Fireside chat with Mayor Randall Woodfin and NCRC Board Chair, Catherine Crosby at The 2022 Just Economy Conference

Mayor Randall Woodfin and NCRC Board Chair, Catherine Crosby discuss neighborhood revitalization and developing programs that reduce homeownership and affordable housing barriers in their communities. 


Moderator: Ed Gorman, Chief Community Development Officer, NCRC

Speakers: Catherine Crosby, Board Chair, NCRC,  Mayor Randall Woodfin, Mayor of Birmingham 


NCRC video transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. They are lightly edited for style and clarity.

Gorman 00:00

Our honored guests here is Mayor Randall Woodfin. He has played a major role in those successes both of the BDRC and the city of Birmingham for more than a decade. Before he was elected to his current post in 2017, as mayor, he served on our school board is president. He’s also been one of the city’s attorneys. And so I’ve been proud to work with Mayor Woodfin on a range of projects, none of which I think will be talked about more or that’s more important than growth. And I’ll look at a girl woman as I say that, because it’s given us a chance to work with aid and the city of Birmingham to really make a difference in our community. So here with aid and Mayor Woodfin is Katie Crosby, the Board Chair of NCRC. Now, when Katie’s not busy helping keep us on track, and making sure that we’re doing the right things and and give she’s given assignments at the board meetings. Katie, please don’t give me another one. I’d appreciate it. But her day job, she is city manager at the town of APEX, North Carolina. So these folks have field level experience. I think you’re going to enjoy their conversation. I’m going to turn it over to Ed Gorman. So Ian, take it away.

Gorman 01:16

Thank you, Bob. Welcome, again, everybody. Glad to see so many folks out there. And if you have friends and neighbors in the hallway, come on in. So I have the privilege of talking with Mayor Woodfin and board chair, Katie Crosby, about their respective experiences in Birmingham and Apex. And a little bit about how they got to where they got to at the midway through and towards the end of this conversation, we’ll also talk about their creativity, use of federal funds to get things done that other mayor’s may not have had the opportunity to do. So we’re at a moment in time that we get a chance to talk about here. So without further ado, Mayor Woodfin. You were recently elected, I will say by quite a wide margin to a second term leading the city of Birmingham. Would you talk a little bit about your background and what it is? Had you kind of decided to run for office?

Woodfin 02:17

Yeah, well, first, good afternoon, everybody. It’s good to be here with you. At this conference, I’m excited about my city of Birmingham’s partnership with NCRC. And particularly with growth. Madam Chairwoman, it’s good to be with you as well. When in when in when anytime anybody asked me a question about why I decided to run for mayor, I always just always start with the personal and home I grew up in a home. There were never less than eight people who lived in that home. So if you’re listening to that, sometimes that meant more more than eight people lived in my home growing up. And my mother is one of eight children. My dad is one of six and I’m going to connect that at some point via the q&a. But having grown up in the city of Birmingham and having family lived all over the city of Birmingham, I fell in love with my home at a very early age. That led me to leaving Birmingham for a little while and I attended Morehouse College. It spoke this morning about at a guest. One of the areas we were talking about what’s the importance of Morehouse and the conversation went into all these people. Morehouse have produced Morehouse, the intersection of Morehouse was not only academic rigor, but in addition to that leadership, and community service, leadership, community service. And I think for me, it was important that I go back home and make a difference in the community that I grew up in seeing all the things I saw as a child that I didn’t like, and and learning how to bring solutions to those problems. And out of college. I’ve been in and around city government probably since 2003. And so I only know municipal, local government, and I think in municipal local government, from a democracy standpoint, as a participatory sport. It’s actually where you can make a tangible difference in people’s lives. And that’s why I decided to run.

Gorman 04:11

Terrific. You Yeah, we could do that. Come on. So town manager, Crosby, or would you prefer I address you as Katie? Katie? Thank you. All right. You’ve been a servant leader in two cities in Ohio before moving to apex. Yeah. Talk a little bit about your motivation, why you’re doing what you’re doing. And maybe we’ll talk a little bit too about the differences between the cities you were working in in Ohio and now where you are in apex. Sure.

Crosby 04:43

So very similar to the mayor’s experience. I got into this work because I wanted to get back into the community. One of five children. I was the first to graduate from college. My dad was incarcerated from the time that I was 13 to 25 So my mom was a single mom trying to, you know, take care of five kids. And I think she did a fantastic job because she did. Thank you. Not just for me, but more. So when I look at my my siblings, and I think for for families like ours, people count us out. And we very much I think, we were against the odds, we went against the odds. And so for me, it was about giving back to a community that looked very similar to the one that I was raised in. I never forget reading the book evicted, and having a conversation with my mom about some of her experiences that I didn’t know about about quid pro quo experiences that she had, and people making assumptions about how many baby daddies she had. And it just reaffirmed my commitment to community and wanting to change the lives of people who grew up the way that I grew up, who lived in communities, the way that I lived, and ended up meeting a mentor who actually used to be on the board of NCRC, Commissioner Dean Lovelace, he got me very engaged in community reinvestment. And that’s how I ended up on the board. And so at making the decision to say I wanted to be in a position, a decision making position where I could direct resources to communities, like where I was raised, and I could, in fact, impact policy that really benefited the communities where I was raised more than was similar to what I was raised in, I really made me pursue this position. And we were just talking behind me, before we came out about how difficult it is to want to affect change, and to be in positions of leadership and have to, you know, have these competing and conflicting values, with with limited resources, limited resources, which brings me to my next comment. So growing up in Ohio, I worked in Dayton, Ohio, and I worked in Toledo, Ohio, and the average immediate area income was about 36,000. In both communities. I now live in APEX, which is a very affluent community, and the average median income is $110,000. And in both communities, we’re having an affordable housing crisis, we’re gonna get into that. Very different experience. Yeah,

Gorman 07:06

Incredible. So Mayor Woodfin, you’re in your second term, four and a half years in? What’s going right and what’s not moving fast enough for you?

Woodfin 07:19

So what’s going right is, and I’ve shared this with you, I’ve shared this recently with my own team. Any mare that sits in this seat, sits out and sits before an audience with blinding lights and can’t see you, but you can see them and tells you they’re doing all the work themselves and everything, all the successes because of them there, they will be lying to you. A marriage is only as strong as their team. And I had a mayor Tell me a little over four years ago, that the first question he was asked six months into the job, or 100 days into the job, what have you accomplished? His response was I’m building my team, six months into the job. What have you accomplished? I’m building my team, and a year into the job, what have you done? What have you accomplished. And his response to the public in the media was I built my team? I am fortunate to have a supporting cast of folk I’ve stolen from the private sector borrow. I borrow talent, I’ve stolen talent. I’ve got talent on loan, to come into City Hall to have to figure out a way for us to reimagine how we grow our community, how we grow our city, to think outside of the box. And that’s a mix. Some folks have been in City Hall some have not. But to bring all that talent in has allowed us I’m not gonna even say me but we as our to accelerate growth in Birmingham. So the thing I’m most proud of is that the team on the ground is pushing this conversation around affordable homeownership. I would say the challenge is always resources. There are always a limited, everybody thinks a city, that cash grows on trees, but it doesn’t work like that.

Gorman 09:13

Well, this, I think is a great opportunity to hear from both of you about the use of resources. And specifically I think folks in the audience want to know, in particular, I know Mayor Woodfin you are and Katie, I suppose you were as well, I’m not sure, but an early adopter along the path of using federal money for your projects in a way or in ways that other people weren’t doing. And in fact, taking chances in a sense, because nobody told you you had a green light to do it. You just forged ahead to did it. And now what I think we’re seeing is a lot of mayors are starting to follow that lead. So if you would both talk a little bit about, you know, your willingness to take a chance on doing things and other people might not have said was okay. But you knew was right for your city. Gotcha. Okay, you want to go first?

Crosby 10:06

Yeah, perfect. That’s always good to go before politics. I’m teasing. I’m teasing. I’ve worked. I’ve worked in the political arena for a long time. So she knows me first. So I’ll talk a little bit about my previous community, because I think, you know, when I was in Toledo, that was one of the things that we were doing was trying to figure out, look, we have a structural deficit, and we have a lot of need in our community, how can we use our art performance more specifically, to address those needs? And so, you know, before the Treasury finally produced the recommendations on how to use the Treasury dollars, we were really pushing the needle and saying, Look, well, you know, this is a very general statement. So we think that it’s broad enough for us to be able to use our dollars to address racial equity issues to help, you know, a small business development, affordable housing, things that weren’t really specifically spelled out in the treasury dollars. And that’s one of the things that I appreciated about working for the mayor there is that he was willing to strike that. And in North Carolina, the need is a little bit different. And, you know, while we’re using our funds to support affordable housing, we’re also using it for infrastructure. So sewer and water infrastructure to help expand some of our development, and then also to help provide infrastructure, sewer and water infrastructure for some of our most vulnerable communities, which is, which is very small apex, but we’ll talk about that.

Woodfin 11:34

And so for us, in the city of Birmingham, there are two words that had been on repeat since November of 2017, neighborhood revitalization, neighborhood revitalization, they were revitalization. And within they were revitalization. There are all these infrastructure issues you have around it, which include your city’s grid as far as paving streets and sidewalks and parks. And there’s also public safety. But at the root of neighborhood revitalization is actual housing and home ownership. And for this conversation, affordable homeownership. And so for us, having a homeowner who’s been there is taking risks, but their property value was too low, or they don’t feel safe in their own home. And then when they look to the left or right, there’s either an empty lot or dilapidated structure. We needed to stabilize those neighborhoods first in the conversation, and they were revitalization. But we needed to invest in infill housing. And so taking the risks using the federal dollars, ARPA made sense, and our partnership with NCRC and growth. We know we went into a historic black neighborhood that hadn’t had any development development in over 20 years, then the city of Birmingham needs to pony up some resources to get the private sector to participate in accelerate that growth. I think, for us opera was that once in a lifetime, yes. Once in a lifetime opportunity to use these resources to participate in actual infill housing, and, and do proof to concept and then scale that around our city.

Gorman 13:14

You know, I think it’d be helpful for folks to know that, that the mayor, and I’m sure Katie doing the same thing, that that this money is leveraged, I think almost 10 to one it is. So the private sector money, specifically bank CRA investment has been the the catalytic has played a catalytic role in both both I know, in Birmingham and Katy, I assume, in APEX as well. You know, it’s always a good idea when bankers are in the room to thank them for their investment. So thank you. But I think you know, knowing that you can take this money, because without it, that $10 that you’re trying to get invested doesn’t happen. No, it does. So it’s a great, it was a great and very timely investment for all of you. So Katie, if if we could talk a little bit about how it is that you have affordable housing is the goal wherever you go. But a very different set of problems from the cities. You were in to apex. Now we’ll talk a little bit about that.

Woodfin 14:18

Yeah. So when thinking about Toledo, the challenge there is that the income was so low. The other challenge is is that was really the challenge. Toledo is a very affordable community, for most, but affordability is really defined around what people make and what resources they have available to them. So it wasn’t also it wasn’t only the fact that affordability was a challenge in Toledo but it was also the conditions of the housing right so that if you have poor housing conditions, if you have dilapidated housing similar to what you’re talking about, the cost to the to the owner or the renter goes up because that means they’re they’re less energy efficient. We have issues around with things like that. On the other hand in APEX where we were a rural community that is now becoming more dense, and we’re we’re bringing people in the life sciences, we’re bringing in Facebook, we’re bringing in all this technology, the median income is $110,000, we’re doing affordable housing projects that anywhere from 80 to 100%,for somebody that makes $110,000. So we’re talking about 80% of my staff cannot afford to live in the community that they aren’t responsible for taking care of. And so what we’re doing is a couple of different things. One, we’ve taken a portion of our opinion off of our tax, and we’re putting that towards an affordable housing fund, which is great. So that gets us about 1.2 $1.7 million a year. But the land is so expensive, so it doesn’t stretch very far. The other thing that we’re doing is when we have the new developers come in part of our zoning conditions, we advocate for affordable housing. And so they they add units, so you have the option of doing a fee, or units, our preferences a unit because it doesn’t matter how much of a fee you pay, you can’t afford the land. And so so we’re encouraging units, and then what we’re doing is we’re working with financial institutions, we’re putting a restriction for affordability into the DEA for single family homes. And then we’re working with financial institutions that are willing to lend against that deed. So trying to do a couple of different creative things to help drive affordable housing, but it is definitely a challenge and a more

Gorman 16:32

Well, that probably will be the last I know we limited period of time. So this probably be the last question. But talk a little bit about the challenges you see going forward, rising interest rates, even greater threats to affordability, the need for affordable housing and affordable homeownership unabated. But now we face higher interest rate to kind of future. How do you see us what ideas you think we should be pursuing to try to get more folks in homes and or to do whatever development you’re looking to do? But I you know, affordable homeownership. So the number one community need, according to the folks that we talked to, what do you see going down the road here as we’d see a rising interest rate environment?

Woodfin 17:19

So I think we’re at a very interesting intersection. You have this combination of low unemployment, right? Inflation. But we’re not an A, technically, we’re not in a recession yet. Right. So the the truth? The My honest answer is, I don’t know. Right? That’s, that would be honest, when you have all three of those things in one pot at one time. What does that yield? Because I’m not sure when there was another time, all three of those things existed at the exact same time. One of those is off, right? The inflation part tends to go with the recession. But the unemployment is low, but it turns out in the great resignation, a lot of folks just are not applying for the jobs we need them to apply for. When you are mayor, you need people on the front line. If you’re in support of your hospitals, you need more nurses invest in your your school systems, you need more teachers, making sure people call 911 You need a fire or police officer to actually show up. These are the people we who I defined them as not just working class, but these are the people your middle class. The right investments need to be made in affordable homeownership told the truth as I can’t tell you, I don’t know the answer to that what I can tell you as a city, we need to do everything we can to continue to drive down costs. The question is and the second tranche of opera bonds, how much cannot throw at this problem to continue to support and invest in affordable homeownership, right. When these are performed on longer exists. And you still the question of affordable housing, investing in affordable housing and where those resources come from. That is to be determined. Right.

Crosby 19:06

And I appreciate I appreciate you saying I don’t know, because a lot of people, I think want to say that and won’t say it. You know, what I will say is we need more subsidy to help make housing affordable. But you know, subsidy is expensive and and you know, from our financial institutions, they have lending products that don’t work when you’re trying to when you’re trying to drive down the cost of housing, we we definitely need more philanthropic investment from that perspective. To help create a subsidy just drive it down. For us, probably very similar to the challenge that you’re having. We’re taking some of our affordable housing fund some of our federal dollars to help try to drive down the cost of the land ownership, but that’s only going to go so far. So at some point that’s going to run out. And so you’re gonna have I mean, I’m still running because our 1000 is $500,000 Oh Lord, it’s that’s our average housing price. And so at some point you’re going to drive people out. And then the other concern that we have is just the naturally occurring, affordable housing for our community. So like our mobile home parks, we’re starting to see developers come and want to invest in mobile home parks. And there’s not a lot of opportunity for the folks that live there to own the park if that developer is offering a nice amount of money to sell it. And then that’s the same thing that we’re we’re seeing happening in our communities that are predominantly minority communities where we have people who are longtime home long term home owners, but developers are coming and trying to buy their property. So that’s then also making our community less diverse. So it is, I don’t know, question but a lot of work and not a lot of opportunity to do good work.

Gorman 20:51

But I will say. So thank you to both of you for this conversation. And I think we’re about to hear from somebody I consider one of the most creative bankers in the industry. I don’t expect to he’ll have answers either. Not trying to put you on the spot Steve. But But I will say creative CRA. Interested banks, will help come up with these solutions along with elected leaders like us. So anyway, thank you all for your time. And I know you need to kick us off the stage. Now.

Crosby 21:25

I do need to kick you all out. Nice. It was nice meeting you. Thank you. Thank you.

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