June 15, 2023
Paul Bernard recently completed his first year as President & CEO at Affordable Homes & Communities. We sat down with him for an interview to learn more about his experience at AHC, ideas for the future, favorite movies and books, first job, and so much more.
What’s been your most significant learning since becoming CEO of AHC?
Discovering the history of diverse cultures in our communities – for example, in Arlington, prominent African American history stems back to the early 19th century. Or listening to immigrant stories from our residents, Latin American, Asian, African, etc.
We aren’t monolithic in who we are and serve. Everyone’s story is valuable.
Name three words that come to mind when describing AHC.
Service. Community. Excellence.
How will AHC continue to have success in the future?
If we put people first, mission first – and have the courage to push limits. Likewise, being service oriented and innovative should lead to success. The larger cause must trump the self-interest of a few – our mission will anchor us.
How do you stay connected with residents?
Being available. Asking questions – and listening. At the end of the day, you have to care about people’s well-being. Show up in the places that are important to people. When you show up, it says, “I see you. I care. You matter.”
Being grounded in humility and open to continuous learning also helps.
In this field, sometimes there are misaligned power dynamics whether systemic or otherwise. And we must fight against them constantly, making room for equity.
What excites you most about the next three years at AHC?
The potential to serve more families and communities. And to grow in terms of impact and outcomes, who we are, and what we’re about. The ability to influence the affordable housing industry.
When we take equity seriously and start providing more to those marginalized, left out, or held back, we might be able to influence the industry differently. In turn, we may influence new models, financing tools, and broader partnerships in the space.
How do you think the affordable housing industry will change in the coming years?
I believe the need for affordable housing will continue to increase. We may experience some market turbulence in the real estate sector. Perhaps there will be disruption that opens opportunities. As the issues around affordability get tougher, hopefully, it will bring new partners and participants to the table. Hospitals, universities, transit authorities, and nonprofits such as Goodwill or Habitat (with whom we’re partnering) – they’re already there.
We may also see more opportunities for co-location, mixed-use, and mixed-income. We’ll see more innovation in technology, services, and financing. Plus, we’ll see more advances in sustainability.
What new ideas in the affordable housing industry excite you?
Three areas: equity, sustainability, and financing.
Equity – When we take equity seriously and start seeing that the people (perceived) in the back deserve more, then we might be able to influence the industry differently. How people live and are included in the larger system… wealth building – it’s all part of equity.
Sustainability – Thinking about the impact on the planet – it’s where the industry must go. People say, “It’s cost prohibitive,” but those costs are being felt now. We need to deal with food insecurity, energy consumption, mass transit, affordable housing, etc. Not just for now but for future generations.
Financing – Affordable housing is critical economic infrastructure, and we need more versatility with financing – additional to 4%/9% Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC).
Perhaps we need to create new mortgage instruments or better access to credit markets. For example, things like blockchain might increase capital flow into the space or allow for better democratization with less bias. The default rates for LIHTC deals are incredibly low, yet this isn’t adequately rewarded on a risk-adjusted basis by institutional capital.
Who do you look up to for inspiration?
I get inspiration from many places – from residents, listening to stories, looking at what we do in resident services – like the accomplishments of our teens. And from our staff working with residents who have had significant trauma in their lives.
Also, from my family: My strong, resilient wife. My tenacious son and daughter. My dad and mom, who always showed up.
What’s your leadership style – and what does being a leader mean to you?
I aspire to be a servant leader, where sacrifice is meaningful, and you think of others before yourself. Being a leader also means being visionary – and always looking to the future.
What is the best advice that someone has ever given you?
I was in graduate school, about to get married. I’d known my future wife since age 17. We came from very different family backgrounds, with different expectations about weddings. Let’s say I got miffed about certain wedding arrangements and called the wedding off. My best friend, in a “not so gentle way,” strongly advised me to both reconsider and apologize – which I did. Best decision I’ve ever made, 36 years later and counting.
Another good piece of advice: A mentor told me that leadership is an action word, not a position, and that one could lead from any position.
Do you have a routine to get you ready for speaking engagements?
I do. Earlier in my career, I thought more about self, performance, and trying to be convincing, charming, intelligent, etc. Now I focus more on communication. I think about the audience, who, why, and what I wish to leave behind… I also try to leave space for inspiration.
How do you think AI (artificial intelligence) would help or hurt the industry?
The jury is still out.
I am old enough to remember the introduction of GPS… it allowed me to get from point A to point B without a clue about the “how” or the journey. It reduced or eliminated the value of getting lost or experiencing discovery.
There may be places for AI… tasks like collecting and analyzing data or providing some level of customer service. For example, it could help in understanding patterns of maintenance and how to be more preventative as opposed to reactive.
But it could also make us lazy, disconnected, or eliminate learning too – and there will always be times when it’s best to connect directly.
What book have you read recently?
“Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern. The book exposes myths around the generally accepted causes of homelessness while emphasizing the importance of housing prices, rental rates, market structure, and supply dynamics.
Do you have a secret talent that no one knows about... or something readers would be surprised to know about you?
Two things: At one point, I was an aspiring actor and received a Summer Festival award from The Source Theatre in Washington, D.C. I wanted to go to Yale Drama School!
Also, in the early 1980s, I worked in the CIA’s Office of European Affairs, translating German articles. I lived in Rosslyn and drove a motorcycle to Langley – starting with a Kawasaki 400, then a 600 later. I still have my leather gear, just in case.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I like to run. I ran hurdles and shorter distances at Georgetown.
In my 40s, I ran my first marathon in Baltimore. I didn’t train, and at the halfway point, I hit the wall going up the first major incline, even my eyelids began cramping. With 10 miles to go, even the juggling tuxedo guy passed me! But I finished. Then I started training for the next one. And now our whole family is into marathons.
Long ago, I treated life like a sprint… now life is more of a marathon.
Where did you grow up – and what was your childhood like?
Grew up in North Philadelphia. My parents were very young when they had me and my brother. Housing wasn’t stable, and we lived in about six places before age 5. Mom suffered from a form of mental illness. My dad went to night school and became a commercial photographer. He aspired to be a homeowner, and we eventually moved to southern New Jersey.
Prior to the move to New Jersey, my parents divorced, each remarrying. For three years, I lived with my grandmother – one of the three influential women in my early life. Another was Mrs. Ebo, a babysitter who filled an emotional gap. She saw value in me when I was very young and treated me with dignity and respect. (My stepmother was also a positive influence on me.)
At age 11, I was in a public-school boys’ choir, and we went to sing at a private school, William Penn Charter, which was only about 2 miles from our house. I came home and announced my desire to go to Penn Charter – and my parents started sweating. I passed the test to get in. Then I used $800 Mrs. Ebo had left me when she died to help pay the tuition for Penn Charter that first year.
I took two buses to get back and forth from our home in New Jersey to Penn Charter. After the first year, it was a struggle to pay for the school, even with a scholarship. It wasn’t easy for my parents… they sacrificed for me. I also spent a year in Germany as an exchange student – going to Penn Charter and Germany opened up opportunities for me.
What are a couple of your favorite movies?
I love movies – and have lots of favorites!
The Matrix – I’ve watched it maybe 30 times. I can connect most things to the Matrix.
Hollywood Shuffle – it’s silly and makes me laugh.
Ragtime – With Howard Rollins (a Baltimorean)… there’s a part of the movie gives me chills.
Jean de Florette – A foreign film that my wife and I love.
Life Ahead – With Sofia Loren.
What was your first paying job?
I was an assistant janitor at my church – I learned to mop. To this day, I love cleaning bathrooms. I was also a dishwasher early on – I’m still particular about stacking the dishwasher. And I’m very particular about lawn care.
About Affordable Homes & Communities
Affordable Homes & Communities (AHC), a nonprofit developer based in Arlington, VA, builds and preserves affordable and mixed-income housing in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Since 1975, AHC has developed more than 8,200 apartments in the mid-Atlantic region, including 3,400 in Arlington. AHC's Resident Services program reaches thousands of children, teens, adults, and seniors each year through onsite education and social service programs and activities.
Media Contact: Jennifer K. Smith, Director of Communications, email@example.com or703-486‑0626 x1118