Home Matters: Neighborhood Housing Services’ (NHS) Fight for Equitable and Affordable Housing
As the fortieth birthday of Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) of Los Angeles (LA) County approaches, one can not ignore the long-established impact and services they have provided for residents to strengthen and build up these communities. As a nonprofit lender and community redeveloper focusing on community redevelopment, transformation, community building, and engagement, they have been able to empower and educate LA’s residents while equipping its clientele with the appropriate resources and networks necessary for them to thrive, develop financial literacy and stability, and most importantly, feel encouraged to acquire and retain affordable homeownership. As Lori R. Gay, current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and President of NHS of LA County, beautifully puts it, “We are going to sit right with people and not miss the opportunity to be of service.”
Commencing thirty-nine years ago as a small local housing agency, today the network comprises over 250 organizations who “prescribe to the same value and basic mission to transform communities,” thus allowing its workers, clients, and peers to acknowledge and accredit the strides and growth that has manifested within the program and those it serves. With hopes to revitalize impoverished communities and create mechanisms for community empowerment and ownership, Gay decided to join just six years later to help run it! She soon saw its full potential, sharing how she “...immediately felt like it could expand.” The communities’ needs and the program's necessity showed up in many ways, from affordable housing to single and multiple-family housing; the corporation’s “focus on single-family affordable homeownership and its work to keep them there.”
This innovation, as Gay, exclaims, “...to think about broader communities and work that we could get done that involved more people and more housing,” merely enlightens us about the systemic inequities that displace, exclude, and segregate people of color and thus exacerbates these racial injustices. To counter such systemic oppression, NHS has worked endlessly to “get people on the path of homeownership and remind them that it may take time to find your dream home or build generational wealth,” it just requires patience and faith. By preparing 4.8 million families for their journeys to homeownership, employing over 265 neighborhood youth, creating 255 block clubs, reinvesting more than $8.5 billion, and rehabilitating more than 27,000 housing and commercial units, the organization has accomplished so much for some of the most underserved and mistreated neighborhoods.
Since the age of seven, Gay “...purposed at a very young age to help [her community] on the life part,” as she recollects her long-recognized desires and passions to work in community development. Growing up in a rural white neighborhood, Gay grew up aware of her identity as an African Native through her lived experiences of racial discrimination and microaggressions. These experiences taught her that such practices were merely an act of habituation and social conditioning. She claims, “Hatred tends to be a learned behavior, not always but most times,” but through the “vacillation of being hated and loved, you find the middle,” as she contextualizes her faith and hopes for the future of humankind to be kinder, giving, and more graceful towards one another.
It was here she understood the feelings and emotions that followed rejection, but even more so, this obligation to end superficial differences and work towards unity and communion. Raised by a minister and later on becoming one herself, Gay found that the people struggled to hear the messages her father preached about God because they didn’t have food or they didn’t have a job. Unfortunately, for many, it was just the reality of life and its adjoining hardships. However, this question and loss of faith have only kept Gay inspired as she declares, “I believe I am here to help them realize their dreams.” The basic denominator to absolve these issues and fully realize the ambitions of homeownership falls significantly upon financial education, counseling, and literacy. According to the Milken Institute, at least 47% of adults in the United States are financially illiterate, which further displays the value of Neighborhood Housing Services, the families and homes it has retained, and what it has to offer in the coming years.
In addition to the prevalence of community and union, it reigns true that there is even greater significance in “...making sure there is a bench and that there are young people that get the message of community and economic development,” Gay asserts. One could be graced with more opportunities and connections while empowering and standing up for their community and generations ahead. By talking to tens of thousands of people per year and teaching better practices, NHS, its workers, and its volunteers have “...had only three foreclosures in the history of the company on [their] loan portfolio” and continue to aid these families through the rigor of workshops so they may perform better and “see the opportunity and cease the things that are important to them.” Other services cater to renters, the most extensive grouping they serve each year, to create a fiscal plan and goals to achieve homeownership and generational wealth one day. To shield the “Mom and Pop” landlords from foreclosure, one may also find services to aid those struggling post-COVID without mortgage relief or financial assistance.
Overall, the most rewarding thing about working at Neighborhood Housing Services is the chance to sit, talk, and listen to the people and the tearful moments when “clients receive their keys,” Gay dearly remarks. Although it is common for CEOs to become overwhelmed and lost in fundraising and meetings, and therefore disconnected from the people, Gay refers to herself as the “social CEO.” She loves sitting at the information tables and meeting people, never overlooking them, and always hands-on, hearing their ideas, dreams, and stories. Whether they are achieving success or simply thinking about it, “the people part is where Gay began as a community organizer. She adds, giggling, “Although I love to talk,” and continues, “it still is my passion to listen more.”
From affordable lending services to Fastrack, which entails a credit report and credit counseling, construction management services, buyer’s inspections, and so much more, this organization appeases any possible need or want of every kind of family! As of today, NHS continues to center the community by hosting Farmers Markets in Compton every first Saturday of the month, creating spaces to talk about the programming, gentrification, and displacement, and contributing efforts to other forms of community building such as food insecurity, safety, and crime prevention. Hopefully, by the end of the year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a partner of NHS, will become the largest tenant in their Compton site at our Center for Sustainable Communities, thus aiding in the expansion that Gay wishes to accomplish. In all, being in spaces where communities that have experienced disinvestment now have investment proves to be the organization's main objective and impact for generations. As Lori Gay ends gently, “In an era of unfair lending practices, discrimination, and the murder of George Floyd, all of us will not forget what matters. Home matters. People matter.”