Susan Boyd is the new CEO of Bellwether Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing developer in Seattle.
After an extensive nationwide search, the organization’s leaders found what they were looking for close to home. Bellwether’s director of real estate development for the past four years, Boyd was named to the top post this year.
The nonprofit has developed 1,900 units of affordable housing that it manages at 30 different locations throughout Seattle.
Get to know Boyd in this month’s Pop Quiz as she shares what inspires her and what she’s learned from Bellwether’s latest projects.
What was your path into affordable housing?
As a teenager in the 1980s, I observed homeless people becoming a fixture in our urban areas, and I began thinking and writing about the phenomenon of homelessness. My first jobs after college were in homeless shelters and a housing program for people living with AIDS.
After working in direct services and program management for several years, I returned to graduate school and law school, hoping to understand more about the systems that prevented people from accessing safe, affordable housing. I imagined a career in the public or nonprofit sector as a policy analyst or an advocate trying to change such systems.
I quickly discovered that I was not patient enough for policy work, so I went to work at a law firm eventually called Kantor Taylor Nelson & Boyd. I represented nonprofit, public, and for-profit entities in financing and development of affordable housing. I loved this work, but after 12 years found that I needed to exercise some other parts of my brain.
I took a year sabbatical and returned to work as the director of real estate development at Bellwether Housing. In February of this year, I was appointed the CEO, and I couldn’t be more excited.
What was a pivotal moment in your career?
I experience pivotal moments almost every day—leaving my career as a lawyer to take a year off with my family was certainly pivotal but also pivotal are things I do (or sometimes do not do) every day—reaching out to colleagues for advice; taking time to get to know other leaders in the community; showing up when a church group asks you to speak to their congregation about affordable housing.
How is Bellwether Housing changing?
We anticipate that Bellwether will add more units to its portfolio in the coming five years than it did in the previous 15. This will require us to grow our physical and technological infrastructure, as well as our human capital, in ways that we are just beginning to think about.
In addition, I am sensing a new culture emerge around how we use our organization’s assets. We had a rough go of it during the recession of 2009-2013 and developed a justifiably conservative approach to all facets of the business. This approach served us well. We survived the recession without layoffs and avoided fiscal disaster.
Now, we face a housing market that is virtually inaccessible to lower-income people and has left over 4,500 people in King County living without shelter (not including the 3,200 people in our emergency shelters). We know that the financial strength Bellwether has built over the past several years must be responsibly leveraged to do all we can to build more units, preserve existing affordability, build a pipeline of development, and improve tenant stability. This means taking more risk and being more aggressive about pursuing opportunities than we have been in the past.
What are your goals for this year?
Bellwether’s leadership has been in a state of significant transition for the last three years. Our team has done a remarkable job of keeping the organization strong and stable during that time. But we’ve had to put some long-range planning and infrastructure building efforts on hold. My immediate goals are first to fill several high-level positions in the organization with strategically minded leaders who can help us get back to thinking big about the future. Then with a strong leadership team in place, build an organizational platform that will accommodate growth, encourage innovation, and increase our overall community impact.
What did Bellwether’s recent development teach you?
We are currently under construction on two new developments. Arbora Court, our largest new-construction development ever, with 133 units ranging from studios to three-bedrooms, is under construction in the heart of the University District. Anchor Flats, a 72-unit development for which we have raised our second round of impact investment, will bring much-needed affordable housing to the booming South Lake Union neighborhood.
Arbora Court has taught us not to be afraid of scale. Seattle neighborhoods and public funders are now embracing scale. And the larger scale afforded significant operating and capital cost efficiencies that we do not see in an 80-unit building. Although the scale brought some unique financing complexities, it allowed us to create an asset that will have long-term financial sustainability and make efficient use of public investment.
Anchor Flats has taught us that there remains a great deal of enthusiasm in this community for supporting creative models of funding affordable housing. To help finance Anchor Flats, we launched our second impact investment fund, handily raising nearly $2 million of very low-cost capital from local socially motivated investors. We are optimistic that this will remain a tool for us to continue to build communities of opportunity for people of all income levels.
Share an affordable housing fact or statistic that you like to cite:
We often talk about the cost of housing, but the cost of owning and operating a vehicle also has a significant impact on household wealth. The American Transportation Association has an online calculator that demonstrates the annual cost of commuting by car and the savings available to a family if it could live with one less car. With some conservative assumptions about gas mileage, parking costs, and cost of public transportation, the cost of a 15-mile daily commute is over $4,000; and the additional cost just to own a car is over $5,000. Building housing near good public transportation options is essential for allowing lower-income families to make the most of their limited resources.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by my kids, who are evidence that generational evolution is headed in the right direction. I am angry that in a region as wealthy as ours the education, health care, and housing security that my kids experience is not available to all our kids.
I am inspired by elected officials who take political risks to get important things done. I am angered by politicians who prey on our frustrations and ideals but who hold no ideals of their own beyond self-aggrandizement.
And, I am inspired by the natural world that surrounds us here in the Pacific Northwest. I am angry that sprawl into our wilderness is sometimes passed off as an affordable housing policy.
Besides the usual work items, what’s in your office?
A relatively new addition to my office is a framed Augustinian quote given to me by one of my co-workers at Bellwether: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” When I’m angry, it reminds me to stay focused and tenacious. When I’m feeling too comfortable, it reminds me that there are things to be angry about.
I have long kept several small plastic spacemen on my desk. I have yet to discover their existential purpose.
If you could have access to any expert to get advice, who would it be and why?
I would ask for a season of backcountry skiing with someone like Martin Volken, a local backcountry expert and guide, to teach me everything he knows about assessing and navigating in avalanche terrain. Because sometimes the thrill of your investor holding his tax credit pricing in a falling market is just not enough.
Last book you read:
Well, I haven’t actually finished a book in quite a while, but there are three that I have been working on in steady rotation: A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (a fascinating history of the politics of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, but geesh, it’s 750 pages long!); The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (an incredible novel by one of my new favorite authors); and Puppy Start Right by Kenneth M. Martin and Debbie Martin (to get me ready for a new puppy, which I hope to have by the end of the year).
If you had the afternoon off, where would we find you?
To be honest, you’d probably find me at a coffee shop planning for my next board or leadership team meeting. But if I were magically already prepared for those things, you’d find me on a run at Seward Park—a magical place in the city where I can experience old growth forest, eagles perched above the shore of Lake Washington, and an incredible view of Mt. Rainier.