Meet Dana Hanchin, president and CEO of HDC MidAtlantic, a longtime affordable housing organization that serves more than 5,000 residents in 58 communities across Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Dana Hanchin
Robert Polett Dana Hanchin

Hanchin, who stepped into the nonprofit’s top post in 2018, discusses why she works in affordable housing, how HDC MidAtlantic is changing, and the last book she read.

What was your path into affordable housing?

I established an understanding that affordable housing is the cornerstone for growth and stability for families and communities while attending Temple University’s graduate program in urban studies. My first job out of graduate school was as a housing organizer for the city of Philadelphia’s Empowerment Zone program. I was responsible for organizing residents, businesses, and nonprofit organizations around affordable housing issues. I was also a volunteer at the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, whose mission focused on advancing community leadership and affordable housing through a social and racial justice lens. Eventually, I was hired to serve as its director of real estate development and property management, responsible for developing and operating affordable housing, financed by the low-income housing tax credit program.

What was a pivotal moment in your career?

My pivotal moment came early in my career. My first boss provided professional insight that influences me to this day. Early in the launch of a new program, I was decrying the level of disorganization and lack of planning. The executive director looked right at me and exclaimed, “Dana, I pay you to manage the chaos!” She was exactly right: It was my job to manage the chaos. Nothing is perfectly planned or implemented. Work is dynamic, full of unknowns, and riddled with challenges. Thanks to that experience, I have learned how to master the art of building the plane and flying it at the same time.

How is HDC MidAtlantic different from other affordable housing providers?

HDC MidAtlantic is one of many organizations doing amazing work to address our nation’s affordable housing crisis. We serve rural, suburban, and small to midsize cities, giving HDC unique experience and expertise. Not only are we a high-performing developer and operator of affordable housing, we are aspiring to advance social justice advocacy and racial equity, diversity, and inclusion in our organizational culture and in the communities we serve. We believe that housing is a human right and that residents have the power to make choices about their future. We also believe affordable housing is not a stand-alone transformational strategy, but should be connected to comprehensive, collaborative efforts to create positive change in communities.

How is the organization changing?

The next five years for HDC MidAtlantic will be a period of change that centers on people and partnerships, characterized by strategic risk taking, systems change, sustained growth, and continued financial strength. We will evolve and grow to create a culture of collaboration, continuous learning, stewardship, and advocacy. We will act to increase economic opportunity and social inclusion of the people we serve, specifically working to dismantle systemic racism and oppression of people of color. We will lead as a bold and innovative organization working together with residents and community partners to achieve our vision of creating a world where a safe, welcoming, affordable place to call home is open to everyone.

Tell us about a development that HDC MidAtlantic recently completed or is working on.

HDC MidAtlantic just broke ground on a 51-apartment affordable community serving lower-income families, Beach Run Apartments, in Lebanon County, Pa. We have a robust pipeline with over 700 units, forging partnerships across our three-state footprint that focuses on new construction as well as preservation with developments serving families, seniors, and special-needs populations in the Lehigh Valley, Lancaster County, York County, Chester County, Pa., and Wilmington, Del.

What has that project taught you?

Beach Run Apartments taught us at HDC MidAtlantic that you can never shortcut the community engagement process and that relationships are everything. Meaningful and authentic engagement of neighbors and the community where you are developing affordable housing is paramount. HDC cannot do this work alone: Community champions and strong partnerships are critical to our success.

We are in the business of building hope and opportunity.

Share with us a housing statistic to think about.

The statistic I want to share comes from the National Low Income Housing Coalition: Only 36 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income households. For example, the Lancaster County, Pa., area median income (AMI) is just over $63,800, but in Lancaster City, where HDC MidAtlantic is headquartered, the average median income is around $42,600. Because LIHTC rents are determined by the metropolitan statistical area or county AMI, it becomes very challenging to serve those most in need through the LIHTC program alone in distressed markets without additional rental assistance. We are making progress to serve the most vulnerable, but so much more can be done. I believe we have the answers and resources to solve this problem if we all shared the belief that housing is a human right and everyone deserves access to safe, affordable housing.

What issue is keeping you up at night?

What keeps me up at night is making sure we are not letting down the people who count on us—people from all walks of life who are struggling to find housing that meets their needs. This is my life’s work, and, as a leader, I want to inspire my team and others to rise to meet this challenge because HDC MidAtlantic is not in the business of letting people or communities down. We are in the business of building hope and opportunity. We will continue striving to advance equity and increase opportunity in pursuit of our mission.

What gives you comfort?

A bourbon sour and a bike ride. Not necessarily in that order or at the same time.

What has been the impact of COVID-19 on your organization and residents?

I am exceptionally proud of our team at HDC MidAtlantic in how we kept our residents, each other, and our families safe and healthy. I believe this crisis has made us stronger in purpose and united us even more so, recognizing that we are all in it together and every one of us plays a unique and critical role to advance our mission. We are saddened that we have lost residents due to the virus, and we are incredibly grateful for our essential employees that put themselves at risk every day to help protect our residents and communities and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In terms of financial sustainability, we immediately tightened our belts, eliminated nonessential spending, held off hiring for new positions, reduced our development fee and management fee projections based on the most conservative scenarios, and stress-tested our portfolio for the worst case. We also worked diligently to advocate for and position ourselves well to receive federal, state, and local resources that would help our residents in crisis and stabilize HDC communities, such as the PPP loan and emergency rental and operating reserve assistance.

What’s a good move that HDC MidAtlantic made in response to COVID-19?

Like everyone else, we made our employees and residents safety and health our first priority. We mobilized quickly, establishing a daily COVID-19 task force, and made the most conservative decisions in an ever-changing environment. We provided staff with timely and clear COVID-19 protocols, which we believed lessened employee anxiety and stress. We afforded employees the flexibility to balance both their work and home demands and provided COVID-19 hazard pay to our maintenance, custodial, and site managers. I think that employees felt cared for and valued and that we were doing everything we could to keep them safe.

Our resident services team proactively reached out to every resident (over 3,700 households) to provide information, answer questions, and help assess their needs. We understood that strengthening relationships and communications with our residents was critical to planning for the financial impact of COVID-19 on our property operations. In 2019, as part of our trauma-informed approach, we launched a voluntary eviction prevention program, whereby if residents were struggling to pay their rent, they had an opportunity work with our team and develop and implement a plan for housing stability. With COVID-19, we made the decision to automatically enroll every resident who was behind in their rent in our eviction prevention program. As a result, our aggregate rental collection rates for families and seniors are meeting or exceeding our performance standards.

What skills have helped you the most in your career?

The ability to build the plane and fly it at the same time. And the ability to identify distractions, eliminate them, and get people moving in the right direction, focused on shared goals and desired results.

What do you do better now than a year ago?

During these unprecedented times, I have become a better communicator and better at demonstrating my vulnerability as a leader.

What superpower would you like to have and why?

Every day I try to practice the following superpowers: hope, love, kindness, patience, and gratitude. If we can move through this work and world harnessing those superpowers, I believe, together, we can accomplish almost anything.

What’s the last book you read?

“Brain Wash: Detox Your Mind for Clearer Thinking, Deeper Relationships and Lasting Happiness” by Dr. David Perlmutter and Dr. Austin Perlmutter. I think it is very important to practice self-care as leaders. We can do small and big things to help bring our best selves to this work. It is important to take good care of your mind, body, and spirit because this work requires us to be all-in every day, and rarely is there an easy day.

If you could take a crash course on any subject, what would it be and why?

I am not sure it is possible to take a crash course in a language, but I would love to study abroad and learn Spanish by immersion. Early on in my career, I took an incredible cultural immersion trip to Puerto Rico (Actually, twice! I loved it so much I went back the next year to experience it all over again). My heart and spirit never felt so full to connect with others around our shared human experience. The experience had such a deep impact on my world view and how to build relationships and trust even though I didn’t speak Spanish. It has always been a goal of mine to at least be able to speak conversational Spanish.

What’s next for Dana Hanchin?

Right now, I am seizing this moment. I believe I am in the right moment and at the right place to close the gap in disparity and inequities in the communities we serve. I will continue to push HDC MidAtlantic and our partners to think big and to act bravely, placing equity at the center of the work, actively working to break down systemic barriers, and developing affordable housing until everyone has a place to call home.