Rebecca Hatfield is president and CEO of Avesta Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing provider headquartered in Portland, Maine.
She took over the top post from longtime leader Dana Totman, who retired last year. Hatfield joined Avesta in 2015 and recently served as senior vice president of real estate.
What was your first job, and what did it teach you?
When I realized I was old enough to get paid to play games and have fun with little kids (aka babysitting), I was ready to jump right in. It felt like a win-win at the age of 13, so I started babysitting for many of the neighborhood families with young children. Given that I am the youngest in my family, and I was often the one being taken care of by an older sibling, it taught me a lot about being responsible and accountable, knowing others were relying on me. Also, my mom had always instilled a sense of independence in me as she raised me to be resilient like her, and this was the first time I started to experience it as I earned and saved my own money.
How did you get started working in affordable housing?
I had spent my entire career in the corporate world and was looking for a role with more purpose—something that would utilize my skills and experience and have meaningful impact. I found this in Avesta Housing. Avesta is the largest nonprofit affordable housing provider in northern New England. We own and manage 100 properties comprising of 3,000 apartment homes, we provide affordable housing to nearly 5,000 people every day, and we are actively creating new affordable housing with over 800 new affordable apartments in our development pipeline. Avesta embodies the mission and values I believe in, and it has allowed me to leverage my real estate and financial expertise to make a positive difference for people in our community.
Tell us about a development that Avesta Housing is working on this year:
We recently completed our West End campus, a mixed-income and mixed-use community in South Portland. It is comprised of two phases funded with low-income housing tax credits and provides a total of 116 apartments. This effort was a part of a larger neighborhood revitalization initiative driven by the municipality. Several amenities and sustainability features were integrated into the building and campus design. On the second phase, in response to an urgent situation, we partnered with the state of Maine and local foundations to provide furnished apartments, rental assistance, and essential support services for asylum seekers who were experiencing homelessness. We collaborate with numerous organizations to bring in language classes, legal assistance, financial and career counseling, child care programs, and many other supports to help the residents achieve stability and thrive. I am pleased to say it is providing safe, quality, affordable homes and services to an incredibly diverse population of individuals and families who are all a vital part of our larger community.
What’s a smart move that Avesta Housing has made in the past year?
Avesta has long been an avid advocate to expand Housing First—no-barrier permanent housing with 24/7 trauma-informed care and support for chronically unhoused individuals. This past year presented a unique opportunity to secure the resources necessary to replicate and scale this model throughout Maine. We were excited about this opportunity since we have seen the proven success of this housing model for some of the most vulnerable members of our community through the three Housing First properties we had previously developed—the only three in Maine. As such, we ramped up our efforts to support new state legislation to provide permanent flexible services funding for the development of 12 to 15 new Housing First properties across the state. Thanks to a coalition of people and providers, this legislation has passed, and we are already preparing for our next Housing First development.
What will be the next trend or evolution in affordable housing?
My sincere hope is that the next evolution in affordable housing is a proactive consideration of how climate change will drive affordable housing trends and policy, particularly as it pertains to the location and sustainability of housing. We are often responding to external factors as an afterthought or labeling it as a future consideration or “nice to have” feature. But the data exists to be informed, plan comprehensively, and incentivize integrated change to address climate migration and promote climate equity and resilience as it pertains to affordable housing. This would ensure marginalized communities aren’t left behind and our social investments don’t fail. We have taken some incremental steps such as green financing options, sustainable building design, and other initiatives, but we are far from where we need to be. As the effects of climate change worsen, the affordable housing industry needs to proactively adapt. We should be collaborating across sectors to determine, implement, and invest in sustainable solutions.
If you could add any amenity or feature to an affordable housing development what would it be and why?
For affordable housing developments that provide housing for families, the one feature I would love to add is child care infrastructure that provides infant care up through after-school support. As a working parent, I understand the struggles and see how important it is to invest in our children and families. There is a desperate need for reliable, quality, affordable and easily accessible child care support, particularly for low-income families balancing myriad life challenges and systemic barriers. When combined with safe, stable housing, child care has a powerful impact. It helps families improve their chances of achieving permanent stability, and, equally as important, it provides early intervention support to children to ensure they grow up happy and healthy.
What skills have helped you the most in your career?
One of the most powerful skills I have leveraged in my career is the ability to connect and balance business acumen with mission focus to create informed and impactful solutions. From a very young age, my parents instilled critical thinking skills in me, but they always embedded it in empathy. It was about a process of being analytical while considering others as a part of the process. This approach has transcended my career, and I believe it has been key to my journey. I’ve had a unique career that has crossed both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. The technical expertise that I needed varied from job to job, but critical thinking is what allowed me to adapt in various ways—how to problem-solve effectively, find balance in decision-making no matter the objective, navigate areas in which I was less knowledgeable, and gain comfort with experiences that were new to me.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
People might be surprised to hear that I’ve been an athlete most of my life. I spent the first half of my life as a competitive gymnast, and now golf has become my form of meditation. My favorite activity on the weekend is playing nine holes on a late Saturday afternoon with my husband and daughter. It’s not only relaxing, but I love that it has become a bit of a family weekend tradition.
Favorite fictional character and why:
Ahsoka Tano. Who doesn’t love a Star Wars Jedi, especially Ahsoka?! Ahsoka is a fierce and resilient individual and leader who values integrity and embraces who she is and her beliefs. She is independent in many ways but is also a wholehearted and unconditionally loyal team member and protector. She isn't afraid of a challenge and can adapt on a dime—a true warrior.
What’s a personal goal you would like to achieve in the next five years?
As a female of color, I have experienced firsthand inequitable systems, barriers, and discomfort. I know what it is like to be excluded and disrespected. Those who work with me often hear me say I am committed to our organization being as good on the inside as we are on the outside—we will support and respect each other as team members so we can work together to reduce inequities, do meaningful work each day, and have a positive impact. My goal is simple—create an encouraging, empowering, equitable, and inclusive environment for our team and the people we serve. This is why the mission-focused work that I do at Avesta isn’t just a profession—it is a personal journey.