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Community conversations: Greta Harris, president and CEO, Better Housing Coalition in Virginia

Greta Harris

When Greta J. Harris became president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition (BHC) in Richmond, Virginia, in the summer of 2013, she took the job knowing she had some big shoes to fill. Her predecessor, T.K. Somanath, retired after serving as the coalition's first and only president and CEO for nearly 25 years. During his tenure, the coalition developed or revitalized 15 communities and created a construction company, a property management company and a social services division to help modest-income residents become more self-sufficient and lead healthier lives.

But Somanath—having known Harris for more than 20 years—had no doubt she was the right person to build on his quarter century of work.

"In addition to her community development acumen, she brings a spirit of servant leadership that pumps the heart of the organization," he said when Harris' appointment was announced nearly five years ago.

Before joining BHC, Harris was vice president for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national nonprofit community and economic development corporation, where she provided strategic and managerial support to 10 of LISC's local offices in the South and Midwest. Prior to that, she was the senior program director for Virginia LISC in Richmond, which supports local organizations in developing more than $250 million in real estate in central Virginia.

Harris' degrees in architecture and urban design provide her with a unique perspective of and approach to her nearly three decades of community development work, as well as her mission at BHC. In chatting with NeighborWorks Works, Harris shares her thoughts on the coalition's impact, challenges and opportunities for the affordable housing market, strategies for effective community development, keeping stakeholders engaged and her role in shaping outcomes.

NeighborWorks: How have your previous professional roles prepared you for the work at the Better Housing Coalition?

Greta Harris: I've been working in the community development field since 1989 and working in the built environment field for over 30 years. My design, finance, engagement, construction and management experiences have all coalesced along with my passion for social justice to position me for success with a great BHC board and team.

How do you feel that BHC has had the greatest impact in the community?

I believe BHC's greatest impact has been to model what excellence in community building can actually be for neighborhoods and residents of modest means. We have combined beauty, quality and supports with business discipline to help communities and families thrive.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities for the organization?

New real estate development models that will yield more quality housing units in the affordable market that we serve while generating additional revenues for our company to ensure our financial sustainability. I also believe that we will eventually add more workforce readiness/development capacities to help families increase their incomes and, thereby, have greater choices as to where and how they live.

Where is there room for improvement?

I think we have done well in augmenting our talent management strategies for BHC associates. I believe we will need to continuously invest in growing our BHC culture to support all of our teammates in realizing their fullest potential for success and help us to measurably advance our mission.

What are the areas you feel that are the most challenging currently?

The biggest challenges in implementing our culture priorities are time and money. The daily demands for effective work execution and securing flexible resources for human capital investment are sometimes stressful, but we are committed to investing in our people … it's our only strategy for continued success.

April 2017 tour of BHC communities for NeighborWorks and BHC staff. Greta Harris is back row, center in sunglasses.

How do you see intersection among affordable house, improved health and vibrant communities?

We believe that housing, health, education, employment, human connection are all critical in creating vibrant communities where residents can thrive and be joyful. Since neighborhoods are living organisms that are constantly changing, one organization should and could never control or influence all of these elements. We believe in partnerships where each ally is bringing their expertise to the solution-making table, and we work to create a diverse tapestry of good options for families to have good places to live, work and play.

How do you successfully engage with the people in the community?

We believe that the families that are most impacted by what is or isn't done in a community must have a voice at the planning and implementation tables. Therefore, we have community representatives on our various boards of directors; we invite community representatives to share in generative dialog with our board and staff; we go into neighborhoods and speak to grassroots leadership when we are seeking to develop new projects; and we work in partnership with many public-sector, private-sector and nonprofit organizations to help solve complex community needs.

Finish this sentence: It would be impossible for BHC to achieve its mission without ...

Cross-sector, passionate leadership.

Now that you've been with the organization for almost five years—and stepped into the position following a long-term CEO—how do you think you've shaped the organization?

I was quite fortunate to inherit a wonderful organization to lead five years ago. I think I have brought my passion for mission, business discipline for long-term sustainability and commitment for fun to BHC. All of these attributes have positioned us for growth that will result in greater community impacts and improved financial health for our organization.

Was there anything about BHC that surprised you/hadn't expected/thought would be different after you joined the team?

I was working at the national level for the decade prior to joining BHC and was not that connected to the Richmond region. I was surprised at the decline of the [community development corporation] industry's collective capacities and the lack of coordinated policies and resources for meeting comprehensive housing and community building needs. While our region still needs to improve in these areas, we are making progress and BHC is playing a leadership role in addressing these shortcomings.

How does your background in urban design and architecture play a part of your day-to-day with BHC?

My educational background and initial career experience in architecture and urban design help me daily in problem solving. Fortunately, I'm able to see beyond what is to what could be, and for that I am grateful.

What is the biggest issue facing affordable housing in the next five years (in your area and overall)?

Alignment of finite existing and new financial resources to leverage greater housing choices, and attracting private sector participation in meeting the growing affordable housing demands.

What is the biggest issue facing community development in the next five years (in your area and overall)?

Courageous public, private and community leadership to set difficult priorities and fair policies that create equitable opportunities for all citizens to thrive and reach their fullest potential.

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