Kelsey Oesmann, Urban Housing Solutions (UHS) director of design and development, compares the organization’s complicated, layered and sometimes messy developments to a hot fudge sundae.

As Nashville’s largest nonprofit provider of affordable homes, UHS develops creative alternatives for individuals and families seeking attractive, accessible communities.

We recently spoke with Kelsey about the organization’s mission, challenges, recent accomplishments and future. And, of course, the delicious ice cream analogy.

Enterprise: Say a little bit about the work that you do at Urban Housing Solutions.

Kelsey Oesmann: As the director of design and development, I lead the team responsible for our new affordable housing projects. This includes new construction, adaptive reuse and acquisition and rehabilitation – from concept through construction. That starts with engaging the community to craft a vision for the project, building a team to execute it and ensuring quality control through delivery. We work with our in-house operations and resident service teams to ensure that those projects are sustainable, responsive and support resident well-being long after the project is built.

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Photo of Kelsey Oesmann
Kelsey Oesmann

E: How are Section 4 grants – HUD capacity-building funds – used at your organization? What do you hope to accomplish when the project is completed?

KO: UHS has benefitted from several rounds of Section 4 capacity-building funds – including supporting my initial work with the organization as an Enterprise Rose Fellow! These funds have helped our team access technical assistance through talented consultants who have been critical in accessing new funding sources, understanding compliance and executing larger and more complex projects.

Most recently, Section 4 has supported our transition to a new and more sophisticated property management software, which will streamline our operations and allow us to better serve our residents. It has also enabled us to access PolicyMap to better utilize data to guide our strategic plans, and ARGUS financial modeling tools.

We’re a relatively small team, so these funds have helped us maximize our internal resources and have even more impact.

E: How have the last two to three years challenged you at Urban Housing Solutions? What has been the hardest part for UHS? For your residents?

KO: Over the past two to three years our organization has undergone some significant transitions, and while we’re heading in an exciting direction, it hasn’t been easy. Along the way, we’ve also encountered project setbacks tied to the Covid-19 pandemic – skyrocketing construction costs, long material lead times and now rising interest rates.

The hardest part has been managing through all the uncertainty, but it has been a good reminder of the importance of relationships and partnerships, and that doing things well is often better than doing things quickly.

For our residents and neighbors, the financial strain of the pandemic was evident. Our team worked hard to connect people to federal rental assistance resources because navigating those programs was often confusing and time-consuming. It also highlighted the importance of our service coordination team for early intervention to connect people with resources as quickly as possible.

E: What have you learned in this unique and challenging time? Will you make any permanent changes going forward?

KO: Personally, I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask for help. When you have a strong team of mission-driven partners and allies who are committed to making the vision a reality, you can lean on the collective problem-solving abilities and resources when you encounter a speed bump.

It’s a two-way street, so it also requires showing up for others – even if the common ground isn’t obvious. We are all about housing, but that’s inextricably linked with areas like transportation and employment – so we show up for those things, too. In the end, we’re trying to build a more affordable city, and we can’t do that alone.

E: What do you think will change about affordable housing over the next five years? How are you excited about Urban Housing Solutions impacting that change?

KO: I’m optimistic that a new infusion of tools and resources will enable affordable housing to do even more for our residents and communities. We’re asking our buildings to accomplish a lot, exploring new ways to use design for maximum impact – both for our residents and the broader community.

We’re prioritizing sustainability, resilience, accessibility, and connectivity, and hoping to demonstrate savings elsewhere - in energy costs, resident health spending and transportation costs, for example.

We’re also seeing more non-traditional partners get involved with housing, such as healthcare institutions and houses of worship. At UHS we’re excited to be able to share our experience and creativity to help those partners use their resources and contribute to the broader mission of housing for all our neighbors.

I think the movement toward creative models that share power, resources and wealth are especially exciting. Historically the way to build wealth in America has been through homeownership, but that’s not accessible or desirable for everyone.

Our team is piloting a community-driven request for proposal process on an upcoming project, for example, and hope to continue to find ways to engage our residents and neighbors in shaping our communities.

E: What else should people know about Urban Housing Solutions? What makes UHS unique as an organization in the affordable housing arena?

KO: I sometimes say that UHS rarely does “vanilla” affordable housing projects – we’re more of a “hot fudge sundae” kind of organization. We don’t shy away from the complicated, messy projects with lots of layers, which we’re able to do through the grace and support of so many incredible partners and an amazing team.

We don’t always get it right, but trying the hard things keeps us from getting stagnant and makes us more open to creative and innovative solutions.