Lisa Gordon, CPA, is President and Chief Executive Officer of Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, one of the top 10 Habitat for Humanity International affiliates in the United States. She is also a recognized leader in real estate development efforts creating high-quality public and private legacy projects. Today, Lisa joins the show to share her journey and the challenges she faced along the way.
Listen in as she opens up about why she has made it her mission to leave places far better than she found them, as well as the strategies her team has implemented in order to do so. You will learn how they ensure their project is sustainable over time and the best advice Lisa has for any single mom.
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Vicki Shackley: Hi, this is Vicki Shackley with SignatureWOMEN. Today I’m so excited for y’all to join our podcast with Lisa Gordon, the president and CEO of Atlanta Habitat for Humanity. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us today.
And I just wanted to let everyone know a little bit about your background because I think it’s so interesting. You have such a unique blend of skills between having worked in public policy being the CEO of the Atlanta BeltLine, being a city manager. It’s like a crossroads of skillsets that I think you’ve landed in the perfect job as CEO of Habitat.
Lisa Gordon: Well, I’ve definitely had a very interesting and fun career. And I think I always share with people that are like, “How did you do that?” And I’m like, “It was no design of my own.” I definitely just pursued things that were of interest to me, and opportunities just seemed to follow me.
And I’ve always been guided by a sense of purpose and mission, where I want to make a difference in the communities where I serve. And also, I just want things to be better. So, if I’m in any role, in any position, I want it to be better than how I received it. Right? So, you get the Baton and you run your leg of the race. And so, that’s how I always look at the different opportunities I’ve had.
And it’s been interesting because it really started off as my interest in volunteering and giving back. When I was just in middle school or junior high school, I guess that’s what they used to call it, I just used to do a lot of volunteer activities at our community center. And then through college, I found out about public administration. I ended up getting a fellowship and starting my public administration career.
And also the work with policy. I think, to me, one of the most important things is the policies that we have and the legislation that we have. And depending on what types of policies are being implemented, it really has a lot of determinants on what happens in our society. And so even today, we’re seeing the impact of public health policy around the vaccinations, how that’s impacting every aspect of our work. And so, it’s really no different in the other roles that I’ve had is in every single role, there has been an opportunity to impact policy decisions that impact what happens to people in their life.
And I think I’m fortunate to have worked in city government for over 20 years, in county government for 10 years, and now I’m getting to work in not-for-profit. And so, then the only areas that I haven’t worked in would be philanthropy, but I’ve also worked in academics, too. So, I’ve been an instructor for Carl Vinson Institute of Government at University of Georgia. So, public administration’s, I guess, a little bit of my sweet spot in terms of how do you impact these big systems and these big projects in a way that’s going to serve people for many, many years.
Vicki Shackley: You’re doing that with Habitat. I saw you quadrupled the number of families you served and just your interim time you’ve been there.
Lisa Gordon: Yes. Part of what we did when I got to Habitat, I came from a big project like BeltLine where it’s about community development, is we put that community development lens with Atlanta Habitat, and it became urban revitalization and how do these impact neighborhoods. So, we started stepping back, because Habitat had been around for over 20-plus years, and we’d go to the same neighborhoods where we have a lot of houses. And the neighborhoods really look the same as they did 10 or 15 years ago.
And so, we started looking at holistically what are things that Habitat could do to really improve the neighborhoods. And so, we took an approach, what we called our block by block strategy, and looked at if we implemented programs on a block, how could that improve that neighborhood block by block? So, if you look at… the good example is you have 10 homes on a block and maybe seven or eight of them are pretty blighted. And they might be run down, or they might be vacant lots, or they might be homes in disrepair.
And so, what we’ve found is in many of our communities, the anchor residents that have been there for a long time are often are elderly families or veterans. And they’ve been in these communities, but they’re on a fixed income. So, their houses may need repairs, or otherwise someone comes and buys their home and they get gentrified.
So, we started a repair program. So, we would do up to $20,000 in repairs per home for those families so that they could stay in a community that they love and that they’ve helped try to bring back. And then if we build a new house, we might build a new house on those vacant lots. That’s why it’s focused more on neighborhood revitalization than it is building one house at a time, which was our previous philosophy.
We’re making things better one house at a time, but over 20, 30 years, it doesn’t have the same impact. As we say, well, if we wanted to impact this neighborhood, and we wanted to see this community improve, what are investments that we would need to make? So, from an infrastructure standpoint, we do our repair program. We do our paint program for homes, but we also do advocacy for those communities.
And a good example is there was a neighborhood we had where there was no transportation, no bus transportation. And many of the residents said, “Well, we’ve tried over and over again to get attention to our neighborhood to get a bus stop that’s closer to where our homes are.” Well, we started putting in a 50 unit subdivision. And then we went to MARTA and say, “Well, we have this new subdivision, and these families were telling us they need connections to the bus service.”
And we were able to talk to MARTA, and they started having town hall meetings there. And ultimately they had the bus come up the street through our subdivision and around, whereas before it was almost like a half-a-mile to the bus stop. So, that’s an example of making the neighborhood better. And we say that for our affiliate that we want to be good neighbors.
Vicki Shackley: How has the explosion and growth in Atlanta in neighborhoods that… I live in Grant Park, and it’s come a long way in the 15 years I’ve been here. But is that making your job harder or easier or how does that work? Is it harder for you to identify areas?
Lisa Gordon: One of the things we do is we try to keep an inventory of land. And so, I will say this, even though I’m a nonprofit developer, even though Atlanta Habitat for Humanity renown of building houses, we’re really a developer. So, we build between five and eight million dollars of new construction every year.
So, one of the things that means is we think about it from a business sense where what inventory of houses do we need to be buying every year so that we have enough inventory for our program to be sustainable over time. So, we have been purchasing lots every year for many years. And we also did a capital campaign where we set aside a million dollars about two years ago because we saw the market start to increase. So, for us, we have an inventory of probably between 200 and 300 lots.
Vicki Shackley: Wow.
Lisa Gordon: And so, we are ahead of that curve with the market as it relates to land. And then that allows us to be able to still build in the city. If we were trying to buy land in some of the neighborhoods, some of the worst neighborhoods that now starting to get investment, we would be unable to do it.
So, the West Side would be a good example. We purchased lots there, and we’ve been building there for some time. But if we were trying to get a lot today, we would not be able to afford it. So, that’s where we try to buy lots where the development pressure isn’t. And now we’re also developing a $25 million subdivision where we’re going to be putting 70 homes in, and we have a development partner that’s putting another 48 duplexes. They’ll look like townhomes, but they’ll actually be attached.
So, we try to stay ahead of it just like a commercial developer would look at their inventory. They would look at the market conditions, and then they would make decisions strategically to make sure that they’re able to serve their clients. And we do the same thing. We have to think about it in really a pure business sense, like how do we make sure we’re still a viable organization?
But the development pressures and the cost of land is concerning because of the rate that it’s escalating. It’s like double-digit increases in land values and rental values every year. And then the cost of materials with the supply chain issues because of COVID also start to have an impact. But we feel confident that we’re doing the right thing strategically to make sure our program is sustainable over time.
Vicki Shackley: Wow. It has been a little crazy in the city right now. Tell us how do you partner with families? And I’ve worked with a lot of women. Tell us how women have been disparately impacted during COVID and how you’re helping them specifically help with housing and get them on a path to home ownership.
Lisa Gordon: Well, one of the things that we have in our program is we serve more than 80% of single female headed households, and largely African-American women for that number, a little bit higher for some of the other ethnicities, but we serve really women. And what we’ve done is that access to home ownership through our program means, one, they’re able to build wealth, because many of our families, they’re paying off their homes in the last five years. We’ve had over a hundred families pay off their homes.
Vicki Shackley: Wow.
Lisa Gordon: So, you know what that means to have… I don’t know anybody’s who’s paid off their home. So, being able to pay off your home, have an asset, pass it on to the next generation, but then have disposable income that you can invest and take care of yourself is really important. So, I think that’s one of the foundational things our program does. And even through COVID, our families were able to stay in their homes and work and educate and do all of the things they needed to do to stay safe. So, that is a benefit.
The other thing we did is we started a campaign, a mortgage relief campaign, for our homeowners so that we would help them with up to three months of mortgage, including their insurance and their taxes, during COVID if they were negatively impacted through COVID. So, some families, they may have lost their jobs, or they had to change their situation because of their children. So, maybe they only had a part-time job because they had to be home homeschooling or a few families had COVID.
And so, we had that program and we served over 200 families in the last year, and we’ve raised over $750,000 to support our families. So, that’s what we’ve been doing during COVID. And since 80% of the people in our program are women, then you can extrapolate that significant impact to women.
Vicki Shackley: Well, and they were so impacted by children staying home. And women really took it pretty hard during COVID, I think, with the childcare, with the school thing.
Lisa Gordon: Absolutely. And educating your kids.
Vicki Shackley: Yeah. Right. Let me do all the jobs.
Lisa Gordon: I mean, that’s huge, plus the regular jobs. I mean, plus many people had to be online with their jobs and plugged in. And then many of our families, our families are genuinely the service hospitality workers in our community. So, the people that work in the restaurant as servers, the chefs, the grocery store, the MARTA buses, the school aides, the bus drivers, those tend to be the people that are eligible for our program. And so, a lot of those people were still on the frontline.
So, we had families that were impacted that also had to continue to work, and then also educate their kids during COVID. And one of the things we did is we partnered with some of the local groups that were doing food distribution. We distributed over 700 meals in just our program. That’s not what we do, but we had opportunities and there was a need.
Vicki Shackley: Well, good for you for stepping in there and identifying it. And I think you just do a really great job of, I mean, bringing it all together. It sounds like through the storm, you identified opportunities and did that, so that’s just fabulous.
Lisa Gordon: Well, thanks. I’m fortunate that I have a great team. And our team, early on we identified guiding principles to get us through COVID. That’s what we used when we were making decisions, minimize fiscal impact, keep our homeowners, staff, and anyone that’s engaged with Habitat safe, keep abreast of what’s happening scientifically and in our community and see how we can help. And then we also had a focus on making sure we kept everybody with us. That was one of my things. A year ago, I wanted to make sure that we didn’t lose anybody because, one, we made a bad decision, or two, we didn’t have resources available to support those people that are touched by our program in some way.
Vicki Shackley: What’s the best advice that you give these single moms. What is the best advice you can give to any woman raising a family, juggling it all? You’ve done that. What’s the best advice you can give someone on how to persevere through a difficult time like this?
Lisa Gordon: One of the things I’m pretty focused on is I’m a CPA, also. So, I like to focus on the finances, so just like SignatureFD. Make sure you think through what’s the impact to your finances. Because a lot of times that’s where the rubber hits the road, especially with housing and where people are juggling. And we have a financial literacy program for our families that they go through as they’re getting their homes. As well as that was one of the articles and some of the information we sent out to our families is what’s your COVID budget? Because if your job changed, even when you get the stimulus dollars that came in, should you save your stimulus dollars for future mortgage payments? Or what are your expenses? So, we focused a lot on making sure that people had their financial house in order during the crisis, because we know that that would be impacting other areas of their life. Right?
And we also have a program. We have a program where our families can go through a computer training class. And then at the end of that class, they get a computer. We have a donor that’s given us computers. And so, we also did an inventory of our own digital divide to make sure our families had the technical resources they needed to get through COVID.
And then we provided information about health. We had some health experts come on and we did a virtual town hall about COVID, what’s happening with COVID, the development of the vaccines. And then we did one once the vaccines were approved so people would have good information so they can make good decisions.
Vicki Shackley: Tell us a little bit… So, I’ll tell you. I think it was 2014-ish, SignatureFD volunteered. We’ve partnered with Clark Howard, and we went down there on a weekend. It was freezing cold. It was February. And we spent a day. Literally the house was pretty much done. We were painting, installing screens because we’re not very good. We’re we’re financial managers. But talk about how the community… Really, we’ll help you on the budgeting side. I don’t think you probably want our construction skills after seeing us that day. But we had so much fun, and it was such a great bonding experience. How can companies and the private community support Habitat and help you in your mission?
Lisa Gordon: Well, I think one of the things that’s been interesting is with COVID because of the restrictions. You know how many people we had on the build site when you built with us, and you know how close the quarters are. And the house is being built, so there’s not ventilation.
One of the things we had to do was we had to suspend our volunteer building for the last year. We just recently have brought back our skilled volunteers, and those are the people on the build site who really know what they’re doing. They show you how to put up siding or how to hold a hammer, those folks. We have allowed them to come back to help us to build homes. But the homes have been built by our staff subcontractors and now a few skilled volunteers that have joined us since June. And we’re looking at ways to open that up.
But one of the things we’ve done, and you’ve mentioned our wonderful, wonderful friend, Clark Howard, is Clark Howard was helping us sponsor a build called The House We Built From Home where all of our sponsors and companies and individuals could help us raise money so we could still build homes without the volunteers at this time. So, we’re hoping to open it up probably closer to the fall for companies to come back. And we’ll still limit the numbers depending on how COVID is going, because now we’re getting a lot of cases back and we’re getting a lot of issues back.
Vicki Shackley: Might be back.
Lisa Gordon: But The House We Built From Home, if people are interested, they can go to our website, www.atlantahabitat.org, and it will be up on that screen. And you can contribute to that campaign and also our mortgage relief which helps our homeowners. And then we will be providing more information about how people can volunteer. But right now, really the financial managers can help us the most by helping us raise funds so we can continue to serve people.
We’ve had to reduce our production levels by about 25% because of not being able to use the volunteers, and then plus with the safety issues. And then last year we were closed for two-and-a-half months when we had the shelter in place. So, all of that impacted us. So, really, just trying to stay strong financially and being able to serve families that really need housing. And I think in COVID we learned how critical housing was. It’s almost a right. You need to have safe shelter. And in a pandemic, a house was probably a game changer for folks.
Vicki Shackley: And so many people don’t have that security, so it’s so great that y’all are out there providing it. Tell us what you’re most excited about looking out, looking ahead in the Atlanta community. Tell us some good news.
Lisa Gordon: Oh, I think the greatest news I think I can share is that during COVID, the level of collaboration has been phenomenal. I think we go to philanthropy, we go to businesses, we go to other nonprofits. During the COVID, everyone came together and said, “How can we help and who can we help, and how quickly can we help?” And many times like foundations, they only open their giving once a year, or they have a long application process and you have to meet with them. And during COVID, everyone found a streamlined way to come together and serve those in most need.
The Community Foundation and United Way put together a fund, and that fund was used to help with COVID relief across all nonprofits. So, they talked to the foundations, the foundations gave them money, and some corporations and some individuals, and then they worked with the nonprofits and were able to get funds to everyone in a very quick way.
And I think that was phenomenal, because in the past it’s been a process. And it’s a good process and I can understand why that’s in place. But during an emergency, if we would have went through those processes, no one would have been able to get helped when they really needed it. So, I think that was great news that people found new ways to collaborate and new ways to get things done and new ways to support each other.
So, I’ve been on a few calls with all nonprofit leaders where we’ve been sharing best practices that we put in place during COVID. We’ve been offering each other help and support and just a lot more collaboration. So, I think that’s been exciting. And I’m hoping that that momentum and all of that good work that people have done together, that that continues and can be leveraged for the future.
Vicki Shackley: Yeah, it does seem like if you get the housing and the education, if we can bring it all together and work together instead of working in isolation, it would just be a really good thing to have come out of all this.
Lisa Gordon: Absolutely. And it’s really the three pillars. If you think about the three legged stool, it would be housing, education, and food.
Vicki Shackley: Yep.
Lisa Gordon: Those three. If families have housing and housing stability, the kids do better in school. If they have the resources they need to get additional… whether it’s computers or learning or access to the internet, then that builds the capacity. But just the stable housing is critical. And then if they have food, because you have to come to school ready to learn, which means you are not hungry. So, those three things.
Vicki Shackley: Yeah. Just basic security. Basic security.
Lisa Gordon: Basic.
Vicki Shackley: Which should just be a given, but unfortunately it’s not. Well, I just think the work y’all are doing are so great. And I encourage everybody on our podcast to check out atlantahabitat.org. Look at Lisa’s bio. But there’s so many interesting things. You can donate to the ReStore store. You can hopefully donate your time soon, donate your money, donate your wealth, and really just pay it forward and help these people. It’s such a wonderful mission. And we thank you, Lisa, for everything you’ve done. And I know that it’s been a challenging year, but like you said, maybe some glimmers of hope and good things to come out of it as well.
Lisa Gordon: Absolutely. I just want to thank SignatureFD for all the work that you’re doing to make sure people have their wealth and their worth together. And they help use it to build their communities. I think that’s phenomenal. And I think we all have a part to play. And so, certainly if you have resources and you can invest in organizations like Habitat or what is important to you, it certainly will make a difference. So, it’s been a pleasure to speak with you. And hopefully something I said has resonated with someone. And we hope to see you all back on a build soon.
Vicki Shackley: We would love to do it. We’ve really enjoyed it. And so, thank you so much, and thank you for everything you’re doing.
Lisa Gordon: You’re very welcome.
Thank you again for joining us on Empower to In Power, a podcast mini series by SignatureFD. Be sure to join us every month to hear more stories of strong women and their journeys to leadership.