Developing Leaders in Public Service: Insights from Graduate Alumna Althea Arnold (MPP 2012)

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Althea Arnold leads the policy efforts at Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF)– a national collaborative of 12 nonprofit affordable housing developers who own, operate and manage 145,000 affordable rental homes in 49 states across the country. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Althea about her experience in affordable housing and her time spent as a Georgetown Masters in Public Policy student as well as a Nielsen Fellow in Philanthropy working at the Center.

The public service sector is vast with so many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in affordable housing?

In a recent board meeting we had, we asked this question, but it had a different bent to it: What is your origin story? How are you the protagonist? How are you the champion of whatever issue you’re looking into? So, I would say my origin story revolves around three women in my life.

First starts with my grandmother; she was a single mother who earned enough to raise her children day to day, but she never earned enough for her golden years. When it came to retirement, she found out she could no longer afford where she lived, and couldn’t find any apartments in the surrounding areas. Then steps in my mother, and she was so frustrated by this entire process, and the scarcity of affordable housing in New York, that she became a community advocate and then an affordable housing developer later on. So I grew up around this and my mother wanted to make sure that people with limited economic means could access quality affordable housing and not lose the support of the communities that they knew.

I’ve always been really supportive and proud of my mom for that work but it wasn’t always easy.

I would often as a child have to go with her to town meetings and there I saw and overheard nimbyism (not in my backyard). The nimbyism and vitriol that I heard for just the simple idea of having people have access to quality housing in their communities was too much. It was too much for me at least.

And then my academic interests had led me to pursuing jobs in international relations although I never really got away from affordable housing. I mean how could I? It was always at the dinner table. When I went to Georgetown, I received my MPP and had all intentions of staying internationally focused. Even with my job at the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership, I was working on a project with Kathy Kretman on global philanthropy. But we had this visiting scholar and she asked me to consider why I was so focused on international work when so many things were happening in my own backyard. I wouldn’t say it was like an “A-ha” moment for me but it was a moment when I really started to think about what I was doing and where I wanted to be focusing my efforts. After that I started writing more policy pieces on affordable housing needs, and began to realize just how impactful policymakers could be in this space, producing and preserving affordable housing, places for people to call home.

Your organization, Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF), works to create and preserve affordable housing and services that also foster equity, sustainability, wellness and opportunity for people with limited economic resources. What are some strategies that SAHF is using to create long-term impact to address challenges around homelessness and the housing crisis?

I feel so privileged to work at SAHF as a nonprofit collaborative organization that brings together 12 large multifamily housing providers that are all mission driven, and committed to providing healthy, equitable and affordable housing. It’s how you center residents and provide access opportunity, asset building and more equitable communities. With this shared commitment, we’ve been able to make some really big stakes around preservation of federal affordable housing, climate and sustainability, as well as resident-centered management practices and racial equity. As the Senior Vice President for Policy at SAHF, I source policy and practice solutions from our 12 members. Together, we see what is working on the ground, where are there challenges, and then through candid peer exchange we are able to talk through those issues and elevate what best practices and policies may work. Then we engage with policymakers and partners, usually at the federal level, to make those recommendations.

There is an extreme dearth of affordable housing in this country and it is finally just starting to get the media attention that it deserves. But for years it really wasn’t and we were constantly doing this rallying cry that we need more affordable housing. We also think about the services that help residents stay stably housed and connected to communities and what are some of the challenges to that. One issue has been digital inclusion and recognizing that residents of affordable housing are about half as likely to have broadband access as the general public. We recognize how important it is for residents to stay connected online, especially during the pandemic, and that it continues to be.

We think about the bricks and sticks but also about producing and preserving the services that impact residents. When you think about affordable housing, it can be quite a spectrum as you have residents who may need more wraparound services. For example, veterans who have mental health challenges or substance abuse, there’s a program called VASH (Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing) that is a housing choice voucher plus wraparound services. On the other end you also have residents who all they really need is that housing subsidy to have an affordable place to call home. You then have this whole other lens with seniors who need to be connected to their communities and families and so it is critical to think about the quality in these services and consider the entire spectrum of needs.

What have you found to be the most challenging while working as a nonprofit leader in housing policy?

The biggest challenge right now is not to be in this constant sprint mentality. Honestly, I don’t think this is a challenge that is unique to affordable housing and not really unique to nonprofits but perhaps it is more intense in nonprofits. There are so many issues to champion and so many things that keep popping up. We are all facing capacity challenges. For years, we’ve seen this in the nonprofit space. We are seeing it even broader now and there is this tendency, especially among nonprofit leaders, to try and do it all which can be physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. This was definitely the case during the pandemic when there were many important needs to respond to. At the time, we were trying to ensure that there were resources for people to remain stably housed and for the property owners to make sure that they had the resources to keep the lights on and stay in business. During this time we also faced the lack of a barrier between home and office life. And so with myself, and with some emerging leaders who I’m working with, we are all trying to make sure to have that balance and not burn out.

What have you found to be the most rewarding in this work?

The most rewarding thing about working in affordable housing is seeing a policy that I’ve worked on go from being a proposal to being implemented and actually helping people. I’ve had the privilege of working on some big congressional wins, and some smaller, more administrative and regulatory policy work. Overall, it is really exciting to see real world impact, whether it is making it easier to rehab a property so a senior can age in place or making sure that properties that say they’re affordable, remain affordable; also working to reduce barriers to services like broadband so that accessing resources, like online classes or virtual job placements, can be done.

How has a master’s degree in public policy and your time at the Center helped you in your career?

My time at Georgetown and in the MPP program helped me become more analytical and learn how to be concise and communicate well to an audience. I don’t use my statistics as much as some of my former classmates do, but I’m so grateful I have that knowledge, which has made me a better distiller of data, recognizing when there are holes or when “advocacy math” is being used. At the time, there weren’t any classes on affordable housing or community development per se but I’m really grateful for classes like Gary Bass’s Social Advocacy and for Kathy Kretman’s Public Leadership, both of which have been instrumental to me.

During my time at the Center, my research looked at the landscape of trends within global philanthropy and oversaw what some of the challenges were and how different groups would step in when governments were not. Also working with the visiting scholar gave me the space to not be fully internationally focused but to return to that nonprofit focus.

What advice would you give to students who are considering working in affordable housing or more generally, the nonprofit sector?

I’ve been very lucky to have some great mentors and I think it’s really important to pay it forward and find people in your field to connect with. A lot of people are going to be busy but we will try to make time for some initial conversations and follow up.

I’ve been really excited that McCourt has offered more affordable housing and community development coursework and it’s been great to connect with several McCourt students, some who worked for me last year. So, for anyone who is interested in the affordable housing policy area, reach out to me and make those initial contacts!