Interviews & Profiles

A life dedicated to affordable housing

Valerie White, senior executive director of LISC-NY, reflects on her long career and taking on her current role just weeks after the COVID-19 shutdown began.

Valerie White is senior executive director of LISC-NY.

Valerie White is senior executive director of LISC-NY. Image courtesy of LISC-NY

Valerie White for more than three decades has worked in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, focusing on either bringing investment into public housing or economic and workforce development to underserved communities while addressing systemic barriers that often prevented them from being built up.

White began her career with the New York City Housing Authority followed by some time on Wall Street at Standard & Poor’s Global. She would then work with military housing for nearly twenty years before taking an early, but short-lived retirement, which she left to work for the Brooklyn Navy Yard where she and the rest of the executive team brought in Wegmans supermarket and a food hall in The Yard industrial park. She also worked on re-establishing The Yard’s connection with the community. Following that, she worked for the Cuomo administration as both the executive vice president at Empire State Development and executive director of the New York State Division of Minority and Women’s Business Development. 

Among her greatest challenges was working for the Local Iniatives Support Corporation’s New York City chapter in April 2020, mere weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown began. White had to work with a team she would not see in person for many months. She now is the senior executive director of LISC New York statewide.

Despite the pandemic, White forged ahead to continue building up the urban communities she knew had the potential and opportunity to be developed and invested in. This included analyzing credit, working with investors both nationally and globally, navigating the politics of community development, and establishing affordable housing in an increasingly expensive city. White spoke to New York Nonprofit Media about her work building up as many urban communities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get this position at LISC-NY?LISC is an investor for the Navy Yard, and they know how to get the investors and the capital needed. When the job became available, I just threw my hat in. 

And you were hired one month after the pandemic began?I resigned on March 9th but I stayed on an additional four weeks with the state. LISC understood the importance because they were also deep in it. It was a very, very interesting time. And the murder of George Floyd had a horrific impact on these communities, it all happened very quickly, real quick. It was a bit stressful starting a new job with no meeting of the team. We just mobilized quickly; we just had to go. It was a year and a half before meeting anyone in-person. 

It sounds like you had your hands full during the pandemic. How did you get through it?We were so focused on providing services. We worked with those facing rent insecurity and mortgage insecurity. We were giving out grants to support small businesses. We had to cross pollinate our capital and human capital to work on affordable housing at this point. But mostly, it was the housing and helping people through that difficult time.

What is your proudest moment working to secure affordable housing? And developing affordable housing?

When I was early in my career and at Standard & Poor’s, I led the development of a new rating methodology, the S&P Public Housing Authority Credit Assessment, after a new law allowed PHA’s to issue debt based on future funding. The exercise analyzed PHAs to determine their readiness to obtain a bond rating based on this pledge of future appropriated capital as security. This methodology served as the foundation for the development of many other ratings criteria including Capital Fund Securitizations, Public Housing Authority Issuer Credit Ratings, Social Housing Issuer Credit Ratings, and Community Development Financial Institution Ratings, playing an important role in breaking down historic barriers to capital.

What are some of the lessons you've learned in your long career?

Generally, in affordable housing, everyone wants the same thing – more affordable units. But the distinctions come in when we get into “what does affordable mean and how do you achieve it.” In my 30 years of experience, these meanings have changed, but through it all the struggles for capital and the tools needed to deliver affordable homes have been consistent. I’ve learned that I must not only listen to others and hear their perspectives, but also be nimble and sometimes shift my own thinking to keep moving toward our shared goals.  

You mentioned talking to electeds on affordable housing. Can you describe the process more, the difficulties and the easier parts, in both Albany and City Hall?

It's important to know which electeds who are in alignment, or close to alignment, with your position, and know how to speak with those electeds who are not necessarily in alignment, but need convincing. And it’s key to know how to make a direct and clear argument. You have to understand that they’re busy, but also understand it as a real opportunity to discuss policy and not to shy away from whoever is not in alignment with your position and going so far as to encourage and pursue those engagements. We speak to electeds on a variety of things. We tell them about racial economics, lack of inventory, and how homeownership in New York City is going down.  

What are your plans for LISC going forward?We’re going to build up our portfolio and target real estate. We’ll look at areas of growth, such as Syracuse and its mega chip plant; that would lead to an economic boom. Then there are also climate issues like flash floods and basement apartments. At LISC-NY, we are very committed to raising capital and getting populations and communities to equality. There is a broad range of opportunities out there. 

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