Capitol Hill Housing's new director

It can be a formidable task to replace a well-known and highly regarded organizational figure.

Take Capitol Hill Housing, where Chuck Weinstock served as executive director for 19 years before stepping down last month. During his tenure, the affordable housing provider grew considerably and became an almost universally admired organization at the forefront of Seattle's affordable housing debate.

Chris Persons relishes taking on challenges. As Capitol Hill Housing's new executive director, Persons said that the opportunity to overcome challenges is one of the reasons he took the job.

Born and raised in Michigan, Persons, 48, lived in Chicago for the last 17 years and comes to the new position with many years of nonprofit experience under his belt. Including jobs running a newspaper similar to Seattle's "Real Change" and, for the last seven years, leading the Inspiration Café, a social service agency that works with Chicago's homeless population in a café setting.


Earlier this year, Persons ran for Alderman in Chicago. When he and another candidate were removed from the ballot over a filing technicality raised by the long-time incumbent, Persons, having quit his job at the Inspiration Café, began to seriously consider leaving the Windy City. Approached by a headhunter, Persons learned about Capitol Hill Housing.

"I became aware very early on that Capitol Hill Housing is a fantastic organization. There isn't really any mystery as to why I'm here. It was hard to leave Chicago, but coming to Seattle was an easy choice," he said.

One month into his position, Persons said he has a great deal to learn but has a good sense of the larger picture for Capitol Hill Housing and what it needs to do. Nonprofit organizations in general, and affordable housing providers in particular, are under considerable pressure to adapt to changing circumstances.

Capitol Hill Housing was founded in 1976 as the Capitol Hill Housing Improvement Program (CHHIP), during a time when the Hill's economic climate had deteriorated. The group worked on community housing programs, and home improvement loans and other community development activities. By the early '80s, CHHIP began developing and preserving multifamily housing that would be affordable to low- and moderate-income people.

CHHIP has a stated goal of integrating its projects within the neighborhoods as opposed to just producing housing stock. CHHIP experienced slow but steady growth over the years. Nearly 70 people work for Capitol Hill Housing, which operates 39 projects and more than 1,000 apartments.

"There are huge issues for all nonprofit housing providers, and most are related to costs. Construction costs have skyrocketed, real estate prices have skyrocketed. And as a nonprofit housing provider, our projects take longer than market-rate development. It is a difficult time for housing agencies, and for nonprofit organizations in general, which is part of my challenge. CHHIP is in a great position to adapt because of its well-established leadership role," Persons said.

Capitol Hill Housing, he said, will have to be aggressive in finding new opportunities and creative when it comes to controlling costs. There is a scarcity of potential project sites; as well, many of the sites that have possibilities are intrinsically challenging - they may be smaller, or oddly shaped or may require a high level of environmental mitigation. The agency may have to expand the kinds of projects CHHIP has been doing, though Persons doesn't know yet what form that might take.

"Our costs are high and our rents are low, which is inherently difficult to juggle. CHHIP is going to be challenged and will have to make tough decisions and react to changes within our industry. It has done so in the past very successfully so the track record is already there," he said.

One element that he regards as a considerable positive is the amount of support for affordable housing coming from City Hall. It's a far different situation from the climate housing nonprofits faced in Chicago.

"I was pleasantly shocked at how proactive the city is about affordable housing. It's refreshing to me, and it sets Seattle apart. I'm not trying to be falsely optimistic, but there is general governmental support for affordable housing in this city, and it isn't that way in many other places," he said, adding that many of CHHIP's projects simply wouldn't have happened in Chicago.

As for filling Weinstock's shoes, Persons laughed and said he'd try to do so slowly, maybe one shoe at a time.

"I don't think people are comparing me. People at CHHIP understand there are many challenges in what we do, and they want me to make sure the organization thrives and moves our mission forward," he said. "It is important for us as an organization to keep an open mind."

Persons admits he's still learning the city and settling in. He and his wife are parents of a 3 1/2-year-old boy and an infant son recently bought a house and are looking forward to their new life in a new city.

"I grew up personally and professional in the nonprofit industry," he said. "It was important to be able to do something and make my small corner of the world a better place. You can't solve the world's problems, but if I can help make it even a slightly better place then I've met one of my goals."[[In-content Ad]]