San Diego office in the early 1990s.

Together, they created and became the first trainers of a housing program that’s still offered to project managers in the state. “She has an absolute commitment to solving problems and doing the right thing and focusing on the outcomes,” says Dunlap.

Reynolds was also one of the four founders of the San Diego Housing Federation, and she’s been a longtime board member of the California Coalition for Rural Housing.

“Housing is a perfect thing to do because it combines our sense of home, which is core to who we are as people, and there are interesting business and finance problems that you get to solve along the way,” she says. “Housing is almost as complicated as people are. That’s why I like it.”

In honor of her longtime leadership, CHW has established the Sue Reynolds Next Gen Fund, which will provide scholarships and other resources to residents.

After retiring in October, Reynolds says she will continue to make “good trouble” as the late civil rights icon and Rep. John Lewis would say. She also plans to enjoy more time with her wife, Allison, and other family and friends.