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Dr. Sheila Harris is deeply rooted in the community.
Among local housing advocacy experts, she needs no introduction. But, to the outside observer, Harris ranks as a longtime contributor of essential services and infrastructure.
Over the years, she gained expertise in the city and region by recognizing the intricacies of vulnerable populations as the first Executive Director of Phoenix Revitalization Corporation (PRC) and later, in 2002, as the founding Director of Arizona’s Department of Housing. Since 2018, she has served as PCA’s Social & Housing Advancement Committee (SHA) Co-Chair, steering relevant topics toward solutions.
A shared trait for many of these positions was developing operating procedures and processes for nascent entities learning to thrive.
Between these critical milestones, Harris crossed paths with a local business leadership organization laser-focused on central city revitalization: Phoenix Community Alliance (PCA).
PCA was built on the foundation of industry professionals who all shared the same goal: to use their expertise to benefit the Greater Downtown Phoenix community.
PCA: What was your experience with Phoenix Revitalization Corporation?
Dr. Sheila Harris: PRC had been developed by nonprofits located south of Downtown [in Central City South], such as Phoenix Urban League, Chicanos Por La Causa, [Arizona] OIC (Opportunities Industrialization Center), as well as Phoenix Memorial Hospital.
They were already formed but never had an executive director. They all knew it was a challenging neighborhood. We had an interesting dynamic because 7th Avenue divided the Hispanic and African-American communities. And I’m this white woman with a Ph.D., and they’re like, why are you here? It took time to build trust.
It was very much a neighborhood focus. A lot of the work initially was doing simple things. When neighbors would call the police or fire departments, they didn’t know where to go because there were no numbers on the houses. We organized the community to paint house numbers on the street curbs throughout the neighborhood.
Then we got more into the revitalization work of helping people stay in their homes with rehabilitation projects because it stabilizes the community and doesn’t create more homelessness. It also allowed people with limited resources to stay in a place they knew and loved.
PCA: How did your path cross with PCA?
Harris: I had known about PCA when I was at PRC. I knew Steve Dragos, who was its first Executive Director. Steve, Jo Marie [MacDonald], and another person were the staff initially.
One of the things they had was a lecture series that brought people in from all over the United States to talk about what makes a dynamic downtown work, focused on everything from redevelopment to housing affordability. There were all kinds of different people and subjects that people Downtown would find of interest.
I suggested a gentleman named Paul [Hipolito] Roldán, who got one of the MacArthur Foundation Awards for Community Development in Chicago [in 1988]. So, I became involved with PCA because I contacted Paul and did the legwork to get him to come out.
That, to me, is what PCA has always been about: borrowing from others and making it work here.
From 1999 to 2004, Harris served on the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, a nine-person board covering the entire 12th District that served eight western states, including Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, and Washington, eventually rising to Deputy Chairwoman.
Harris’ appointment was among three C-class members, including Gary Michaels and Nelson Rising, the CEOs of Albertsons and Catellus Development, voted by the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors in Washington, D.C.
PCA: You’re our first City-Shaper appointed to the Federal Reserve Bank.
Harris: It happened because the Fed would visit PRC to tour neighborhoods transitioning from industrial to residential uses.
I never gave it any thought at all other than I now knew some people in San Francisco. Later, the slot they traditionally filled for the nonprofit world opened up, and I was the first person from Arizona to ever be on the San Francisco Board.
They have a zillion economists but wanted your perspective on what’s happening in your community. I will never forget discussing how many turkeys Albertsons had to buy for Thanksgiving. It was a hodgepodge of issues but not something economists were necessarily looking at because they don’t get that granular. However, it gave the Fed different perspectives on analyzing economic trends at the community level.
In early 2002, Dr. Harris was appointed by then-Governor Jane Hull to head a new state department, the Arizona Department of Housing. The department’s creation opened the door for the state to receive and administer federal grant money for affordable housing statewide, pivotal in rural communities. Until its creation, the state’s housing functions were handled within the Arizona Department of Commerce.
PCA: What was it like serving as the founding Director of the Arizona Department of Housing?
Harris: The first word that comes to mind is “crazy.”
It started as the Governor’s Office of Housing Development (GOHD) for nine months [in 2002]. I would have people ask me all the time, “How does it feel being the Director of God (GOHD)?’ And I said this name is not helpful.
But, because we started within the [Arizona] Department of Commerce, there was pressure from HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) to create an entity, not a department division. We were the 49th of the 50 states to develop a housing department. That was a lot of the emphasis for the change.
There were many meetings with legislators trying to show that now that you’ve [Arizona] created this department, this is how we’re helping people in our state. We were looking at everything from people experiencing homelessness and transitional housing to people getting into apartments that the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits funded.
PCA: Were you involved as PCA fundraised for the Keys to Change/Human Services Campus in the early 2000s?
Harris: I was housing director then and knew Marty Shultz through PCA and other activities. He was the one who led the fundraising campaign. I was able to give about $1 million in housing trust fund money from the state to help form the campus. It was a situation where Marty was looking for anybody to give money.
Within a four-block radius west of Downtown, multiple service providers, including the Andre House, Arizona Department of Economic Security, Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), and The Society of the St. Vincent de Paul, operated independently of each other, feeding and providing essential services for the unhoused.
Before the efforts by PCA, no one attempted to aggregate nonprofits into a concentrated area to facilitate positive exits for individuals experiencing homelessness.
It all came to a head when St. Vincent de Paul went to the City Council and said their roof was leaking and unsafe for people.
The neighborhood and city said, “We’ve got to do something different. We can’t have people wandering around spending an hour here and three hours there.” It took a long time because we were talking about entities with their own funding and ways of doing business.
PCA: Do you see the Social & Housing Advancement (SHA) Committee helping to move that conversation and advocacy forward?
Harris: We’ve made SHA an environment where people can come and say whatever their issue is. We’ve tried to make it a very safe place, particularly for those in government, to establish frank conversations to move forward.
PCA is focused on problem-solving that has many implications for changing the course of divisiveness. When you look at who comes to our meeting, we’re from all over the place. We have different perspectives, but everybody sees that a vibrant, viable Downtown is needed.
People come and go because they’re interested in what’s on the agenda, like Waymo’s new services. That’s what is so neat about PCA. As someone in state government, I wouldn’t have had any access to talk to somebody from Waymo. We’re an outside source of advocacy.
For example, we’ve been discussing outside of the agenda if there’s a way to work with Waymo when you’re building housing so there is access for people who don’t need a car at all. It adds up because you [Phoenix] can afford housing because they only have to build half of a parking space per apartment.
There’s a road map, but you don’t know where the opportunities are. Those are the kinds of things that make PCA unique.
Learn more about the Social & Housing Advancement Committee’s (SHA) ongoing advocacy work in the year ahead here.
The scope of Dr. Harris’s career extends far beyond being a “City-Shaper” of only one city.
A recent collaboration with Elliott D. Pollack and Company, prominent local economic consultants, took them to northern Arizona for an ongoing housing and economic development study. As the tourism economy for Sedona has exploded, Cottonwood has become the spot for affordable housing for locals to reside and commute to work.
Decades of experience learning to ask less than obvious questions also have benefits. In October, the FOUND:RE Hotel Downtown hosts the annual Lambda Alpha International (LAI) meeting, of which Harris is a board member and a previous International President.
Every year, LAI’s exclusive consortium of professionals travel to different worldwide chapters to share knowledge and best practices of what makes their cities tick. Membership requires more than a decade of experience in city planning, land use, transportation, other relevant fields, and other distinctions.
For this year’s event, Downtown Phoenix Inc. is assisting Harris and LAI in arranging logistics, including members spending a day on the light rail to visit redeveloped housing developments that serve a variety of incomes.
Decades of first-hand experience have lent Harris an accepting insight that no advocacy is ever truly finished, merely pivoting to what comes next:
“Once you get started in this business, you never actually finish anything. It regularly changes.”