Q&A with Jovan Burton, Partnership for Housing Affordability
As our region continues to see increasing momentum around housing issues and housing solutions, the Community Foundation sat down with two of the leaders championing these efforts through the Richmond Regional Housing Framework: Jovan Burton, Director of Implementation for the Partnership for Housing Affordability, and Lea Whitehurst-Gibson, Executive Director of Virginia Community Voice. Read on to learn more from Jovan Burton, and stay tuned to hear from Lea Whitehurst-Gibson.
How did the Richmond Regional Housing Framework come about, and what is your role within it?
Jovan Burton: The article that came out in April 2018 changed a lot of things by calling attention to the eviction crisis across the country and showing that Richmond was at #2 on the list of cities with the highest eviction rates. Five of the top ten cities for eviction rates were in Virginia, too, so at the state level there was kind of this revelation – we have laws that really encourage and make it easier to evict someone. At the local level, what can we do to prevent and divert that? That was the idea behind putting together the Regional Housing Framework.
Very early on in this process, our former executive director said, “We’re not going to do a plan that’s just data that will sit on the shelf. We need consistent effort behind it to drive that plan forward, and we need buy-in from our localities.” As the Director of Implementation, my role is to eat, breathe and sleep this framework every day and work to ensure that the findings within it don’t sit on the shelf – that the findings evolve into solutions, and that these solutions are informed by a commitment to equity as much as they are by anything else.
What have you learned through the process of creating this framework that might surprise people?
JB: We learned that the number one reason that students at Reynolds Community College seek emergency loan funding is because of housing insecurity. These are professionals looking to achieve a short-term trade certification that would increase their pay by as much as 50% through a program that’s funded by Virginia’s community college system, but people are delaying and not completing these programs because of housing instability.
We also heard from the people at Goodwill who said that the biggest barrier for their clients, once they acquire gainful employment, is transportation and housing. These issues feed into employment instability because people can’t get to work, or they don’t have somewhere stable to stay.
Often, people think housing is about building, and it’s much more than that. It’s also preservation. It’s also looking at the lingering impacts of eviction and foreclosure. Credit history was the number one reason for home loan denials in the City of Richmond in 2016, and foreclosures and evictions have significantly detrimental impacts on folks’ credit. This framework is about access to housing, which means invariably that there are barriers to that access, and we have to figure out how we can remove those barriers.
What are the next steps for the housing framework?
JB: When we launched the framework on January 15, we called it a launch because we wanted folks to see this as the beginning. There are priority solutions within the framework that we’ve identified, based on what we heard from our community engagement in 2019. Now, we’re figuring out how we can mobilize around those priorities and create extra sources of funding – and also how we can find solutions that don’t require funding, like zoning changes that allow for more multi-family development.
This is a big challenge and it’s going to take years to put a dent in, but I think that having this mode of operation for increasing access to housing opportunities through policy and through partnerships is critical.
How did you get involved in this work, and why are you passionate about it?
JB: I was in Americorp VISTA right after college, in the first-ever affordable housing cohort right here in the Richmond region, and that was my entryway. I also worked at VHDA with the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which is super complex, but I missed being engaged with local governments, local community members, and everyone in between. So now, I get to work around housing policies and also do engagement, working with different stakeholders that I wouldn’t have thought I’d have the opportunity to otherwise.
Seeing just how complex and vast of an issue housing is, but also knowing how foundational it is to health and to education, I really think it can be the engine of opportunity for our region. That’s where my passion is, along with having the opportunity to redress disparities that we see and increase access to opportunity.
What do you like to do outside of work?
JB: There’s very little that I’m able to do outside of housing, but that’s by choice! I’m president of the junior board for Housing Families First, which is the largest shelter in the region that accepts families and children experiencing homelessness. It allows me to see the other side of housing; we work on the policy, development and preservation side, but to see families that are experiencing homelessness and the challenges they face, and to work with a great organization that is a tremendous steward of public funds and private dollars, it’s a remarkable atmosphere to see the impact that can happen with families experiencing homelessness.
I’m also at VCU’s Wilder School studying public administration right now. In my true free time, what I really love to do is read, whether that’s biographies or anything history-related – though housing always finds a way to creep into whatever content I’m reading. I love sports as well, though they’re not always kind. Being a fan is a great way to get away from other things for a moment.
If you’d like to know more about the ways you can get involved with the Richmond Regional Housing Framework, please contact Community Engagement Specialist Florencia Fuensalida at firstname.lastname@example.org.