April 3, 2014

Chatting with Karen Wilds of NNRHA

We recently had the opportunity to have a brief chat with Karen R. Wilds, Executive Director of the Newport News Redevelopment & Housing Authority (NNRHA). Wilds provided her take on how redevelopment and public housing resources have evolved and will continue to change over the years.

What are some of the major changes you have seen during your career in the redevelopment and housing authority industry in Virginia?

I began my career in the redevelopment and housing industry in 1979 at the Chesapeake, Virginia Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The major changes I’ve seen since that time are the reduction of resources and the diminution of powers to get our jobs done. It is essential that every project developed now have numerous partners and funding sources. Early in my career, HUD provided development funds to create new public housing. Now, leveraging and private sector involvement is critical to the development of affordable housing.

In addition, in the last decade the Virginia General Assembly has significantly reduced the redevelopment powers of our agencies, which affects our ability to carry out traditional redevelopment. Localities, particularly urban cities like mine, will suffer from the loss of this comprehensive blight elimination strategy.

What advice would you give college students interested in a career in redevelopment and housing?

I would advise them to include coursework in finance, economics and urban planning. Internships and volunteering are also important. Nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity or a local community housing development organization would be eager to provide opportunities for a student interested in this field. Approach them like one would approach any employer, with a resume in hand.

How did you become involved in a career in affordable housing and community development?

The first job I had out of undergraduate school was as a grants writer for a regional criminal justice research group. After two years there, I parlayed my grant writing experience into a job with the Chesapeake Redevelopment and Housing Authority. The position was Target Program Project (TPP) Coordinator and involved grant writing and new funding development. I was later promoted to Program Development Director with the agency and administered the Section 8 program (now Housing Choice Voucher) and the Community Development Block Grant program. I was fortunate to be selected in 1985 as the Community Development Director for the Newport News Redevelopment and Housing Authority and was later promoted to Executive Director for NNRHA in 1999.

What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of NNRHA under your leadership?

I am very proud of our latest public housing developments financed utilizing Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and capital funds. These projects have been done in concert with an overall neighborhood revitalization effort in Newport News’ Southeast Community. This effort involves new single family home development (over 125 new homes have been built for first- time buyers) and the lower Jefferson Avenue revitalization effort. It also includes new multi-family housing along Jefferson Avenue as well as a mixed-use, 14-acre development on a site assembled by NNRHA early in my career.

What do you think the future will be for RHAs in Virginia, as well as the public housing authority industry nationwide?

As public housing authorities evolve under the continuing loss of federal support, the need to operate as a private sector housing provider will only increase. We must continue to be a partner in the community so we can reach out to the community support networks that serve our client needs (social services, job training and workforce development) and to housing development partners to aid in addressing neighborhood revitalization. We must become experts at mixing and matching all the resources needed to remain a viable player in performing the important task of providing affordable housing.

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