Paul Williams is president and CEO of Project for Pride in Living (PPL), one of Minnesota’s premier multi-service community development organizations. Last year alone, nearly 13,000 people moved into affordable housing, earned higher incomes, improved their academic skills, and gained economic independence with the help of PPL.
Prior to coming to the organization, Williams served as St. Paul’s deputy mayor, where he led a wide range of community initiatives as well as directing day-to-day operations of the city. He has also spearheaded community development investments for the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), first as Twin Cities LISC’s executive director and then for five years as LISC’s national senior vice president for field strategies.
How did serving as deputy mayor of St. Paul prepare you for leading PPL?
The skill set I developed as deputy mayor of a large municipality prepared me well to lead a multi-service organization with multiple business lines. Both roles are about staying close to the practical realities of people’s lives. At PPL, we are constantly asking, “What are the real, practical needs of people who live with us? What real skills do people need to succeed in their first career-track job? What essentials do our students need to graduate and be successful?” We also step back to ask how neighborhoods are doing, because households can only be successful when the neighborhoods surrounding them are healthy and safe. My previous work with LISC was about connecting housing, jobs, services, neighborhood economies, green space, and more. I bring this lens and my work with the city to my current role in the nonprofit arena.
How is PPL different from other housing nonprofits?
I think of PPL as a regional community development corporation; we think holistically about what it takes to strengthen individuals, families, and neighborhoods. We have a broader mission that seeks to develop assets and self-reliance. We have focused strategically on two areas in which our strengths meet urgent community needs: housing stability and career readiness. These are the two cornerstones of economic stability for households, and it’s that stability that allows people to become authors of their own futures and helps the next generation thrive.
Please share an interesting fact or statistic about PPL:
We’ve put a lot of thought into determining what numbers really matter when it comes to housing stability. Five years ago, we collaborated with a few of the Twin Cities’ top nonprofit developers to discuss this question. What we determined is that although funders often ask about housing stability at six and 12 months, the best indicator of long-term housing stability is at the 24-month mark. We found that people who are stable in their housing for two years tend to leave for positive reasons—a new opportunity or a new job—whereas people who leave inside that 24-month window are more likely to leave for negative reasons. Maintaining stability for two years allows people to tackle other issues in their lives and establish a strong footing. Right now, 90% of PPL households are achieving two-year housing stability. We’re happy with that outcome but would like to see if we can do even better.
Tell us about your most recent development or one that you are working on this year:
PPL has recently been funded and is moving forward with two projects at the former Ford auto manufacturing site in St. Paul, close to the Mississippi River. The site, which is located in a highly desirable neighborhood near transit and jobs, is slated to become a mixed-use village with 3,800 units of housing, abundant office space and retail, and 50 acres of public space. What’s exciting to us is the commitment to ensure that 20% of the housing units are affordable. Our first project is a collaboration with a local nonprofit to create 40 units of supportive housing for formerly homeless mothers and their children. We’ll also be creating 70 units of workforce housing on that site. The overall redevelopment is the largest St. Paul has seen in decades.
Share an interesting amenity or program at one of your housing communities:
One effort I’m especially proud of is our work to help support the voices of residents who live in our buildings. When we had a resident group that was concerned about neighborhood drug dealing and violence, we brought in a culturally based organizer who helped these residents reach out to their neighbors, connect with community partners, develop goals, and ultimately meet with police and city staff to work on a plan to make the neighborhood safer. It wasn’t about us delivering a program, but about us helping to create the space for people to advocate for their interests and have their voices included in policy decisions that affect their lives.
What’s a move that PPL recently made that other developers may learn from?
Because we feel so strongly about the importance of community voice, we are working more deeply than ever to facilitate an inclusive and meaningful community process to shape a mixed-use development located on a major Minneapolis corridor that was affected by the social unrest following George Floyd’s murder last summer. We’ve partnered with a community-based wellness organization that will facilitate conversations with community members and will shape the design of the development, the partners we may engage, and the site’s uses. We will be in a listening role rather than a leadership role. While we need to make sure the project will still work financially, we will focus on implementing the vision developed by the community through this process. We are hoping that this deep level of community engagement will create new expectations for future projects and ultimately will help communities realize a greater sense of ownership in local development.
What is your proudest accomplishment since joining PPL?
The vast majority of PPL’s residents come from BIPOC communities, and the neighborhoods in which we operate are highly diverse. In order to do this work well, we’ve developed a truly comprehensive and long-term racial equity framework and process that includes both internal and external components. We are looking at hiring, board composition, cultural competence of staff, and more. Externally, we are asking how we can partner with organizations rooted in the neighborhoods we serve, and we are advocating for policies that reduce systemic barriers and address long-standing disparities.
What’s your greatest challenge today?
I’m probably not alone in wishing I could predict the future. We are really challenged right now to understand and plan for the post-COVID era. Our career readiness and employment training programs have pivoted online, but it’s not clear what it will look like to be in person again or when this will happen. In the housing space, how do we continue supporting people who are living with multiple challenges, whose kids have been learning from home, or who are suffering from isolation? It’s been an enormous challenge over the past year to steer the organization financially and programmatically through so many transformations and such uncertainty. As we grapple with these immediate questions, we are also asking how we can engage in bigger transformations that will move the needle for communities of color and how we can use our organization to help build capacity in communities that have been excluded from our region’s prosperity.
What skills have helped you most in your career?
I was lucky that I had the cool parents as a kid, so I threw a lot of parties! I have always been a great planner and an organizer of experiences for other people, and I’ve been amazed how often I’ve used these skills. I would always think about who was included, making sure to invite people who were at the margins, people who might not otherwise be invited.
More broadly, my communications skills are what got me jobs in the foundation world, and for these I’m indebted to two supervisors I had in my early career who were both excellent writers with very high standards. They marked up my work mercilessly, and it made me a better writer.
Finally, I learned planning from the great Earl Craig, a civil rights leader and first president of the Urban Coalition, a social action agency formed in the 1960s and ’70s. Earl was an intellectual giant, an astute facilitator, and a masterful strategist. I had the honor of working for Earl in my first professional position after graduate school. I gleaned much from his wisdom and skill in each of those areas.
Who is your favorite fictional hero and why?
I don’t tend to read fiction, and I’m afraid I don’t make it to many movies either, so my heroes have tended to be real people. My heroes are some of my early mentors, particularly Black leaders who I had the honor of working for over the years who were deeply committed to their work, courageous, tenacious, tremendously persevering—and funny, too! I learned a lot, and I also laughed a lot.
What’s next for you?
I believe that I did some of my best work this last year, and I believe PPL did some of its best work as an organization during this really difficult time. I’m looking at leading the organization through our current challenges and aiming to come out of the crisis stronger than ever. I feel like what’s next is creating a more sustainable model for the organization and continuing to build our resilience. We’ve witnessed incredible resilience among the 13,000 people we serve. I’m asking, “What does it look like to be a resilient organization that can face the future, no matter what it holds? What does it look like to continue to walk alongside communities that have been marginalized? How can we best employ our strengths and assets to expand the table, include more members of our community, make sure everyone has a stake in our shared future?”