Housing Policy and Making Cities Work for Everyone
Understanding the history of how our cities get built is inexplicability tied to zoning and land use practices.
We spoke with Lee about her goals for the city, how the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the need for rapid change and how she is sheltering in place.
As the City of Atlanta began sheltering in place in late March, Terri Lee’s new workday looked very different.
Like many people accustomed to the fast-paced world of urban planning and development, she found some aspects of her routine slowed. She started saving on her dry cleaning bill and taking more walks with her dog rather than sitting in a car in Atlanta traffic.
She also found herself working longer hours from home — not only because there was no longer any separation between “work” and “home,” but also because the mountain of work Lee was already climbing was now at risk of becoming an avalanche.
Then again, Lee isn’t like many people. Since being appointed as Atlanta’s first Chief Housing Officer in October 2018, she has been charting her own course, tasked with leading the execution and coordination of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ expansive affordable housing vision.
And Lee isn’t turning back now. While she forges ahead through her second year in the position, she is no stranger to Atlanta or the city’s unique challenges. Prior to her appointment, she held the position of Deputy Commissioner of the City of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning for 10 years. A current and past board member of several organizations, including the Freddie Mac National Affordable Housing Council, Trees Atlanta, ULI Atlanta’s Advisory Board and Livable Communities Council, Rebuilding Together Atlanta, HouseATL, the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum Advisory Board as well as a founding board member of the Atlanta Collaborative Land Trust, Lee’s resume is long and continues to grow. She has also taught courses on real estate principles and urban development as a part-time professor at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business and previously directed the City of Atlanta’s Office of Housing for nearly four years.
Still, her passion for employing creative solutions to improve outcomes within the public and non-profit business sectors dates back even further. So, how did Lee get here?
The Turning Point
Lee first realized she wanted to get involved in real estate in her early 20s while attending graduate school at Jackson State University in Mississippi. The circumstances were somewhat of a happy accident.
“I needed a way to pay for school, so I accepted a fellowship which required me to do an internship in economic development,” Lee said. It was the United States Housing and Urban Development’s Patricia Roberts Harris Fellowship, named in honor of the first African-American woman to hold a Presidential cabinet position with her appointment as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the late 1970s.
During her fellowship, Lee had the opportunity to work with the Mississippi Institute for Small Towns, a nonprofit organization that works on federally funded projects all throughout the state of Mississippi. The experience exposed her to a deeper understanding of what the needs of a community would be from an infrastructure standpoint, as well as the social dynamics.
The experience also put her in touch with the head of the organization, Harvey Johnson Jr., who went on to become the first African American Mayor of Jackson and Lee’s mentor.
“It was really interesting to see things that I’d seen throughout my life come together under a formalized environment,” said Lee, who grew up in Grambling, La. where she can trace back her first inspiration to getting involved with her local community.
“I would always watch one of our residents, who would always have a whole bunch of kids with her whether it was Wednesday night Bible study or on Sunday,” said Lee. “I always admired her and the passion she had for helping people. She was one of those community members you could call on and they could always help.
“I later found out it was because she led the town’s Housing Authority and the children she would have with her were residents of the subsidized housing projects,” Lee continued. “It was interesting to me to see the connection between housing as a foundation for stability and how the impact of others who are in that environment could have on the lives of children.
“I didn’t know as a 15-year-old that would be the path that I’d end up on,” Lee said. “Not necessarily having so many children around me but trying to understand how we lift up the community differently and make an impact.”
Staying the Course
After finishing graduate school in 1997, Lee decided to stay in Jackson and continue the work she started during her fellowship because of the opportunities and relationships she built.
She found a job as the associate manager of finance for the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.
“What’s interesting is that the position they hired me for was a result of monetary funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),” she said. “Once I started, I quickly realized what they hired me for was really a seasonal position, since they only accepted financial applications once a year. My work would be like a 3-month process, and then what would I do the other 9 months?”
Ironically, around this same time, one of Lee’s new colleagues was promoted to another role. The state was under a budget crunch at that time, and they couldn’t hire anybody new, so Lee volunteered to basically take on her job responsibilities — leading the Consolidated Plan process for the state.
“I remember my supervisor telling me ‘We can’t pay you for this,’” said Lee. “But the bigger thing for me wasn’t necessarily being paid for it, but just having the opportunity to gain the experience and having a year-round job I was satisfied with that.”
And the opportunity did just that. Lee worked all over the state, attending different county commission meetings and community meetings.
Then in 2000, she reached another turning point. “I remember getting a call from Harvey,” she said. He realized Lee had been offered a position at the City of Jackson, but she initially declined the offer and he wanted to understand why.
“He said he had been following my career, and that now he needed me to come to the City of Jackson to do the work he had taught me how to do while I was in graduate school,” Lee said. “It was so impactful and humbling. I didn’t really know what order my career steps would be. Now I know everything was a step to prepare me to where I’m at now.”
The Way Forward
After four years of working at the City of Jackson, Lee transitioned to Atlanta in 2004. She directed the city’s Office of Housing for another four years before serving as Deputy Commissioner for the past decade, where she established the city’s $75 million Housing Opportunity Bond initiative and implemented strategies to encourage neighborhood stabilization, transformation and growth.
“When I think about successes, I think about the creation of the housing opportunity bond program”, said Lee. “We created the first locally funded housing source back in 2007, which is the Housing Opportunity Fund, and that program over its life has been able to produce massive numbers of housing opportunities for people.”
Since her appointment to Atlanta’s first Chief Housing Officer, Lee has focused on keeping the city moving toward Mayor Bottoms’ promise of a $1 billion investment in affordable housing by 2026. Last June, the City established the first collaborative housing strategy which outlines how to increase production of affordable housing and to make new investment into affordable housing with a focus on innovative, smart and equitable development.
When taking on the unprecedented job description, effective immediately, Lee said she tried to approach everything from a fresh perspective, even though she had been in Atlanta for a while.
“I was still new and this was new for all of us,” she said. “I came into a situation that was a ‘blank white board’ and I had everyone’s opinion as to what I should fill that board with. I took some time and stepped away in a room where I could take all those collective thoughts and place them on a white board, but also place my own thoughts.”
Working with Bloomberg Associates, Lee conducted a series of talks with different people to understand their thoughts, needs, problems and how everyone could work together to be successful.
“While I was interviewing people, I also had to interview myself,” she said. “I had been in the system, too, and I had seen the good, bad and the indifferent. How do we collectively come together to figure out what we need to do? More importantly, how does this role need to be framed? Because it’s not just framing the role for me as the person currently serving in it — it’s framing the role, the position, the policy and quite honestly, the environment for whoever comes after me. How do we continue to build this as a sustainable housing ecosystem in the city of Atlanta?”
Lee said her ability to start breaking down agency silos and having agencies not just talking to each other, but really working together has been very impactful and led to many of the City’s recent accomplishments.
“As of today, we’ve invested over three hundred million dollars – and that’s just public investment – while creating close to 4,300 units. It’s huge from the standpoint that we are delivering on a promise of creating more affordable housing opportunities. We’re also delivering upon a promise of being transparent. We released the Housing Affordability Tracker where you can see that progress, see where the units are and see what the investment was from the public and private perspective.”
The tracker also shows how much work is yet to be done.
“Most people and my team members tell me I’m probably too hard on myself because I just think that until we are really able to make a dent in some of the economic inequality issues, I don’t want to celebrate too much,” Lee said. “I want to stay focused on the fact that we still have work to do. I am proud of the city and of the stakeholders in this city that even before the pandemic, came together to basically say, ‘These issues are important and not only are they important, but we can’t look to government to solve them all by themselves. Now the government has to be a leader and has to be a facilitator, but they can’t do it alone, and we want to join that charge.’”
She says this role and season of life have brought the biggest challenges she has faced professionally, and not just because she took on an unprecedented job description.
“I’ve been the youngest person in the room, the only Black person as well as the only woman, but none of that, in my opinion adds up to where we are today,” she said. “We are living in a time of such unrest, and I’m not just talking about protests. People are looking to the government to not only be more responsive, but also more impactful. We’re trying to attack generations of systemic issues — whether racial, economic or gender related — and change isn’t happening fast enough.”
She added that the pandemic has further exposed the challenges and why it’s now time for less talk and more action, even during a time where resources are very limited.
“This recession is impacting everyone, despite your race, economic situation or educational background — it is not discriminating at all,” Lee said. “It shows the true connectivity between public health and stable, safe, quality housing as well as economic empowerment.”
Her “white board” today is figuring out how to take the good, sound policy and ideas, then accelerate them under an equity lens for true inclusivity in development and provision of affordable housing. “The reality of it is we had an affordable housing crisis before the pandemic and now, during the pandemic and this time of social unrest, it’s becoming more pronounced that we not only have a housing issue, but we also have issues of social unjust. Now how do we truly start looking at the big infrastructure and ecosystem for community development?”
Lee said the conversations and work of Urban Land Institute is instrumental in finding those solutions. Lee first became involved with ULI Atlanta through the Center for Leadership in 2013 after hearing recommendations about the program from influential peers and colleagues. At the time, Lee was looking to build her own professional development.
“I had traditionally seen ULI as a stuffy, white male-dominated organization,” said Lee. “Then I saw the roster of some past classes, and I remember reaching out to Amanda Rhein and asking her questions. That was really the first glimpse I had into ULI that started to change my opinion of the organization as a whole.”
In turn, Lee believes her participating in CFL helped change how others viewed government. “In my class, I was the only representative of government. It was clear to me some people had jaded opinions about government and what government actually does, so I think it was helpful for people to meet me and see the industry isn’t that much different. At the end of the day, there isn’t a monetary profit; it’s more of a satisfaction when you’re able to help someone and uplift the community.”
After graduating from CFL, Lee transitioned to serve as an mTAP co-chair and chair for CFL, and now serves on the Livable Communities Council with Rhein.
“I will honestly tell you I think ULI has the best leadership throughout the county here in Atlanta with Sarah Kirsch, because Sarah gets it,” Lee said. “She gets it not just from the traditional ULI perspective, but she also understands how ULI has transitioned to this new environment and this new age. A lot of the work we at the City have done has been in sync with ULI. ULI has been a very good partner in fostering hard conversations, not only among its leadership and membership but among the community as a whole.
“Serving with ULI has been a very rewarding experience and has opened some doors to conversations I probably wouldn’t have been able to tap into otherwise,” Lee continued. “There is still work to be done to raise the level of minority representation and participation but I think it’s getting better. I’m hopeful that as we walk through this time that ULI and my participation will be very beneficial in helping us move our city forward.”
Taking Time to Recharge
As Lee is finding herself putting in longer hours while teleworking, she says she has difficulty knowing when to stop.
“I’ve been absolutely guilty of focusing too much on my career and not growing me personally,” Lee said. “Over the last five years, I’ve really focused more on who is Terri outside of her professional environment. I’ve learned that it’s okay to take that space to replenish myself so that I’ll be better for me as well for others.”
When she does take breaks to recharge, she enjoys walking her dog, being with friends, listening to music and reading books. Right now, she’s reading “When God Whispers Your Name” by Max Lucado and just purchased “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities” by Andre M. Perry to read next.
“I think it’s really going to speak to the time we’re in right now,” Lee said. “It’s looking at how zoning and the real estate market has been framed in African-American cities and helped to drive the conversation around gentrification.”
Some may be surprised to learn Lee describes herself as an introvert. “I enjoy the quiet time,” Lee said. “The quiet time during the pandemic with social distancing and not being as in touch with people outside a virtual environment has really forced me to do some thinking in a retrospective of what do I want my footprint to be — professionally, personally and spiritually. I’m 47 years old and I’m still thinking about who I want to be when I grow up.”
Her call to action: “I encourage all of us to have the conversations we need to have to build better holistic systems for community development,” she said.
“We have the opportunity to look at public infrastructure investment differently and use that as the launch pad to do holistic and inclusive community development. I’m thinking about the BeltLine and Westside Quarry Park — those are huge public infrastructure investments and quite honestly have been criticized about not having an equitable development framework, so we have an opportunity to figure out how to get it right.”
She also pointed to upcoming opportunities with Atlanta Housing, including redevelopment of public housing sites. “If there was ever a time and ever a need to reposition ourselves differently, it’s now,” she said.
“Let’s be the example,” she continued. “At this point in time, in our communities in cities across the county, the level of expertise, knowledge, possible financial resources and capacity within the ULI membership network could really come in and serve to be a helpmate with our political leadership as a way through this time.”
Understanding the history of how our cities get built is inexplicability tied to zoning and land use practices.