Alumni Spotlight: Jocelyn Harris, Housing Initiative Partnership

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Housing Initiative Partnership, Inc. is a Maryland-based nonprofit that works in housing development and counseling to provide housing security for low- and moderate- income families. Founded in 1988, the organization also provides various services to assist families after buying a house, such as financial capability coaching and foreclosure prevention programs. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Management spoke with Senior Housing Director Jocelyn Harris about her experiences working in the nonprofit sector and her time in the CPNL’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program, for which she was a recipient of a Wells Fargo scholarship.

Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL): Why did you want to work in the nonprofit sector?

Harris: I fell into the field. I was one of those people who was constantly changing her mind about what she wanted to do and I did a lot of different things. I interned at the state level, in the private sector, and did two internships for different nonprofits, one of which was Housing Initiative Partnership. Once I started working there, there was just a feeling that I fell in love with. I wasn’t necessarily interested in housing and I didn’t have a preference for nonprofits, but once I started doing the work, I became engaged and have been doing it now for 12 years. I started as an intern while finishing my master’s degree at the University of Maryland and I never left.

CPNL: Tell us about your work at Housing Initiative Partnership (HIP).

Harris: When I first started around 2007-2008, the foreclosure crisis was hitting pretty hard, so I originally was working with our counselors. It was all hands on deck trying to figure out a comprehensive response to the crisis. There was a huge volume of clients that were calling and I don’t think the banks had really figured out a strategy either, so we were in crisis mode. My first few years with HIP were spent learning the foreclosure process and creating a program to respond appropriately. Then, some staffing changes allowed me to transfer to the development side. In development, we create multi-family housing and home-ownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. So, I fell into that position, as well. For the last 10 years, I have managed our acquisition and rehab program that focuses on the redevelopment of foreclosed homes that have been vacant for a long time. They’re substantially renovated and sold to our first-time buyers of low or moderate income. More recently, we have also started another program in partnership with Prince George’s County to provide deferred home repair loans to existing owners to take care of routine maintenance projects for repairs related to health, safety, and the efficiency of the home. There are a lot of long-term homeowners, people who have been in their homes for more than 30 years, and what people don’t talk about is the long-term costs of homeownership. It costs a lot to maintain a home and those repairs can snowball.

CPNL: What is the most fulfilling part of your role right now?

Harris: Being able to put somebody in a home who did not think they would ever be able to afford a home. We sell between 5-7 homes a year. Most of our buyers come to us prepared. They are educated, have a lender and are prepared for homeownership. However, the ones that are most fulfilling work with our housing counselors for 6, 12, or 18 months and work their way into homeownership. Whether they need help rebuilding credit, developing savings, or maybe they have everything together but since this region is so expensive, they thought they would never find anything affordable, we are able to to marry our programs that use grant resources to make housing more affordable and coordinate with down payment assistance programs they may not know about.

CPNL: What was your biggest takeaway from the certificate program?

Harris: Short term, I would say from a professional perspective that the financial class was really helpful. It allowed me to restructure how I track my grants and expenses and I am able to be more responsive and forecast cash flow in an easier way. Now I can standardize my system in a way that is easy for my colleagues to understand. That had the most immediate benefit for me. On the personal side, the negotiating workshop was amazing and helped me get better prices on the houses that I buy. I learned to never split the difference, so I don’t close the negotiating window and put myself at a disadvantage. Another important long-term takeaway that I have not gotten to implement yet was a discussion about how important the language is that you use in both public communication and fundraising. Common parlance can sometimes work to perpetuate stereotypes and not benefit your clients. So, it is important to be thoughtful about how you describe the people in the communities and the work that you do to return the focus to the clients.

CPNL: How did the certificate program challenge you?

Harris: Immediately, the most challenging thing was honestly to be focused all day. It was an intense program. We were in class all day, there was reading outside of class and there were assignments. To that end, I think it was a great benefit to do the summer program in one week because it forced me to set aside the time and ignore the distractions. I was also challenged by being in a room with so many talented and diverse people to make sure that I contributed as much I could. It was hard to not be intimidated by the knowledge and experience in the room.

CPNL: How has the certificate program helped you in your career?

Harris: It broadened my scope and view of the organization. We are a relatively small and fairly flat organization. Looking more broadly at how my programs intersect with other programs and priorities, particularly board development and the larger financial discussion, was something I hadn’t done—I thought it was someone else’s responsibility that didn’t pertain to me. It taught me to appreciate the connectedness of the many aspects, which I think will help me to transfer to a position of greater influence and authority.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering taking part in the program?

Harris: Go in with an open mind, do the readings, and take the time to engage and network. Often in a class, it is easy to self-segregate or sit in the same section and talk to the people around you, but this is a great opportunity to meet people from around the world and get a different perspective. Even someone in the class that does similar work in this region may have totally different programs and priorities, so take the time to engage with your classmates. There is immense benefit in talking to your counterparts. The professors, instructors, and materials are amazing, so it is also an awesome opportunity to deep dive into these topics.