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Community conversations: Sheila Rice, recently retired executive director, NeighborWorks Great Falls

Sheila Rice came to her community development career rather late in life—going to college after having three children, having lots of jobs, starting a career in her 30s and spending 25 years as an executive with a natural gas company.

That delay, however, certainly isn't reflected in the breadth of her accomplishments during the 15 years she served as the executive director of NeighborWorks Great Falls and NeighborWorks Montana, a period she describes as "the most interesting, valuable, growing and impactful" part of her life. In a recent conversation with NeighborWorks America, Rice discusses her work, the importance of affordable housing, the role of NeighborWorks organizations and the opportunities ahead for the national NeighborWorks network.

Sherrie Arey, Sheila Rice and Nancy O’Brien represent the past, present and future leadership of NeighborWorks Great Falls.

NeighborWorks America: Now that you are retired as executive director of NeighborWorks Great Falls, how would you sum up your tenure there?
Sheila Rice: Well, I was executive director of NeighborWorks Great Falls for 15 years and executive director of NeighborWorks Montana for 12 of those 15 years. So, they overlapped for most of my tenure, and I played a dual role.

I would sum up my time with NeighborWorks—Great Falls and Montana—as the most interesting, valuable, growing and impactful part of my life. I love the housing world because it does great things for people. But, at the same time, it's physical and tangible. There's a mortgage in place where there wasn't one before; there's an apartment building built, or a single-family home. At the very core of the family is the idea that if you have stability in your home, all of the future outcomes—educational, social, family, etc.—are better. Then, of course, homeownership helps to break the cycle of poverty because of the equity-building characteristic of home ownership. So, I just loved the combination of being able to help people and, at the same time, being able to improve the neighborhood, improve the city, and to have something physically in place to show how you made a difference for that person or family.

How did you get involved with NeighborWorks?
I already had a family when I went to college. I had three kids, and I decided to go back to school and finish college. My professional career really didn't start until I was almost 30, and I spent 25 years at the local natural gas utility here, where I had a variety of jobs mostly in marketing and senior management. I was eligible for retirement [in 2003], and the job at Neighborhood Housing Services of Great Falls, now NeighborWorks Great Falls, came open at about the same time. So, I retired from the gas company and the next day went to work at NeighborWorks Great Falls.

Did you know much about the organization before you started?
I actually had been involved with NeighborWorks since its founding. I had been on the board. I was chair of their marketing committee and led their fund drive campaign. So, I knew the organization really well. I also lived in one of the historic neighborhoods and saw the changes it was making. It was a great segue for me to be able to move from the gas company over to NeighborWorks Great Falls, and it allowed me to use a lot of the skills that I had developed with the help of many mentors over the years—marketing, budget management, staff management, those kinds of skills.
When you look back at how NeighborWorks Great Falls was when you started and how the organization was following your stewardship, how do characterize the growth or change as a result of your leadership?
Well, I won't take credit for them changing because of me. It takes a team, a huge team, to do that. In the case of NeighborWorks Great Falls, it takes the village. But in my tenure at NeighborWorks Great Falls we added a Mutual Self-Help Housing Program, and built 137 homes with that model. We entered into the rental development and asset management business. Then we expanded our footprint in terms of our focus neighborhoods three different times in those 15 years. I also know that our expansion or our very existence wouldn't be possible without NeighborWorks America.

Sheila Rice stands between two NeighborWorks staff at her retirement partyI said this at my retirement party, but I don't know that I would have wanted the job as executive director of NeighborWorks Great Falls and NeighborWorks Montana if it hadn't been for the support of NeighborWorks America. I value that very highly in a number of ways—the training institutes, the relationship managers, the peer learning. All of that is just so important. The capital and the operating dollars are critical to keep these local neighborhood-based housing organizations thriving.

Where do you think the NeighborWorks network has the greatest impact in the community beyond affordable housing?
I think once you've helped to create a homeowner, the impact comes in two parts. The first part is the impact on neighborhoods. It has a huge impact on declining neighborhoods. We just went through that again with the downturn, and Great Falls was less affected by that than other areas of the country, but we saw people struggling to stay in their homes. We saw foreclosure rates rise, and so you need someone there. You need an organization there that can steady the ship and weather that storm, and then start to rebuild those neighborhoods again.

The second thing is the impact on family outcomes that I mentioned earlier, in particular family wealth. That is the part of the impact that NeighborWorks organizations have that sometimes takes a long time to see that come to fruition. But in 10 years, according to our figures, a family will have $20,000 worth of equity, and that doesn't count growth in the price of the house. Just because they've made their payments every single month, they will have that much equity. That's a wealth-building exercise that's almost impossible to duplicate anywhere else.

What are the biggest opportunities in our current community development climate for NeighborWorks organizations such as NeighborWorks Great Falls?
We should continue our emphasis on minority homeownership. You know, if you look at any minority, blacks and Native Americans in particular, the homeownership rate is significantly less than the white homeownership rate. So, I think we should continue our emphasis on that. How do we assist that demographic with becoming homeowners and finding the home of their choice? I think the whole idea of first-mortgage lending is very attractive to many NeighborWorks organizations. They've mostly been in the secondary market. So, they provide down-payment and closing-costs assistance. I think that's an area for growth for NeighborWorks organizations.

Then I think the third one is the Sustainable Business Initiative, which is moving from the concept that we serve only low- and moderate-income people, to a much broader concept where the services that we provide are valuable to a cross-section of economic demographics. So, everyone can benefit from homebuyer education. We have loan products that serve a broad spectrum of people. We do mixed-income rentals, so we have the opportunity to serve more people in that way. We don't ever lose our emphasis on low- and moderate-income families and individuals, but I think we have a lot of room to expand because the services we offer are valuable to many people, regardless of income.

What are the areas that perhaps are more challenging right now for NeighborWorks organizations?
I would say it's about moving into the digital age and using online tools more effectively. I think we're making great strides that way—and some organizations are savvier than others—but overall, I don't think that NeighborWorks organizations have quite caught up with that, leveraging online tools to their maximum benefit. Of course, there's a cost associated with that, too, and that's always a challenge.  

Another challenge is finding ways to continue to grow leadership. NeighborWorks is very well known, justifiably, for growing community leadership, and I think that's harder in the digital age. You don't have as many places to interact with people, and so we have to figure out how to do that leadership development piece as we have always done, but do it in maybe a different way.

How do NeighborWorks organizations successfully engage with people in the community?
You use every possible tool. I don't think there's a single way that is best. You have to use your local newspaper and traditional local outreach and, then, of course, there are all of the online tools—Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn. I think you have to be everywhere to do that, and you have to devote the resources to make that happen.

At NeighborWorks Great Falls, we like to think that we have customers for life, and again, this is a departure from the thinking that we're only serving low-income people. Many of the people that we serve may be low-income when we first get to know them, but they won't be in five years or 10 years. That's our hope, that they will make their way to the middle class. We want that middle-class person to still think of NeighborWorks as a service that they can use. They can call us for information and we hope they will become donors.

Sheila Rice stands in front of a banner that says We're America's Community Development Network

How do you see the intersection of affordable housing and vibrant communities with improving the health and the general wellness of the community?
There are a couple of ways. One is specifically on the health side. It's very well documented in numerous studies and experiments across the nation that stable housing improves health outcomes. Stable housing decreases visits to the emergency room. It decreases the length of [hospital] stay. The nexus between health and housing is increasingly more important and recognized, and all NeighborWorks organizations will make an alliance at some time with their local health provider network. I mean, it could be the insurance companies, the hospital, and the doctors. All of those folks are recognizing, as are our NeighborWorks organizations, that we have a natural affinity for each other.

The second thing that I think affordable housing does is it changes the economic growth climate. A community cannot grow unless employers can expand. Employers cannot expand unless they have new employees, and new employees, especially if they come from out of town, need to have housing they can afford to rent or buy.

Finish the sentence. It would be impossible for NeighborWorks Great Falls to achieve its mission without ... ?
The support of NeighborWorks America, the support of the city of Great Falls, and our board of directors and employees.

What do you think the biggest issue is facing affordable housing in this country in the next five years?
Lack of supply and lack of resources to address the supply. We don't know for sure what the impact of the new tax law will be, but it looks like it's going to make tax credits less valuable. We already are strapped for tax credits. I'm a member of the Montana Board of Housing, our state housing finance agency. We had 19 applications, and we were able to fund five. Three-quarters of those applications— good applications, very worthy, market study supported the project—were left unfunded because of the lack of resources. It's almost impossible to develop affordable homes in historic neighborhoods without some kind of a development subsidy. CDBG [Community Development Block Grant Program] and HOME [Investment Partnerships Program] dollars are very limited. Until we address the supply issue, homelessness and rental cost burdens will continue to grow.

(Editor's note: HOME and CDBG are programs administered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that assist state and local governments, as well as nonprofits and other partners, to develop affordable homeownership and rental units for low-income households.)

What are some of the biggest opportunities or challenges for community development in the next five years?
As we see the comeback from the mortgage crisis continue, I think we'll have issues with historic neighborhoods where the values rise rapidly, especially for renters. Low- and moderate-income renters are forced out because of rising rental rates. It's happening in bigger cities, but it also happens in a number of cities in Montana. I think it's the first time in history that we've seen this convergence of people who want to buy and live downtown. It's the aging baby boomers who no longer need or want to live in the suburbs, don't want to take care of a big yard, and all everything that goes along with owning a large home in the suburbs. At the same time, you have the millennial generation that loves the activity and the life downtown. So, you have a lot of competition for those historic neighborhoods that surround downtown areas, and that's going to make prices rise. It is very good for existing homeowners, but not so good for people that want to become a homeowner or want to rent a place there.

My dream would be to have mixed income—to have wealthy people, middle-class people, and low-income people all living in the same neighborhoods, people of all colors, shapes, and sizes, and incomes because I think that adds so much to the richness of the fabric of the neighborhood.

You may be retired, but it certainly sounds like you are staying busy. How are you keeping your hand in the housing and community development space?
Well, I serve at the pleasure of the governor of the state of Montana as a commissioner on the Montana Board of Housing. It's a gubernatorial appointment and can end at any time, but I continue to be a commissioner on the Board of Housing, which is our state housing finance agency. I also have membership in and sit on the board of directors of the Montana Housing Coalition, which advocates for housing policy that creates homes that working families, seniors, and people with disabilities can afford to rent or buy.

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