'Home is the foundation of love, hope and happiness'
By Nancy Brown, American Heart Association CEO
Jacqueline Waggoner's parents grew up in East Texas during the Great Depression. In the late 1950s, they joined the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South. Seeking higher-paying jobs for themselves and more opportunities for their four children, they moved to Los Angeles.
In time, two more children arrived. Jacqueline became the youngest of six. Education was a major priority in the household. When it was her turn to attend middle school and high school, Jacqueline's parents seized the opportunity to bus her from the family home in South Los Angeles to Brentwood and Pacific Palisades.
The 20-minute ride carried her from her working and middle-class neighborhood to one of wealth and privilege. Some of her classmates were the children of movie stars. Many lived in immaculate homes near the ocean.
Although it would take a few more years for Jacqueline to realize it, the importance of a safe, opportunity-connected home was pivotal in her life.
"I learned that home is the foundation of love, hope and happiness," she said. "It's really the gateway to opportunity, to doing whatever you want to do."
In October, after 15 years working her way up at the organization, Jacqueline became President of Solutions for Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing and community development nonprofit that seeks "to make home and community places of pride, power and belonging for all."
She's also a leader of Enterprise's Equitable Path Forward, a $3.5 billion, five-year plan to dismantle the legacy of racism in housing in ways that include deciding which homes get built, where they're built, who builds them and who profits from them.
For Jacqueline, it's the perfect culmination of her life's journey.
In high school, Jacqueline was one of those people with a really long bio in the yearbook: track, marching band, orchestra, student council and all sorts of clubs.
Next came four years at UCLA. Pairing her love of people with her desire to make the world a better place, she earned a degree in sociology. She just wasn't sure what to do next.
She remained on campus working in admissions. Her specialty was helping applicants from under-represented racial and ethnic groups fulfill the requirements to get into the University of California system.
"I really enjoyed it, but it wasn't tangible enough," she said. "I began thinking, `What really connects people in a community?' It's about the built environment."
Jacqueline became mesmerized by the places where people live, work, pray and play. The sociologist in her wondered why one community did things one way and another did the same things a different way.
Then she thought back to her teen years and the contrast between South Los Angeles and Pacific Palisades.
The differences went beyond the size of the homes and the fancy things in them. She realized people who lived close to the beach also breathed cleaner air. They lived close to abundant grocery stores; but when her mom wanted fresh produce, she would have to drive west for better options.
"I wanted to understand why some families had things and we didn't," Jacqueline said. "My parents did everything they told me to do. They were educated, worked hard, saved their money, bought a home – and they STILL remained in a particular community without certain opportunities. It's heartbreaking."
She returned to UCLA as a graduate student focused on urban planning. She gravitated to housing policy, earning a master's degree.
She spent her first decade in the field handling real estate finance. As her experience grew, she started working on the financial side of affordable housing. She also began advocating for public policies supporting affordable housing.
Then along came an opportunity to blend all those skills.
In 2005, she joined Enterprise as a senior lender in community development finance. Surrounded by passionate colleagues, in the right environment – plus tapping into the networks she'd forged through her career and even back to high school and college – everything clicked. She was soon influencing the projects all over Los Angeles. Her team's production doubled.
"Part of the reason I was successful was because I established relationships and really got to know my partners," she said. "For me, a project wasn't building one place, it was about transforming an entire community."
After the 2008 economic crisis, Enterprise wanted to do something bold. Jacqueline became a leader of a partnership between Enterprise, the Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department and a group of banks to make resources available for affordable housing developers.
This public-private venture is called the New Generation Fund. From $10 million in seed money, it's generated about $175 million in investments into more than 2,700 homes in 29 communities.
As Enterprise's Vice President and Southern California Market Leader, Jacqueline realized that building housing was only part of the solution.
Preserving homes matters, too.
"When I was growing up, low-income people could afford their rent," she said. "In LA now, low-income people that can't afford rent sleep on the streets. If home is the foundation for love, hope and happiness, and you don't have a home, then what do you really have?"
She became a commissioner on the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). Touring the county, she heard people's stories of why they didn't have access to jobs and homes.
She also noticed "the faces I saw on the sidewalk were like mine." Indeed, last summer, LAHSA released statistics showing that 34% of the county's homeless population is Black – an exorbitantly high figure considering Black people comprise 7.9% of the county's population.
Jacqueline is now vice chair of LAHSA. She also chairs its Ad-Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness, which issued a groundbreaking report in 2018 that identified structural racism as the main driver of homelessness and provided policy recommendations to change the system.
Last year, amid a pandemic that's disproportionately impacted Black, Hispanic and Native American communities, and exacerbated woes for people struggling financially, Enterprise was finalizing a new five-year strategic plan and looking for a President of Solutions to implement much of its work across the country.
This nationwide role oversees 300 people in 11 markets. The duties include delivering program, policy, advisory and capacity-building support at the national, state and local levels.
Jacqueline's pitch was simple. She wanted to take everything she'd learned locally and scale it across the country.
Jacqueline's promotion coincided with the launch of Equitable Path Forward, and her team is hard at work vetting potential partners, building connections, and making investments designed to advance racial equity in communities across the country and the real estate industry that creates them.
"From childhood to where I am today, it's like a dream," she said. "As a Black woman leading a group at an organization that really wants to be intentional about how it serves communities of color, I have to pinch myself every morning to believe it."
Still, there is a lot of work ahead to make affordable and equitable housing a reality.
Statistics show many Americans can barely afford their rent. And people of color often face the highest risk of eviction.
"It's really about giving residents the tools they need to strengthen their communities," she said. "Affordable homes can help transform neighborhoods by connecting people to other things they need to grow – opportunities for jobs, upward mobility, proximity to healthcare and public transportation."
She knows it can be done because she's been part of such projects.
Enterprise helped turn Rolland Curtis Gardens from a 48-unit complex cited by the city for safety violations into a community featuring 140 affordable units that come in one-, two- or three-bedrooms. There's also 8,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.
"That's the type of mixed-use community that excites me," Jacqueline said.
Seeing as Jacqueline recognizes the pinch-me factor of her job, it's no surprise she also sees the beauty in how her personal and professional arcs have merged.
She calls it "a wonderful ripple."
"My parents were serious about change and growth," she said. "My dad was more of an introvert, but when he spoke, you listened. My mom was always speaking power into us, letting us know, `You must do better, do more, get stronger.' Those lessons stick with me. They pushed me to grow, explore and open doors."
She meant "opening doors" as a figure of speech. The literal meaning works, too.
"Over 40 years, Enterprise has deployed $61 billion and counting in communities, and we're just getting started," she said. "I'm the kind of person who doesn't stop until I achieve my goals. Onward."
A version of this story appeared on Thrive Global.
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