By Chris Ragon, vice president of communications, RHF
Reprinted with permission from RHF Today.
In 1986, the Rev. Dr. Laverne Joseph was asked to serve on the RHF National Board of Directors. He was the senior pastor for one of the largest congregations in the United Church of Christ. His ministry included a number of skilled nursing and affordable housing communities in the suburbs of Chicago, Ill.
Joseph had become friends with Clark Harshfield, then CEO of RHF (and a founder of the organization), through their membership in the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries.
A year later, the Board asked him to succeed Harshfield as the president & CEO of RHF. He would become the third ordained UCC minister to head the national organization in its history.
RHF had expanded rapidly at the beginning of the 80s – some would say too quickly – stretching their resources. By the time Joseph took over the reins at RHF, the national board was considering declaring bankruptcy.
“When I became president & CEO, we discovered that RHF was losing $10 million annually ($5 million in depreciation and $5 million in cash),” Joseph said.
As an organization that is national in scope, Joseph realized that RHF needed to establish relationships with other affordable housing organizations throughout the country. Taking on leadership positions with associations like AAHSA (American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging) — now known as LeadingAge — was important if RHF wanted to expand its reach.
Cutting operating costs by establishing financing programs and services that would allow non-profit organizations like RHF to compete was essential to being competitive in the affordable housing market. Creating NAHT (National Affordable Housing Trust — a low-income housing tax credit syndicator company specializing in non-profits) and Caring Communities (the largest member-owned liability insurance company to exclusively serve non-profit senior housing and care organizations) was another way of leveling the playing field between property developers and non-profits in affordable housing.
Working with legislators on all levels of government was also essential in addressing the affordable housing crisis that plagues our country. It was during Joseph’s watch that the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program was created at the national level and implemented as a state program.
“Advocacy is the single most important effort that residents can make to impact decisions being made on affordable housing at the state and national levels,” Joseph said.
As Ray East, former RHF board chair, observed, “In my 25 years of working with Dr. Joseph, I have never known a leader more dedicated to a mission than Laverne is to RHF and those we serve.”
While Joseph served as chair of LeadingAge’s (then AAHSA) Housing Committee, the need to provide services for seniors so they could “age in place” was discussed, resulting in the service coordinator position being created for the HUD 202 program.
“More than half of the RHF residents who are over 100 live independently with services that assist with their daily living activities,” said Joseph. “If these services weren’t available, the only options these residents would have would be to live in a nursing home.”
Affordable Housing For Families
Shortly after Joseph took over the helm of RHF, the organization’s mission was expanded to include affordable housing for working-class families. While the majority of RHF’s family communities are located in California, RHF family communities are also located in Colorado, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
During Joseph’s tenure, RHF more than tripled in size and currently has 198 communities in 29 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands.
“I would have liked to increase our portfolio even more,” said Joseph, “but the challenges with building affordable housing that we are facing is growing.”
Looking Into the Future
“When I came to RHF I didn’t plan on staying so long, but stories from the residents have kept me motivated,” said Joseph. “The need just keeps increasing.”
Joseph sees the need for affordable housing growing faster than the resources being allocated by state and federal government programs. Regulations around building communities and agencies monitoring the communities once they have been built are becoming more and more restrictive.
“Regulations back when I started in this field, were complex,” he said. “Now, we look back at them as being the ‘good ol’ days.’”
When Joseph steps down from his position as president and CEO on March 1, 2021, RHF will not only be saying goodbye to a man who has committed his life to the organization and its mission, but the country will be losing a vocal champion for those generations who have depended on and WILL depend on affordable housing in the future.
Perhaps the Rev. Dr. David Moyer, chair of RHF’s National Board, said it best: “Laverne built an organization and was a national leader, but what we will most miss is the pastoral spirit that made birthday calls and visits with residents and staff. He has given us a ministry of making Christ’s love real.”