OUTstanding Virginians 2014

Greta J. Harris – Housing Advocate, Richmond

Greta J. Harris - HeadshotGreta Harris says it was fate that brought her back to Central Virginia six months ago to run the region’s largest housing nonprofit, the Richmond-based Better Housing Coalition.   The position of President and CEO came open just as she was feeling “a little road weary” after seven years of traveling all over the U.S. as a national officer with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), an umbrella organization for housing and community development organizations. By that time, she estimates she had taken over 1,000 plane flights in support of her job.  Whether or not cosmic forces were at work, the staunch advocate for livable neighborhoods is happily reconnecting with her community.

The story of Harris’ adult life has been one of connections and reconnections, excursions and returns. The Danville native first left Central Virginia to study architecture at Virginia Tech, then continued her studies at Columbia University before working at firms in New York, Princeton and Philadelphia. Her career would have followed the course of a successful architect/urban planner—wealthy clients, prestigious commissions, urban projects designed with minimal input from residents. However, in 1989, a surprise setback turned out to be a life altering opportunity.  When Greta and a third of her Princeton-based architectural firm were laid off due to a recession, she landed a job at a community-based nonprofit that helped to re-build economically challenged neighborhoods.

As Harris describes it, she quickly learned two things in her new role: “First, when it comes to housing, architects are not the center of the universe—those who control the money are.  Second, the residents who are most impacted by potential developments need to have a seat at the planning table.” Armed with these insights, she set about securing resources, winning allies, and enlisting experts so the community could better itself.

These tasks resonated with deep-seated lessons from her childhood. She connected the challenges of community redevelopment to stories told by her parents, grandparents and extended family members who were active in the Civil Rights movement and, as she puts it, “had the courage to lead, in a variety of ways, to help stem the tide of inequality.”  It dawned on her that affordable housing was a social justice issue. To become effective in her new calling, she quickly learned the fundamentals of community organizing, real estate development finance and the deployment of holistic, integrated services that help both people and places once again prosper.  Thus began a thirty-year career in which she has helped deliver more than $250 million of quality housing and community facilities in many regions of the country.

Harris has found that her most valuable skill is what she calls “relationship stewardship” — forging lasting ties with leaders in the private, philanthropic, public and community sector.  Her network of allies and supporters reads like a Who’s Who of American leadership, including mayors, governors, congressmen, foundation presidents, and corporate CEO’s. But it also includes strong neighborhood residents with the vision and drive to shape what does or doesn’t happen in their communities.  Harris’ gift is to help these diverse stakeholders see the values they all share. “I once asked the owner of a large supermarket chain why he was so eager to strengthen struggling neighborhoods in his city,” Greta recounts. “He replied,’ I’m doing it for my grandchildren so our community can be the best that it can be for all of our neighbors.’ And that was the same answer that the grandmothers in public housing gave. If you can get people to listen to each other, they will find common ground.”

When Harris decided to acknowledge being gay in the early nineties, she worried about whether her disclosure would harm her relationships in the community and impair her all-important fundraising prospects. She had just returned to Virginia and was trying to grow a small community development corporation in Richmond’s Northside. “If you go by what you read in the newspaper, you’d think Virginia was not a very progressive place,” she says, and yet she took a leap of faith and trusted the people in her world to accept her for who she is. “My experience has been unbelievably, blessedly successful,” she says.  It is her courage to be authentic and fair that has earned respect and deep friendships that cross social, economic, and political divides to enable lasting community change.

Now she and Evette Roots, her partner of over ten years, are looking forward to the day when they might be able to marry in Virginia. Always focused on practical consequences, Harris does not see benefit in getting married out of state if the marriage is not recognized here. “We’ve twisted ourselves into a pretzel within the confines of current state laws to give each other protections,” Harris says; “what we need is marriage equality where we live.”