Formerly Berkeley Food & Housing Project
In a candid and thought-provoking interview, Don Falk, a seasoned leader in the affordable housing space, shares insights on the evolving housing landscape, its racial equity implications, and the crucial role of nonprofits in addressing the challenges.
With a wealth of experience spanning decades, Falk delves into the growth of nonprofit affordable housing development and the importance of providing housing with supportive services. Falk’s passion for social impact and commitment to fostering change make him a valuable addition to our Board of Directors. We are grateful to have him on the team. Welcome, Don, to the Insight Housing Board!
Don, have you lived in Berkeley for long?
I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Yeah, I’m a Midwesterner (laughs). It was a very conservative place with a small Jewish community. It was a good place to have a childhood. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, I came to Berkeley for graduate school. I attended the public policy school at UC Berkeley, which was a great experience.
What brought you into public policy? It likely wasn’t as popular back in ’79 as it is today.
You’re right. The school was less than 10 years old at that time. I thought I wanted to be a city manager, so I applied to public policy schools and public administration programs. UC Berkeley was my top choice because of its reputation, and ended up being an excellent fit. I had an interest in social and political issues, although I didn’t use the term “social justice” back then. In college, I majored in urban studies and economics, and did my honors thesis on housing discrimination. So I always had this theoretical interest in housing, although at the time, nonprofit housing hardly existed. I didn’t see it as a career path.
So how did you end up working in the affordable housing space?
After graduating, I couldn’t find a job for about eight months due to the recession when Ronald Reagan became president. I stayed in Berkeley because I had developed a community here. A friend referred me for a job at the County Health Department, where I worked doing statistical analysis for two years.
At the same time, I also took on a one-day-a-week administrative assistant position at Jubilee West, a nonprofit housing group in West Oakland. I gradually transitioned to working full-time for Jubilee West and stayed there for a total of 10 years, growing within the organization.
Working at Jubilee West exposed me to all aspects of running a nonprofit. I started as an administrative assistant and worked my way up to project manager and program director and eventually became the co-executive director. It was a challenging but rewarding experience. Nonprofit work in small organizations requires people to wear many hats and so I learned how to run an affordable housing development organization.
After leaving Jubilee West, you joined TNDC (Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation) as their housing development director. How did that transition come about?
I took a trip around the world in 1993, and when I returned, I began looking for a new opportunity. I landed a position at TNDC in San Francisco as their housing development director. TNDC was a much larger organization than Jubilee West, each of its apartment and SRO buildings comprising dozens of homes, compared to the duplexes in West Oakland. During my time as housing director, TNDC tripled in size.
In 2005, you became the executive director of TNDC. How was that experience?
Taking on the role of executive director was like jumping off a cliff. It was a big and scary decision, but I took the chance. Over the next 16 years, TNDC continued to grow, doubling in size to nearly 500 staff, 45 buildings, and more than 4,000 homes. It became a billion-dollar corporation, focused on providing housing for extremely low-income people, including those experiencing homelessness, and engaging in community organizing, food security, social work and other community development programs.
Your leadership at TNDC led to significant growth. How did you navigate the challenges and what did you learn?
It was a challenging but fulfilling experience. Thinking of your areas of expertise, for example, I had the opportunity to learn from the communications staff and participate in branding and logo changes. I valued the wisdom of the group and trusted the people in our organization. TNDC’s growth and success were the result of collective efforts and the expertise of the team. Access to decision-makers is a privilege we have in community-based organizations, and it makes collaboration much more manageable compared to larger organizations.
It’s interesting that you mentioned feeling like you jumped off a cliff when you took on the role of executive director. How was that experience for you?
It was a personal and professional challenge that led to deep growth. Initially, I had three reservations: managing my anxiety levels, personnel, and fundraising. However, as I navigated the role, I learned to delegate, trust others, and gain confidence in fundraising. It was a journey of continuous learning, making mistakes, and owning them while striving to improve.
Observing other boards and my interactions with TNDC’s board made me realize that I wanted to be part of a team that constantly strives for improvement. I believe I can add value to the Insight Housing team based on the mistakes I’ve made and the problems I’ve faced throughout my career.
Do you have any dreams or aspirations for your time on the board?
Not specifically. I want to be part of an organization that has a streak of dissatisfaction with the status quo, both in terms of the world’s inequities and the organization itself. Being at a place where the CEO and staff actively seek improvement is crucial to me. I see myself as a team member with a lot to learn from others who understand the issues better than I do.
I’m happy to contribute in any way I can. I do bring a hint of disdain for board members like myself sometimes, jokingly of course. But it’s important to be mindful of the distinction between offering advice which is easy, and actually doing the work. Growth is a constant journey, and it applies not only to individuals but also to organizations. I’ve always been driven by growth and impact, and it’s exciting to be part of a team that values continuous improvement.
How have you seen the housing crisis develop and change over the last 30 to 40 years in the Bay Area and California as a whole?
One significant development I’ve observed is the persistence of NIMBYism over multiple decades in the United States. However, the relationship between the housing crisis and NIMBYism, as well as its racial equity implications, has become more apparent in the past five years, particularly since the publication of “The Color of Law.” This understanding of the issue and the need to overcome exclusionary practices is encouraging.
NIMBYism has contributed to a housing shortage and rising prices, disproportionately affecting lower-income individuals and people of color. Additionally, governmental laws and practices have perpetuated racial segregation and inequality in neighborhoods. Reading “The Color of Law” helped me connect the dots and grasp the racial implications more fully. It’s a powerful book.
It’s interesting how policy and history have shaped the housing crisis. What do you believe are some long-term sustainable solutions for alleviating the crisis, and how does an organization like Insight Housing play a role?
From my perspective, increasing housing supply is key, but it’s not enough on its own. Public investment in affordable housing is crucial, as well as providing housing with supportive services for individuals experiencing homelessness. Insight Housing plays a role by offering housing with services, not only for individuals experiencing homelessness but also for those at risk of homelessness.
During my time at TNDC, we had a thousand units dedicated to Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH), but we also developed affordable housing units for other populations. Insight Housing focuses on serving extremely low-income individuals, similar to TNDC. Comprehensive community development, incorporating services within housing and going beyond the tenants’ needs, is an appealing approach. Insight Housing is not place-based like TNDC or Jubilee West, but each organization has its role to play.
Housing is just the beginning, especially when people are transitioning from homelessness. There are various aspects and challenges involved, and providing Permanent Supportive Housing is a critical component. It’s exciting to see the attention given to PSH and the complexity of the issue being recognized, like at the Hope Center.
And finally, what does home mean to you?
Where we gather and live in community and experience love. It has all these different meanings. Home is a universal human experience.