What is your current job and how did your planning degree prepare you for it?
I am a Community Development Specialist for affordable housing with the City of Madison, Wisconsin. My work at the City primarily focuses on managing our $5 million per year Affordable Housing Fund, which is a loan fund that provides leverage to private developers seeking Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs). While the primary purpose of this fund is to leverage other funding sources and make applications from the City of Madison more competitive for LIHTCs, our team has developed stricter requirements attached to these funds, based on how we have seen developments operate since starting the program. These include providing guidelines for flexible tenant screening criteria and ensuring that affordable units for extremely low-income households are maximized. In addition to the Affordable Housing Fund, I manage several contracts that leverage the City's federal funds that we provide to non-profit organizations to build smaller-scale affordable housing developments, improve community facilities, and create jobs for low-income individuals. I love being able to see the direct impact of my work just from driving around town or interacting with residents that have benefited from the affordable housing my office and I have helped create. The City of Madison has some of the highest rents and property values in Wisconsin, so lowering the barrier to many disadvantaged families to help them gain stability in this expensive market is rewarding, and something that will have a lasting impact on those families and the local economy as well. My urban planning education at the University of Illinois prepared me in numerous ways for working in the community development and affordable housing sectors. While pursuing my bachelor's degree, I learned so much about the various forces that comprised the complex housing market and got an excellent introduction on housing policy from Professor Greenlee. After taking his course, I became incredibly passionate about affordable housing and completed my master's Capstone report on the topic of affordable housing and neighborhood stability in Baltimore, Maryland.
Prior to my job with the City of Madison, I worked at Gorman & Company, which is an affordable housing development company. There I learned almost everything I know about how the industry works, the financing that goes into tax credit developments, and the complex structure that makes affordable housing deals so much different from building market-rate apartments. Before arriving in Madison, I was a real estate consultant with RCLCO, where I performed detailed market analyses throughout the east coast and southern United States. While a student at the University of Illinois, I interned for the Cities of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Chesapeake in southeastern Virginia, as well as at Harbor Group International, a real estate investment company headquartered in Norfolk. In addition to my internships, I was a consultant and project manager at Illinois Business Consulting, the largest student-run consulting organization in the United States that operates out of the College of Business, where I received a minor in Business.
Why did you choose to study urban planning?
I have been fascinated with cities and urban development since I was 10 years old, when my family moved from Arkansas to Virginia Beach. At the time new developments such as light rail were just beginning to gain traction in the region, and the City was starting to develop a downtown amid the urban sprawl that characterizes most of Virginia Beach. When I began looking at colleges and different majors to pursue, I learned that urban planning was not simply an odd interest of mine; it was, in fact, a career path! Although my specific interests within urban planning were redefined during my college career, my passion for cities never wavered.
What advice would you share with someone who is considering a career in urban planning?
Never be afraid to learn or do something new. When I first began my urban planning coursework, I was sure that I wanted to focus on comprehensive (long-term) planning and have a career in the public sector. Through my various internships and countless hours in the classroom, my interests in urban planning changed to my current passion of affordable housing. The professors you will meet and the experiences you have both in and out of the classroom will teach you new perspectives, and potentially even light a fire within you to solve a problem you may have never previously considered.