The HAND network is working tirelessly to address the growing housing affordability challenge across the Capital Region. Five Minutes With is a series highlighting these members and other stakeholders. This informal conversation delves into their recent projects, the affordable housing industry and more. In the latest edition, we chat with a new addition to our team, LaToya Thomas, HAND’s new Housing Indicator Tool Policy Director. Check out our conversation below, and you can learn more about the Housing Indicator Tool here.
HAND: You have extensive experience in the housing and community development industry – can you tell us about the journey you’ve taken to get to this point?
LT: Sure – it’s been a pretty colorful journey, to say the least. First, for background, I’m trained as an urban planner with a focus in community planning, so that’s the lens under which I have approached my work in the various positions I’ve had over the past 15 years.
The bulk of my career has been spent working either in development or in architecture, and I worked primarily in project management, community engagement, business development, and marketing. I also had the opportunity to work on projects that ranged from affordable and mixed-income housing to charter schools to public institutions, like libraries. This background gave me a really unique perspective, as I was able to work on a mix of projects that were “community-serving” while also being able to sit on different sides of the table as these projects came to fruition and understand the many design, financial, and political considerations that are involved.
Now I am nearly 4 years into Brick & Story (sometimes I call it “The Lab”), as a way to blend my professional experience into a platform that can work creatively and in partnership the development community to bring the people we are serving into the conversation in a truly meaningful and intentional way. Many say we focus on engagement and, while that’s true, we’re really focused on reconnecting people to the built environment and to the steps and processes that impact how the physical fabric of their community looks and feels – particularly because we know that some people have never had the opportunity to be part of the conversation around what happens in their community.
HAND: Can you tell us about your latest role with HAND? What are you most looking forward to over the coming months?
LT: I am collaborating with the HAND team to support the regional rollout of the Housing Indicator Tool. Much of my focus will be to provide education around the tool, design and implement activation events for the larger community to understand the tool, and facilitate policy discussions and help to influence policy decisions so that each jurisdiction is investing in appropriate resources and tools to meet their respective goals.
I am really looking forward to the regional dialogue and exchange that is possible and so badly needed around the issues of housing affordability. I personally believe in the value of shared learning and collaboration when trying to solve problems like this, so I think the HIT presents an opportunity for all of to do so and helps us as a region guide our next steps.
HAND: What is the most important takeaway(s) from your experience thus far that you’re bringing into your new role?
LT: The importance of creative and collaborative partnerships rings loudest here; we often get stuck in our silos within the industry and forget the many different roles we each play in shaping communities, as well as the responsibilities that we have not only to each other as professionals, but also to the larger community of people out there who are impacted by the work we do and decisions we make. We have a real opportunity to develop a true regional approach to addressing housing affordability at our doorstep if we are all willing to work together to understand what we each need to do to get there.
HAND: What do you think is the largest hurdle when it comes to creating and preserving affordable housing across our region?
LT: The lack of a coordinated regional approach is a major factor; our area is unique because int the District we are bordered by 2 states and 4 major counties, but depending on where you are, the real estate landscape can be like night and day. Even the understanding of the need for housing affordability across multiple income levels is not consistent across the jurisdictions. If the region can be thinking about housing collectively – not just from a production side, but also from a financing, subsidy, and policy standpoint – we might be able to tackle our affordability issues and see a bigger impact at the end of the day.
HAND: Do you believe there is a “secret sauce” to addressing housing affordability? If so, what do you think that is
LT: I’ll name one ingredient in the sauce that I think is key, which is the issue of depressed wages for those who are in need of quality housing the most. We can’t have an honest conversation about addressing housing affordability if we aren’t prepared to talk about how to pay wages that allow people to move along the housing spectrum, whether that is moving from rental housing to homeownership or moving out of public housing and into an affordable rental or homeownership option. Housing affordability is not just about providing a roof over someone’s head; it’s also about creating a stable foundation for someone to grow and thrive socially AND economically.
HAND: If you weren’t working in this space, what might you be doing?
LT: Owning and operating a bed-and-breakfast. I’m all about 1) acquiring real estate and 2) creating cool, interesting, and intimate spaces where people can relax and have a meaningful, hospitable experience.