Ann Sewill, Enterprise Southern California Leadership Council Chair
February 15, 2018 - If you ever see Ann Sewill speak on affordable housing, it’s likely you’ll walk away with a deeper perspective on the topic and a few gripping soundbites replaying in your head. It’s not surprising when you consider her extensive background on all sides of the affordable housing sector, including founding vice president and California director of Enterprise Community Partners; assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Housing Department; the executive director of the Los Angeles Community Design Center; and the housing director for the City of Santa Monica. In her current position as a vice president at the California Community Foundation, Ann oversees the organization’s health and housing portfolio, working to develop permanent, affordable housing to stabilize L.A. communities and to address persistent issues and root causes affecting the health of Angelenos.
Ann brings a unique perspective and experience to Enterprise’s Southern California Leadership Council (SCLC). Ann recently accepted the position as chair to the 18-member council, which lends their varied expertise to advance Enterprise’s mission to create well-designed homes that are affordable and connected to community resources.
What sparked your interest in affordable housing?
“When I was young my dad was able to support five of us on a school teacher’s salary and although we often ate rice and beans at the end of the month we never experienced housing insecurity. When I was an undergraduate, I took a class in urban geography. We did field work in Sacramento, to track changes in the neighborhood. Seeing first hand the impact of rent and housing conditions on families’ lives, I realized how fundamental housing is to a family, a neighborhood, a city. If you don’t have a stable, affordable place to live, it’s really hard to be successful.”
That profound experience led Ann to pursue her graduate studies in urban planning and housing at UCLA.
What are some of the important messages about affordable housing?
“For so many years, we’ve been trying different messages and not really hitting it squarely on the head. And even now, I wonder if we are really being successful in conveying to people that housing is part of the infrastructure that we have unevenly decided to subsidized and support in this country. We put a lot of resources into helping people afford home ownership, helping the middle class and higher income people afford their homes. Not very many resources into helping low income renters afford their homes.”
“We act like housing is a privilege that you should earn, but in so many ways it’s something that if you are fortunate to have family support or inherited wealth, you can have a good place to live and the government will even subsidize that with interest deduction.”
But housing insecurity is no longer confined to lower-income households, it’s felt throughout the income spectrum, Sewill noted. In a March 2017 survey, 1,400 residents were asked if they feared becoming homeless. A surprising 30 percent of respondents who earn $60,000 to $90,000 annually said yes, proving that the need for affordable housing is resonating with the general public.
“People realize that if your adult child is looking for their first place or if you are someone ending a relationship and you need a place to live, it’s very tenuous to find an affordable home. It makes a lot of people feel insecure.”
Have there been moments in your work where you’ve had to take risks?
“When I was 31, I became head of what is now Abode Communities. Before I came on staff, they had developed one property, before even the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit was ever created. They syndicated the property the old-fashioned way. They owned one property and were setting out to become an affordable housing developer.”
“We received a grant for $50,000 and that was our entire seed money fund. We borrowed from everybody that we could borrow from to buy land and to pay for predevelopment costs. Our biggest project at the time was Centennial Place in Pasadena with about 125 single room occupancy units with a lot of community spaces below. We used Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, and we used historic tax credits. It was one of those things that if it didn’t close the next week, we were not going to meet payroll. The whole house of cards would come crashing down.”
“We took so many risks to convince people that this organization that was learning while doing could take on a project like the Centennial. We went on to do dozens of projects with that learning.”
“Now that I’m at a foundation and I’m working with nonprofits that take those same risks, I’m very aware that these groups are really talented, really entrepreneurial and really brave. They are stepping out and doing all those things we are asking of them. They are the delivery system for all this permanent supportive housing. They are putting their whole organizational reserves at risk in hope that these things work out.”
“I feel really responsible being part of the entire system that supports and helps them deliver on that. As is Enterprise. As is the City. As are all our partners.”
Now further removed from those uncertain times, Ann laughs recalling that a few days after the Centennial construction loan closed, replenishing Abode’s bank account, her husband turned to her one morning and said, “You sleep the sleep of the closed.”
Certainly, there are all sorts of demands and requests for your time. Why do you choose to serve on Enterprise’s Southern California Leadership Council, and why do you agree to now lead the council?
“Obviously, Enterprise has a very dear place in my heart. Not only because I’m proud of the work that we did, building it and growing it in California during my tenure there, but because it has always remembered the servant leader approach, the belief that Mr. (James) Rouse and the founders of Enterprise brought to it. It’s not ever been arrogant in dealing with its partners. It’s really trying to build up the entire industry and serve it.”
“And it’s really creative in doing it. Enterprise doesn’t just say, ‘Hey we’ve got the solution that we tried somewhere else. So, we’ll bring that here.’ Enterprise has been thoughtful about looking at what the conditions are in Los Angeles and what tools can we bring to it. How do we bring the right solution to the unique need?”
“What I love about the Southern California Leadership Council is not only hearing about those tools and what’s going on locally, but what is happening nationally with policy issues. The people Enterprise brings together are all part of that solutions toolbox – academics, attorneys, lenders, public officials. Everybody’s got different viewpoints of how to advance the overall mission of a good home for every Angeleno.”
“Leading the council? It’s just my turn to step up to support the staff and support the council. To help strengthen all the work at Enterprise.”
What is something about you that most people don’t know?
“About five years ago, I realized that most of what I was doing in my spare time was sitting on different sorts of boards – church, civic organizations and work-related groups. I wasn’t doing anything that was just for fun.
“Not really being a team sports person, I decided to go back to playing the flute, which I had played in elementary, middle and high school. I now belong to an ensemble of flute ladies. We all have the same instructor, and we practice together. Our goal one of these days is to inflict ourselves on nursing home residents and at other venues where we can play together on a regular basis.”
“Now I have another new group of friends. One is a former elementary school principal, one is a former IT person at Children’s Hospital, and one is in neuroscience. I would never had known them and they might never have known about the importance of supportive housing in November 2016, without the flute bringing us together.”