Dee Walsh has spent her career in the affordable housing trenches.

Dee Walsh
H2Meyer Photography Dee Walsh

Since 2016, she has served as COO of the Network for Oregon Affordable Housing, a certified Community Development Financial Institution. Before that, she was an executive vice president at the Housing Partnership Network, a collaborative of the top nonprofit community development organizations in the country, and the longtime executive director of REACH Community Development, a nonprofit housing developer in Portland, Ore.

This year, Walsh has used her expertise to write the book, Navigating Community Development: Harnessing Comparative Advantages to Create Strategic Partnerships, with co-author Robert O. Zdenek.

What was your path into affordable housing?
While I was in college, I lived in a rundown, flea-ridden apartment owned by a creepy landlord in a small town with a severe housing shortage. It was unpleasant. Nonetheless, I was lucky. I knew that once I graduated and got a job I would have better housing choices. But some of my neighbors, as well as others with limited incomes, had fewer options and wouldn’t be so lucky. I wanted to do something to fix that. In my junior year, I got involved with a group of urban planning and law students who were forming a tenants’ union. That was a turning point, and it led me to work with a nonprofit housing agency in Minneapolis after college. Two years later, I got a graduate degree in urban planning and a great job working on affordable housing in Seattle’s International District.

Tell us about a pivotal moment in your career.
In the late 1980s, I volunteered on the board of directors of REACH Community Development in Portland. REACH was a start-up with a small staff and big ambitions. The then executive director had money to hire an administrative assistant. I told him that if he made the position the assistant director I would come work for him. He agreed. I left my job, took a 40% pay cut, and 20 months later I became the executive director. I led REACH for 22 years, growing it tenfold. It was my leap of faith at the beginning that made that experience possible.

Why affordable housing matters:
A good home is fundamental to a healthy, successful life. In a country with so much wealth, it pains me to see so many people on the street and living in deficient housing. We can’t become so complacent that this is our norm. I’ve seen firsthand the difference a good home can make. I believe that everyone has a right to a decent home.

Why did you write your new book? Who is the audience?
The book, Navigating Community Development, builds on two passions of mine: doing everything we can to raise the bar of professional practice to be more effective and impactful; and attracting young talent to the field.

My co-author, Bob Zdenek, and I submit that while the vision and mission of community development have remained fairly constant over the past 50 years, the practice has evolved significantly. Organizations must be much more sophisticated and collaborative to thrive. Our book, which is aimed at practitioners and students, shows how organizations can begin to act in this new role.

What trends in community development should we be watching?
The presidential election of 2016 dramatically underscored how disconnected and polarized our country has become. Now more than ever, we need strong, united communities, and Bob and I believe that community development work is the way to achieve this. While the current political climate makes all of our work harder, the trends we’re facing (less federal money; more need) are likely to outlast the current administration. To be successful in the future, community development organizations will need to: focus on what they do best and partner with others; work at a larger scale; lead cross-sector collaborations; reach a broader range of customers; develop new skills; and find new sources of capital. To learn more, you’ll need to read the book.

Share with us a favorite statistic or fact about affordable housing.
Manufactured homes, commonly referred to as mobile homes, are one of the largest sources of unsubsidized affordable housing in the country. Sure, there is a stigma against manufactured housing, but it is an extremely important piece of the affordable housing puzzle. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore it—or the people who live in them.

What’s new at NOAH?
There is a lot new at NOAH. Shortly after I arrived last year, we adopted an ambitious strategic plan to grow our lending and impact. Since then, we’ve raised about $25 million in new loan capital and a half million in grant funds to support our manufactured housing work. We rebranded and launched a new website and increased our lending for affordable housing development and preservation by nearly 20%.

Who or what inspires you?
Professionally, much of my inspiration comes from my peers. I’m a huge believer in peer learning; it’s part of what led me to write the book. While on a trip to see Passive House buildings in Berlin, Germany, with peers from the International Housing Partnership in 2010, I was inspired to build Orchards at Orenco, an affordable multifamily apartment built to Passive House standards. I didn’t realize when I committed to building a Passive House project, that it would be one of the first built in the United States.

I also get inspiration from the families we serve, especially the youth. I remember clearly a young boy who moved into one our homes when I was at REACH. He participated in our youth IDA program for several years and saved his money for art supplies and courses, and later for college, with a goal of becoming an art curator. A couple years ago, I looked him up on LinkedIn and saw that he had graduated from college and had a significant job in the arts in New York City. Stories like this give one both hope and inspiration.