By Lee Perlman
Dee Walsh’s heart may still be in Portland (“I miss it totally”), but she has mentally transitioned to the east coast and beyond.
Last year Walsh resigned after 24 years as executive director of REACH Community Development, Portland’s largest non-profit developer and manager of affordable housing.
She did so to take the helm of the National Housing Partnership, located in Boston. Even when she returns here on vacation, as she did in January, she keeps east coast hours so that she can keep up electronically with goings on in her new home.
The partnership works to “improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the affordable housing sector” nationally, but not only nationally. They maintain partnerships with similar organizations in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
This creates interesting challenges for communications. “When it’s mid-day in this country, the Aussies are just getting up and the Brits are calling it quits,” Walsh says.
It is a logical extension of Walsh’s work with REACH. The organization started as a collective in the Buckman neighborhood under the leadership of the late Dennis Gilman. When Walsh joined the board, it was recovering from management problems, and director Ed McNamara was in the process of cutting staff and programs.
The agency obtained a grant for an administrative assistant position and Walsh applied on the condition that it be reclassified to assistant director. Even so, she took a substantial pay cut from her position with Pacific Power and Light. A year and a half later, she replaced McNamara as Director.
“Dee had the skills I lacked,” says McNamara, now Policy Director for Mayor Charlie Hales. “I had experience with development and rehab, but she knew how to do long-range visioning and neighborhood planning. I recommended that she be hired to replace me, and she made me look smart.”
Under Walsh REACH managed 250 housing units in six SE neighborhoods with a staff of 13. It now has a budget of $13 million and a staff of 99 overseeing 1600 units, most in SE but spread throughout the rest of the city too.
Symbolically last year, the agency moved its headquarters into the new Gray’s Landing building in the South Waterfront. Long-range plans call for further expansion into the entire metropolitan area, and even into Clark County, Washington.
This is in keeping with REACH’s mission. “We’ve found that poverty is moving out of the inner city into the outlying areas,” Walsh says.
REACH developed and carried out Target Area plans for three areas: West Clinton, Belmont and Milwaukie. In West Clinton, they rehabbed 20 abandoned houses, instituted neighborhood and business block watches, and rezoned some parcels near SE 16th Ave. In Belmont, they provided free home repairs to low-income senior homeowners, and helped organize Belmont Business Association and its annual street fair. They did similar business organizing for the Milwaukie project.
REACH also provides services to residents extending well beyond normal building management.
Perhaps equally significant, they weathered the depression of 2008 when some housing providers did not.
“Financially, we actually were in a really great position when the depression hit,” Walsh says. After the initial shock, “Financial institutions started working with institutions they felt were strong, and REACH was one of them”. They absorbed the holdings of other non-profit groups as they went out of business.
As for Walsh personally, she says, “I’ve been involved with national housing organizations for the last 15 years, working on policy issues on a national level. I started a state association of community development corporations.”
When the job at the National Housing Partnership came along, she could not resist. Now, she says, “Boston is colder, but I enjoy seeing the snow in December and January”.