March 20, 2014

Around the Block with VHDA’s new REACH Virginia Director

VHDA’s new Director of REACH Virginia is Elizabeth Seward, LEED AP. Before joining VHDA in 2013, Beth worked in New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and built experience in neighborhood revitalization and mixed-use development. She holds a Masters in urban and regional policy.

What drew you to the housing industry, and what led you to VHDA?

Like many people in the housing industry, my career and path to VHDA was not linear and evolved over time. I first developed an interest in neighborhoods from visiting Richmond’s historic neighborhoods: Jackson Ward, Church Hill and Oregon Hill. I grew up in Richmond and saw how the neighborhoods had declined and was fascinated how some blocks appeared vibrant while others had vacant, boarded-up homes.

I ended up writing neighborhood histories of Jackson Ward and Oregon Hill while at VCU and the missing piece was understanding the role finance and economics played in neighborhood revitalization. So I went back to study economics at the University of Iowa and took a course on urban economics, which led me to planning.

After completing a Masters at Cornell University, I took my first planning job at the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). I started my career at HPD during the Bloomberg administration. His housing plan called for the creation and preservation of 165,000 units of affordable housing in 10 years, so it was an active time for HPD and a great way to get exposure to the various aspects of affordable housing including real estate development, land use, community engagement, marketing and property management.

As the administration was wrapping up the housing plan, I decided that I wanted to return home. So I explored opportunities in Virginia. I wanted to continue growing in my career while continuing to create affordable housing opportunities, and VHDA was a great fit.

Tell us about your role and your department’s mission. How does it work to benefit Virginia’s communities?

The REACH Virginia team was created in 2005 to enhance our stakeholder and business partner relations through outreach, capacity building and resource facilitation. The team is comprised of Community Housing Officers who work with our partners to address an array of housing needs including revitalization of older urban areas, accessible housing for seniors and people with disabilities, and expanding housing options for underserved markets.

As Director, I work with the team to ensure we have products and services that meet the needs of communities across Virginia. We work with non-profits, local governments and housing authorities, and provide financial and technical resources needed to achieve vibrant, sustainable communities.

We hear you have a fascination for alleys. Tell us why you find these spaces interesting and where your favorite ones are located.

Richmond has an amazing network of alleys throughout the city and you never know what you’ll find. The first alley that sparked my interest in these spaces is called Paradise Park and it’s located between North Allen and North Vine in the Fan District.

It’s great to have a small pocket park since it’s accessible to anyone and you get to meet your neighbors while using space that would have otherwise not been active. I recently found an old storefront in an alley off of N Allen, which is particularly interesting since it’s by itself and retail doesn’t work in off-the-path places. There’s a lot of history in Richmond’s alleys.
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