Public Service Spotlight
Kathleen Mullin (MUP '05)
Rosalind Ross (MUP '05)
and Olivia Stinson (MUP '06)
Rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast Region
Kathleen Mullin (MUP '05), Rosalind Ross (MUP '05), and Olivia Stinson (MUP '06) are urban planners who moved to New Orleans in 2007 (Stinson in January and Mullin and Ross in September), within two years after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, to work on the redevelopment of the city. On March 31, 2009 they completed a fellowship sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Urban Redevelopment Excellence. This eighteen month program trains urban development professionals in the field, with a particular focus on increasing capacity in New Orleans as part of the recovery and development effort. When asked how the redevelopment has gone so far, Mullin acknowledges that New Orleans still has a long way to go in terms of its recovery, but, she says, "I am proud to see what has been accomplished in our tenure [here]."
Throughout their fellowship, Mullin, Ross, and Stinson have been placed as project managers at Providence Community Housing, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster healthy, diverse and vibrant communities by developing, operating and advocating for affordable, mixed-income housing, supportive services and employment opportunities for individuals, families, seniors and people with special needs. As project managers, the three are "responsible for all phases of the development of multi-family projects - from design development to leasing," Ross explains. It's a job that gives them exposure to the entire development process. Stinson says she enjoys seeing "a project through from beginning to end...I like to see how dollars turn into structures for people to live in." She also enjoys the "challenge of making things as beautiful and healthy as possible, with little money as well as other restrictions." The challenge is no small feat. "Not only do you have your ‘typical' urban problems," says Ross, "but you are also rebuilding a city that was 80 percent underwater with over 100,000 units of housing damaged or destroyed. It's the typical urban city problems multiplied by 1000!" Making matters worse, adds Stinson, is "the economic crisis affecting the global housing and development markets." Mullin agrees, explaining that the "downturn in tax credit market has caused projects to lose investors and to stall progress in meeting our housing production goals."
Despite the economic downturn, there is a lot of pressure to make progress. Stinson explains that "there are a lot of expectations to meet here in terms of the recovery...the expectations for performance at the Federal level and the realities of capacity at the local level don't always match up. We are always negotiating that balance."
"You are talking about a massive rebuilding effort," says Ross. "To overcome, you have to persevere to get your projects in line for development; keep in mind the overall impact you are having on the people, this city, and the region and remember that your part (how small or large) is to make a positive step in the right direction." Reminders that things are indeed moving in the right direction bring all three of these planners gratification. "I particularly enjoy meeting with the residents who are returning to New Orleans - and who have endured many challenges in getting back home again," says Mullin. "It makes the frustration of getting a project off the ground worth it."
Working in the Multi-Family Development Department of Providence Community Housing, Mullin, Ross, and Stinson each have several different projects that they manage, with a pipeline totaling 950 units at the moment. The organization as a whole has a five-year goal to bring home 20,000 victims of Katrina by rebuilding and/or developing 7,000 units of housing - both single-family homes and apartments. They are about to begin the first phase construction of a public housing redevelopment in the heart of the city and thus far "we have opened five developments," says Mullin, "giving over five hundred seniors and families a place to call home again."
"It's amazing to see what it takes to pull off the creation of housing," says Stinson. Ross adds that during the completion of her most recent project, "I remember seeing the neighbors starting to paint and fix their houses. It was definitely good to see how your project can give others motivation to know their neighborhood is coming back and filled with people again." Although their fellowship is over, the three Wagnerites plan on staying on in their positions for the time being. Stinson explains that "it has been wonderful to work for an organization that is making a very real and visible impact on the physical city." As Mullin puts it, "as a planner, it is great to see plans become real places."
Mullin, Ross, and Stinson are not the only Wagner alumni working on the redevelopment of the gulf coast. Robin Barnes (MUP ‘98) is leading Seedco-Financial's Gulf Coast office, Amanda Guma, (MPA '06) is the Health and Human Services Policy Director for the Louisiana Recovery Authority and Oliver Wise (MPA '08) is a Research Assistant for the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute.