Urban Planner And Advocate At A Local Housing Authority
Job Title: Urban Planner And Advocate
Type of Company: I work for a housing authority in a city. I help renovate public housing and develop new affordable housing for very low income people.
Education: BA Urban Studies, Yale University Master of Architecture, MCP Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Master of City Planning (Housing and Community Development concentration), Master of Architecture
Previous Experience: I got interested in urban planning and in issues related to poverty and community development when I was in high school. First I worked in planning offices, but found that I was more suited to work in the nonprofit sector.
Next I worked for technical assistance organizations, including a community design center in Chicago (I helped design and develop affordable housing and community spaces), an environmental group in New York City (I developed land trusts and community gardens), and an adaptive design organization in Boston (adaptive design for people with disabilities). I returned to school for degrees in architecture and city planning.
I realized I liked to write and do policy work more than I liked doing design. After graduates school, I spent 7 years as the Director of Advocacy and Community services at a community action agency. I worked on issues related to housing, immigration, welfare, disability, substance abuse, domestic violence, utility problems, hunger, and homelessness. I helped develop a new transitional house for homeless individuals and helped grow a small nonprofit agency stabilize financially and offer more services to more people.
I went to work at a community development corporation in Dorchester to learn more about affordable housing development.
I had my children and stopped working full time. For 6 years, I worked as a consultant, writing grants for homeless service agencies and for the State government, doing evaluations of homeless programs. I also began volunteering for an environmental group and got interested in learning more about environmental health. I took an interim position working with an environmental health group to learn more about environmental links to cancer, because too many people I love have been affected by cancer and I wanted to understand what someone with my experience could do to help prevent the suffering caused by cancer.
I came to the housing authority to work as a Senior Planner, renovating public housing and helping develop new housing, while focusing on developing housing that is both "green" and affordable.
Job Tasks: In my full time job, my responsibilities are:
Researching possible funding sources to help pay for renovation projects
Meeting with architects to talk about designs
Meeting with tenants to talk about problems in their buildings and to involve them in renovation of their buildings
Working on budgets to make sure that we have enough money to renovate and operate buildings
Reading policy documents (like new laws or regulations) to determine what changes might affect a project
As a consultant, my responsibilities are:
Researching funding sources to figure out how community groups can get money to develop housing, gardens/playgrounds, or homeless service programs
Writing grants for nonprofit groups that don't have capacity on staff
Helping develop creative ideas for how groups can work together to develop housing and other community projects
Best and Worst Parts of the Job: I am new at my job in the housing authority. The worst part is that sometimes you have to read a lot of dry and bureaucratic material. The best part is getting funding to help people do something they really want to do, and to create not only a new building or park but a new program and sense of community.
1. I have had a kind of unusual career in that, to be happy as an urban planner, I had to take jobs that were not, strictly speaking, planning jobs. To do work that I felt was creative, I had to do work that was more advocacy/social work oriented than planning work specifically. Other people may feel the same way. If you love community work, don't feel that you have to take a "planning" job in order to do community development work.
2. Work with good people. There are always good people and not so good people doing the same kinds of work. The most important thing is to work with people you like and respect, who have the same values as you do.
Additional Thoughts: People are always surprised that I did not pursue architecture. For me, I am not sure I should have gone to architecture school. Sometimes, I think law school (legal services) or social work would have made more sense for me. But I also think it helps to be open to change. Because so many people I love have died young of cancer, I began to feel I needed to switch from my formal training (housing/community development) to environmental health, where I have less training.
For my career, a strong social commitment, good writing and research skills, and good people skills are the most important. For affordable housing development, math skills and understanding of real estate finance (which you can learn easily) are important, as well as detail orientation.