Spotlight on Affordable Housing
September 8, 2020
Josie Williams, Executive Director, Greensboro Housing Coalition
Greensboro Housing Coalition Executive Director, Josie Williams, sat down with us to share her experiences navigating the housing system, homelessness, and how she has committed her life to ensuring others don't experience the same fate.
1. Can you tell us more about Greensboro Housing Coalition and your role in the organization?
Greensboro Housing Coalition (GHC) is an advocacy referral agency that advocates for affordable housing solutions with low-to-moderate income individuals. We’ve been in existence for 30 years and primarily focus on homeless prevention, foreclosure prevention, mortgage counseling, and ensuring access to healthy homes. In the last four or five years, we started our Community-Centered Health work and began engaging on a deeper level with policy, systems, and environmental changes by partnering with other sectors such as the county health system and health care.
I’m currently the Executive Director and previously served as Project Coordinator for Community-Centered Health and most recently, Director of Community Engagement.
2. You joined GHC in 2016 as Project Coordinator. How does that experience and the relationships you built inform your leadership as Executive Director?
I think starting as Project Coordinator at GHC served as a growth catalyst and a skillset builder for me. It strengthened my leadership, and I don’t think I would have been prepared for my role as Executive Director without it. It also taught me how to work at different levels with different individuals. I say that because I first joined GHC in 2014 as intern. I had an internship with them as an adult student. I later graduated at age 42 with my undergraduate degree in Community and Justice Studies.
I started as an intern with GHC because their mission resonated with me. I was looking for the opportunity to work with people who were really trying to make a difference in the world of affordable housing and community. I had an experience with homelessness for about a year or so in my life and it took about six years before I felt like I was stabilized. During the time that I was homeless, I learned about systems – how systems perpetuate inequalities and how systems can keep you in a loophole of disenfranchisement. At least that’s how I felt because even when I was able to find a place to stay, it was because someone gave me keys to an apartment and kept the lights and water on for me in their name until I could pay the bill. In that moment, that taught me something: no system helped me come out of that situation. It was the generosity and trust of an individual who was willing to give me a break. That’s what we need more of – trust and willingness to “give breaks.” That can be done in philanthropy, it can be done in housing, and it can be done in all systems we have.
Homelessness is also where I learned about community. To this day, it is the most tight-knit and supportive community I’ve ever seen. Growing up, I lived in an all-black, low-income, redlined community and we took care of one another, so my understanding and relatability in the community context of how we work now comes from those experiences. And when I found GHC, I felt like their mission spoke directly to my experiences.
Greensboro is number seven on the Top Evicting Large Cities in the United States rankings and number one in North Carolina. This means that every day, 13.56 people are evicted in Greensboro.
3. What would people be surprised to know about housing in North Carolina?
Many of the systems I had to face when I was homeless are the same systems we’re fighting against today. When I was living in my car and finally found a full-time job making $9.50/hour, I went to try and get subsidized housing, but was told I made $5 over the limit to qualify. They recommended I sell my car, but my car was my only means of reliable transportation. When I joined GHC as an intern 14 years later, I worked with a woman who was in the same position and receiving the same counsel – sell your car to pay for housing. The issue is that transit systems aren’t always reliable, and here in Greensboro, we don’t have the infrastructure that would make one feel comfortable navigating back and forth to work. You can certainly do it, but you may have children you also need to get to school or daycare, a route that requires two buses, or no nearby bus stop. That’s not always effective. So, when you tell someone to get rid of their reliable transportation to make the money they need to survive, that is an ineffective system and that’s what we’re working to change.
Aside from that, I’m not sure if anything would necessarily be surprising because our nation was in a housing crisis before COVID-19. That said, I think what’s happening in individual cities might be more surprising to people. In North Carolina, the eviction rate is 4.61% – 2.27 higher than the national average. Greensboro is number seven on the Top Evicting Large Cities in the United States rankings and number one in North Carolina. This means that every day, 13.56 people are evicted in Greensboro. In 2018 in Guilford County, an average of 14 writs were issued every day and 416 were issued per month, according to the Guilford County Clerk of Court.
4. We know that COVID-19 is impacting every sector and magnified inequities that already existed. Can you share more about the pandemic's impact on housing?
There is a low-income area in every city largely full of black and brown people who are being impacted by the pandemic and who were already in a crisis related to access to care, economic stability, lack of affordable housing, inefficient infrastructures for transportation, etc. When you add something on top of that – something as dangerous as COVID-19 – of course it’s going to have a greater impact on communities who were already in need. When you hear about the impact the pandemic is having on neighborhoods today, that is why.
If you just look at Cottage Grove here in Greensboro, they did not get testing in their community until June. Yes, testing has picked up and there is a great deal of testing happening now, but at the beginning when things were most uncertain, it was harder for lower-income communities to get access to testing. For similar communities that are just getting testing, you can look at the intersection of poverty, housing, and race and it will probably correlate to historically dis-invested communities.
Building equity is not a passive movement. You must be willing to step out beyond your comfort zone, have honest discussions, and move toward equitable change.
5. On a related note, how do you see race and racism operating in housing? What can we do to improve equity in housing?
I see it in how people are treated, lack of access based on your skin color or background; I see it in economic stability, or instability rather, because when we’re looking at marginalized communities or individuals, they usually lack access or the ability to maintain housing.
In order to do things in an equitable way, we first must ask ourselves hard questions and sit with honest answers. If we’re really looking at how to build up equitable systems and structures, we can’t do that without the political will to do so. We can’t do it without larger foundations and larger entities that have the power, influence, and funding to open opportunities for powerful, honest discussions that will lead to equitable change. It is not enough to just talk about it. If we aren’t going to have follow up actions or steps to do the work and be different, then the conversations don’t mean anything.
Building equity is not a passive movement. You must be willing to step out beyond your comfort zone, have honest discussions, and move toward equitable change. For us, that means figuring out how to build low-income, affordable housing where someone can only afford to pay $650 or less for a two-bedroom apartment. That’s rare and if you do find it, it’s usually a subpar property. Again, if we’re talking about building equity, it takes political will and the desire to really do something. If we can put $20M into a parking deck, can we not work together to get a return on investment for one of the greatest needs?
6. What does the path forward look like for your team and community members at this time?
Honestly, I think it looks great. We won't come out of this or create change quickly, but sometimes the race is not given to the swift, it is given to those who endure. We're on a path of endurance. It won't come quickly, but I'm hopeful because I see the progress and momentum playing out right now and the equitable changes being formed. I believe we'll see more of it. The pathway is still long, but I’m grateful to see people working side by side and enduring.
I find hope seeing people seeking to better understand disparities and root causes and listen to the voices of others in pain who have been at the center of discriminatory practices and most impacted by systemic inequities.
7. What is giving you hope in your work?
I’m finding hope in what I see welling up within others and the momentum that people are trying to progress towards. I find hope seeing people seeking to better understand disparities and root causes and listen to the voices of others in pain who have been at the center of discriminatory practices and most impacted by systemic inequities. I’m also inspired to see community members developing a sense of knowing that their voice matters as much as any other person in this country.
8. What are ways people or organizations can get involved or support?
For philanthropic organizations, flexibility in funding is critical. Since we were already in crisis before COVID-19, we are thinking about how we create a process, system, or structure regarding funding that opens up access or flexibility to nonprofits. Another way for philanthropy to get involved is to create requirements that will move the grantee toward racial equity, diversity and inclusion, and cultural competency. And lastly, allow for capacity building in all aspects – individual and organizational.
For individuals, I recommend supporting and volunteering with organizations whose mission resonates with you. Even if you’re not familiar with the organization, just being alongside people who are in the midst of difficult situations is very helpful.
About the Author
Josie Williams is the Executive Director of Greensboro Housing Coalition. Learn more at greensborohousingcoalition.org.