Paving the Way for Equitable Solutions in Affordable Housing

For the first day of Women’s History Month, MHN talked with Evergreen's Jewell Walton about forging effective public-private partnerships.

Jewell Walton’s career path is interwoven with social justice and the search for affordable housing solutions. She discovered urban planning as an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University and, after an internship with Metropolitan Tenants Organization and working as an advocate for public housing, she enrolled as a full-time graduate at University of Illinois in Chicago studying urban planning.

After a 10-year-plus tenure with SB Friedman Development Advisors—where she managed multiple affordable housing-related projects while building professional discipline and acumen—Walton next landed a director role at Chicago Housing Authority, where she led the administrative and programmatic implementation of the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, overseeing the HUD program and leading to 6,500 converted units, at one point the largest RAD portfolio in the country and currently only second to New York City.

Leveraging her expertise in the RAD space and wanting to broaden her reach nationally to support public housing authorities’ efforts to implement the transformative program, Walton joined Evergreen Real Estate Group last year as vice president of public partnerships. Here’s what she told Multi-Housing News about pursuing equitable solutions in affordable housing.

What drove you to work in affordable housing and your current role at Evergreen?

Walton: As an undergraduate student at the turn of the century, I saw some of the first high-rises along the southern end of Chicago’s State Street corridor undergo demolition. Having been living in central Illinois much of the preceding three years, I was completely unaware of these larger efforts to reframe public housing as we knew it, at least in Chicago. As housing is a basic human need and given my belief that everyone deserves a quality and safe home to reside in, I then realized finding solutions to affordable housing in some capacity would be my focus in graduate school and, subsequently, my career.

As a child, I grew up in rental housing and moved around a lot—never in public housing, but certainly in what we now call ‘naturally occurring affordable housing,’ mostly with my mom seeking a quality affordable unit in a stable neighborhood. I realized that housing stability was a key component for children and families to flourish and maintain a real sense of well-being.

At CHA, I gained an understanding of its reputation as a leader and a model as the third-largest housing authority in the country. I would often interface with other housing authorities regarding implementation strategies for RAD and discuss what we would petition to HUD to do differently. I worked with many vendors and real estate firms, and one that really stood out was Evergreen. I always had a great working relationship with their team and admired the company’s mission for improving lives and transforming communities.

I decided that when it was my time to leave CHA, working for a company with integrity that believed in the mission of providing housing security for families was extremely important to me to bring about solid and trustworthy public-private partnerships and preserve my credibility and reputation as a RAD expert. Evergreen was that for me.

How would you describe the current state of the public-private partnership landscape when it comes to affordable housing in Chicago?

Walton: It’s middle-of-the-road—solid due to historical lessons learned with building mixed-income housing specifically, but there’s certainly room for improvement. We encounter quite a bit of red tape in dealing with multiple and often intertwining federal, state and even local programs surrounding affordable housing; and as regulations shift and morph to include new approaches and program ideas, the web gets further entangled. I don’t believe this is unique to Chicago, but because of the city and the housing authority’s size, the issues are more amplified. Couple amorphous rules with external impacts like inflation, rising interest rates and skewed property valuations, forging effective affordable housing public-private partnerships is like a moving target with public structures that aren’t always the nimblest.

Going forward, I think there is considerable opportunity to build upon vacant and excess land owned or controlled by the city and CHA. Repurposing underutilized buildings that can accommodate multifamily units—for example, Class B and C office buildings and older hotels—are also opportunities to expand affordable housing supply and potentially reduce the cost and timeline of delivery. I personally believe that incorporating a mix of incomes in a development and, consequently, in a neighborhood, creates neighborhood economic stability, but the application of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ income mix formula is not a proper approach.

READ ALSO: Affordable Housing Outlook—What Challenges Will 2024 Pose?

In your experience, what are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to securing the right partnerships?

Walton: Some of the biggest challenges in developing successful partnerships include aligning on agreed-upon goals, objectives and approaches required to meet those goals. In other words, stakeholders wanting the same outcome, but having very different opinions on how to achieve it. For example, just about everyone expresses the need and desire for more affordable housing. Housing costs are outpacing income growth for most Americans, and associated expenses only compound the issue.

Another obstacle is NIMBYism, whether it manifests in disagreements on the amount or use of public subsidies, stigmas associated with federally subsidized housing, fears of density and/or general racial and class biases. It adds tension, slows momentum and can ultimately result in project delays and cost increases to the point of financial infeasibility.

While I certainly believe in public process and community engagement, it’s rare that a single development satisfies the needs or desires of everyone engaged. And where there is dissent, it can delay or even derail a well-intentioned project.

What about funding? How can hurdles related to the low availability of debt be overcome?

Walton: Funding has always been a big challenge, and even more so now with rising construction costs and volatile interest rates. In recent years, some housing finance agencies have not raised or have even lowered the maximum tax credit caps for affordable housing projects seeking low-income housing tax credits. The rationale is reasonable—it’s structured in a way to allocate resources to fund multiple projects in a variety of locations, instead of making larger contributions to fewer projects. However, with stagnant or lower tax credit caps juxtaposed to increasingly more expensive projects, financing gaps are widening.

Besides a larger federal effort to create more resources, I’m not sure how the industry overcomes funding limitations on a macro level. However, on a more micro level of finding solutions for affordable housing, I think the development community should seek out opportunities to reduce overall costs by seeking adaptive-reuse opportunities; pursuing preservation deals where affordability can be preserved and new units could be added; and partnering with municipalities and public housing authorities to build on publicly owned land to reduce or eliminate site acquisition costs.

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimated that the U.S. is faced with a shortage of 7.3 million homes, a major deficit. What are some key issues that need to be addressed for this demand to be met in Chicago?

Walton: A number of issues can be addressed, including a combination of policies that Chicago is already working on, and can double down upon if there is continuity and real political will to do so. This includes mixed-income housing, zoning for accessory dwelling units, dedication of certain percentages of units to remain as long-term affordable units, attention to modular housing and adaptive-reuse opportunities.

Any favorite projects that gave you hope for the future of affordable housing?

Walton: My favorite RAD project happens to be an Evergreen one, which was completed long before I joined the firm. Ravenswood Senior Living is an adaptive reuse of a former Chicago hospital that includes both independent living and supportive living.

All the independent living units are units for CHA-waitlisted households and once seniors living on the independent side need additional services, they can be referred to and have first priority to move into vacant units on the supportive living side, giving low-income seniors a continuum of care without leaving their neighborhood.

Of course, this is with resident consent and associated counseling ahead of any move. We discuss aging in place as a goal for serving the senior community through urban planning, and Ravenswood is the best model for low-income seniors that I have seen.

One thing not everyone knows about you is that your great grandfather was J.B. Stradford, a key figure in U.S. history. What are the most important lessons you learned from your predecessors and in what way are such legacies important today for the affordable housing space?

Walton: Given my great-grandfather was the son of a slave and yet ultimately became one of the key founders of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla., in the early 1900s, the biggest and most important lesson for me is not settling for less, despite forces in play that encouraged Black people specifically to do so. Black Wall Street was built during the time of segregation, when there were limited places where Black people could live, shop and gather.

Instead of settling for substandard housing and accommodations or hoping to get into the good graces of the white establishment, J.B. Stradford had the audacity to build his own real estate empire, including several residential buildings and the 55-key Stradford Hotel, the largest Black-owned hotel development at the time. I can only imagine the challenges he faced in establishing this town even before the race riot—assembling financing, navigating supply chains, obtaining development approvals, and so on. Borne out of this legacy and others similar to it is an additional lesson for the real estate industry and beyond: Never underestimate the creativity, resiliency and determination of the Black community.

How can the sharing and communication of events that have to do with racial and social justice help shape a better and more equitable professional environment for future generations?

Walton: There’s a quip that’s often used in the education space that ‘knowledge is power.’ In line with that, before knowledge can be obtained, exposure or awareness must occur first. Exposure is the key to unlocking the door to knowledge—you have to know of something’s existence or its possibility before you can begin to gain knowledge about the subject. Exposure to and sharing these events, histories and stories more broadly, whether they are stories of tragedy and loss, or perseverance and success, or a combination of both, can all serve as lessons learned to guide future generations in shaping better outcomes for a more equitable professional environment.

For Black people and other disenfranchised groups specifically, exposure to these powerful stories of resiliency offers a counternarrative to the negative stereotypes that are often circulated in the media and has the potential to bolster confidence in both personal and professional settings.

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