Detroit, MI, November 12, 2015 (CDFI Connect)—Today, Opportunity Finance Network (OFN) honored Moises Loza, executive director of Housing Assistance Council (HAC), with its 2015 Ned Gramlich Award for Responsible Finance at the annual OFN Conference. Loza is a longtime advocate of justice and social equality with extensive experience serving populations with a high need for affordable housing in regions such as Indian country, the Mississippi Delta, the Southwest border Colonias, and Appalachia.
CDFI Connect sat down with Loza to learn more about his career in opportunity finance.
You began your career as an intern for the Department of Housing and Urban Development—how did this early career decision shape you?
I learned about bureaucracy. Before I went to work for HUD I had other jobs, but they never were in a big bureaucracy. I began to appreciate the complications, and I also learned that even people who work in bureaucracy are frustrated by its constraints. Those who work outside of bureaucracies tend to be critical about how segmented and slow it can be. And I understand that frustration, but this experience taught me that there are lot of good people who want to do the right thing, but also face limitations. The lesson is for all of us who advocate for a community to understand that we have to fight bureaucracy, work with it, or sometimes do both simultaneously. But ultimately we have to take the time to understand how it works in order to be more efficient and effective. And to learn to appreciate that the people who work in bureaucracies have restrictions. Understand this and use it to your advantage in your work.
What have been some of the most challenging moments of your career?
The challenge is the ongoing frustrations—in our industry, we always have the challenge of trying to match resources and needs. In rural communities we keep talking about the lack of capacity, and there is a lot of need in many areas where—if there were local resources, and capacity, and support for the leadership—so many things would change.
For instance, there was a community in southern Georgia that HAC worked with. The community had just elected its first African American mayor, and this was in a community that was 90 percent black, but it was divided by a highway where all the African Americans lived in an old shanty town, while all the white people lived on a nicer side of the street. The mayor had ideas of changing things and improving this community. But the only employee this town had was a retired part time woman who worked three to four hours every other day, collecting trash and utility fees. So you go into a community like that and it’s daunting. Who could possibly put a plan together without the resources, who would do a market analysis, surveying, to name a few? The lack of capacity holds back a lot of communities.
This example is one of many. There is great leadership in local areas who really want to do create change, they just need someone to help guide them in the first step. These are the challenges we face.
The other ongoing challenge is that for many years the issue of poverty and income inequality has not been a top priority in policy. So our work is not at the top of most lists, and therefore neither is the support.
What do you wish more people knew about affordable housing, and rural housing in particular?
First I think that there isn’t the awareness that there should be about how serious the problem is. When we talk to groups who aren’t in this line of work, and we share with them the reality of the situation, they are amazed. They cannot believe there are communities that still have no plumbing, use outhouses, have no paved streets, and pay exorbitant costs for what they have.
The other thing is decent housing, not just affordable housing can make such a difference—not just in people’s lives, self-esteem, and the ability to move onward and upward—but also so important as an investment in our economy and the future. Not just of that family but the whole community. We have to work harder to communicate these overall benefits better.
Those who do this work understand that, but I used to know a woman who would say, “Housing is too important to be left to the housers.” We have to expand our circle so we have a larger base of support to advocate for the kind of work we do.
What are you most proud of in your work in opportunity finance?
There are times when you feel you are making a difference. I had a conversation once with the administrator of the Rural Housing Services of the Department of Agriculture about how its process for notifying the public about availability of funds for farm labor housing was convoluted and not working. A couple of months later, the process was changed for the better. That made me smile.
I’m also gratified when issues are addressed as a result of our work on Capitol Hill. When we make a case for changes and see them reflected in the language of an authorization or appropriations bill, which makes you feel good.
I do feel pride and satisfaction when I visit local organizations who use HAC’s services. Meeting with people and hearing their stories. For example, a man in Idaho once came up to and shared how he found resources on our Website about rehabilitation, and used the information to start a program in his community.
The most satisfying times are when I travel, visiting sites and meeting families whose lives we
have touched somehow...those are the moments that make you feel proud and good, and it’s why we do this work.
How has the field changed since you first began your work? What challenges have been overcame, what opportunities have changed, and what has remained a constant?
When I began the label CDFI was unknown. It was a concept that had not yet been articulated. The idea of capital being used to improve communities and empower people to realize their potential...the concept made sense. Getting the CDFI industry organized and mobilized took a lot of work. There were a lot of people who began to move it into an organized, disciplined, performance-based industry that now has national influence and impact.
We can now demonstrate what a valued resource the industry is. One of the changes in the field is its growing and established strength, influence, and impact.
And it was an uphill struggle. When CDFIs began there was skepticism. Now CDFIs are recognized as a real force to be reckoned with, and as a real agent of change. Our work isn't done, but the impact CDFIs have now, compared to years ago, is definitely impressive.
Our work changes lives, but there is still so much to do. Poverty persists in many areas (such as Native American lands, and communities along the US/Mexico border). There are many instances of individuals who find a way out. But the communities still get left behind and their issues linger. Many of these communities are much better off than they were years ago. In some cases, CDFIs have made a difference, but there is so much work to do. And the growth of income inequality doesn’t help.
What would you say to new entrants into the CDFI and opportunity finance field?
It’s very, very important to get young people involved, bring on the new batch of leaders, and get them interested in what we do. I would say, if I were talking to them, “Get ready for a challenging, frustrating, at times disappointing trip, that has fulfillment and rewards that are beyond words. Bring your patience, your persistence, and your compassion to a job that is very important because it does make a lasting difference in people’s lives. We always want to recognize and respect the communities that we work with – never, never go in with the attitude that you know the answers, or that you know the community. There is a lot of wisdom, strength, skepticism, resourcefulness and resilience there. Whatever you do, always bring your humanity, be respectful and listen. You have a lot to learn from them.”
What does this award mean to you?
Given the industry I have seen adapt and grow and have such a big impact, and given whom it is named after, and all that Ned did in the field, the award is overwhelming, humbling, and very special because of who is behind it and what it represents.
Where does the opportunity finance industry need to focus priorities in the future?
Continue to find ways to penetrate those communities that have lacked opportunities.
Pay attention to the growing inequality we are seeing
Press financial institutions and big lenders to pay attention
Provide leadership and offer suggestions. We absolutely need to remember our mission. Whatever role we take, whatever direction we take and decide is important. What makes the CDFI industry different is its mission and we can’t forget that.
Read the press release here.