Rochelle Mills is president and CEO of Innovative Housing Opportunities (IHO), a Southern California-based nonprofit that provides affordable housing to a wide range of residents, including seniors, families, foster youth, veterans, and people who have been homeless.
Mills, who has held the top post at IHO since 2018, brings a diverse background in architecture, community planning, and program development to her role. She is a past president of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing and the Association of Women in Architecture.
What was your first job, and what did it teach you?
My first job was at Foxmoor clothing in the Fox Hills Mall in Los Angeles. It taught me the importance of making customers feel valued. I took my first paycheck to a check-cashing stand, and my parents gave me a sound lecture on money management. In my work today, I see that too many residents in affordable housing need that lesson to help them build better financial habits.
What was a pivotal moment in your career?
In the 1990s I lost my job, my husband’s job was on rocky footing, and we just had our daughter. The reality of losing our home was imminent. But my mother had started her own business years earlier when something similar happened to her, so after several failed job interviews, I started my own company. First, it was a design studio, then an art and architecture tour company. Learning to trust my instincts and fight imposter syndrome kept those companies thriving for almost 20 years—until another economic downturn pushed me into affordable housing. That tenacity and resilience has been extremely helpful in charting a path for growth for IHO. I am able to empathize with the communities we serve and encourage my team to know the value of their voices.
If you could add any amenity or feature to a development, what would it be?
I would add tangible workforce/commercial spaces. After housing, residents ask for job opportunities that can help them achieve their idea of the American dream. By creating mixed-income and mixed-use developments, we can create job centers, incubators, nontraditional banking centers, maker spaces, live/work spaces, restaurants, etc., that create dynamic and vibrant neighborhoods and encourage other reinvestment in these underinvested communities. The opportunities for creative partnerships that support housing and bring much-needed tax revenue to communities are endless and are really exciting. Our focus on mixed-use is to offer job-creating businesses that aid in the social mobility and self-reliance of our residents so that they move onward to enrich other communities.
What did your last development teach you?
Our last development made clear that there are too many units sitting vacant because the Coordinated Entry System is understaffed and unable to identify and prequalify tenants. This is frustrating, but, more, it’s unacceptable. The process is unnecessarily cumbersome, causing potential tenants to give up before they finish the application. When tenants are not identified within the required timeframe, the developer can then be disqualified from future tax credit projects. But the process doesn’t allow the developer itself to identify tenants—or be paid for taking on the administrative effort. This sorry state of affairs is partly what motivated us to create the Housing Innovation Fund (HIFund) so we can get people into homes in a more efficient and respectful manner.
What is IHO’s “special sauce?”
Authenticity. At IHO, we want to build a legacy of hope, action, and empowerment by developing housing as the launchpad. We invest in our people, our residents, and our communities, and we use our dollars to build a more diverse and skilled workforce and group of consultants, to support small and legacy businesses, and to create beautiful spaces with services and programs that pass the baton to our residents. We don’t need to push DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) or ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) marketing statements because we reflect our values daily in who we are, whom we work with, and how we direct our resources. It shows in the quality and success of our work, and we are very proud of that.
How is IHO changing?
We are working on smarter ways capital is brought into real estate development so that mission-driven housing, services, and community development become an integrated and financially viable reality. To do that, IHO is initiating our HIFund. The HIFund will allow us to attract private capital to accelerate the delivery of our pipeline of mixed-income, mixed-population, mixed-use developments that will transform neighborhoods and neighbors, attract reinvestment, encourage community participation, and provide respectable returns to investors. We want to exemplify the change we want to see in this field and hope others will follow our lead.
What’s a policy or program change you would like to see?
I am exasperated by the one-size-fits-all siloing of affordable housing policy. Policies support projects with 100% of residents at the lowest-income levels and highest-acuity needs and discourage or prevent mixed-income or mixed-population developments. We are effectively creating 21st century “projects” akin to Cabrini-Green, Pruitt-Igoe, etc., albeit beautifully designed. Meaningful housing policy should encourage a mix of incomes, which allows people to see and mimic the positive behaviors that result in upward mobility of their peers. Policies should also encourage accountability of all parties: public agencies whose processes and red tape discourage housing production and timely tenant lease-up, requirement of developers to provide costly social services and programs but don’t require residents to participate in them, developers that cash-flow projects with empty ground-floor retail space, the requirement that housing developers have to include retail space at all, etc. This is crazy-making and adds to the cost and timeline of development.
What will be the next trend or evolution in affordable housing?
My hope is that the next trend is a reality check and better managed public expectations. We can’t have an impact on this housing crisis by chasing fads and votes or by selling pipe dreams. It’s too subjective and irresponsible when lives and communities are at stake. We should cautiously continue the road we are on with an eye on promoting new ideas and examples that either demonstrate a proven success or a sound thesis with a business plan that demonstrates the potential for success. Then, let’s be willing to tweak or cut the cord on programs that don’t work.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
Although I do a lot of public speaking and networking, in my heart I am antisocial. I am the person who fiddles with her purse in the driveway so I can run into the house without speaking to anyone. I had no idea until recently (when I forgot to hide in my car) that my neighbors on both sides of me are affordable housing colleagues.
“Set a goal to achieve something that is so big, so exhilarating, that it excites you and scares you at the same time. If you don’t get chills when you set a goal, you’re not setting big enough goals,” by Bob Proctor.
How would you spend a perfect day?
Traveling with and enjoying a meal with family and friends.
What’s next for you?
Transform the world and encourage others to do the same!