Black Housing Heroes: Lori Gay


For me, the path to my passion about housing was really economics. In school, I was great at math, but it didn’t feel relevant. I also wanted action. So I specialized in consumer economics, which is the study of finance and how people spend their money. Three or four years out of school, I found my passion when I saw an ad for a housing assistant at Neighborhood Housing Services of Los Angeles. I came to work in the Vernon-Central neighborhood, organizing door-to-door in addition to working as an admin. And then I learned how to do lending.

That was 30 years ago. Now I’m the CEO.

At NHS — with every client, every loan, every counseling session — we’re focused on fair, equitable, safe housing. It’s our job to never discriminate, because everyone should have a chance to live in a decent place they call home.
As a child, from age five on, I was keenly aware of inequity and struggle. My dad was a pastor, and I grew up thinking he and my mom were the best people in the whole world. I saw that my parents gave everything to help people. But what wasn’t changing enough was where people lived and their basic economic conditions.

“I still cry at every home loan closing I attend and celebrate with the family, because I know that if the work we’re doing gets them to a space that’s really affordable for them, it’s a game changer.”

We lived in a farm town in rural northern California, where I was spit on and called names every day. I couldn’t reconcile the goodness that my parents seemed to want to share with people, with the hatred that I saw. And while we didn’t have much, the farmers were not super well-off either. The whites and the blacks in our town were in the same economic strata, even though one was seen as less-than.
Growing up with poor white people changes you. And you understand that poverty is poverty, and the race piece — we’re a little small in our thinking that that’s all there is, because it’s not true.

We can’t save everyone at NHS, but we can care for people and treat them fairly no matter what their background is. In housing, you get to do that. Everyone needs a decent place to live, so it’s an equalizer of sorts. When I see people realize they can achieve homeownership, that is a true joy. I still cry at every home loan closing I attend and celebrate with the family, because I know that if the work we’re doing gets them to a space that’s really affordable for them, it’s a game changer.

A big accomplishment is that in the last three years, the Black millennial has become our biggest client. After the foreclosure crisis, we lost more than 50 percent of our Black clients. I couldn’t move that needle. Then three years ago, we started getting on Black radio and making a concerted effort to tell people, there’s another way to live your life. Even if you choose not to invest in real estate, put it in bonds or something that you know has the potential to grow. Don’t just spend it having a good time and keeping up appearances. And our business is now at 46 percent Black clients, all under age 45 with family sizes of one and two.
I’m not trying to leave other groups behind, but we knew we were missing something significant within the Black community, so we went and got it. Now we’re making sure we don’t lose our Latino families who can make it.

George Floyd should have changed us all. He should have been the final straw for us standing up for more equity in America, in terms of how people are treated. We will lead with Black, but we will serve all people. If we’re interested in the long haul, the true future that includes everyone, we’ve got to be willing to pivot, adapt, be a little stealth sometimes, but be open to change. I don’t claim to know what that looks like, but in the housing space, I can assure you, there are easy things to do that would make it better for everyone.

“Right now, there’s no housing inventory to speak of, so our clients are getting outbid. We’re only closing 10 percent of the deals we should be closing every month. The housing shortage is an issue of supply and demand.”

We’re not building or adding to the supply of housing enough to meet the demand for the people who are here. High-cost real estate is one thing. Ridiculous is another. When you’ve got a whole state that is overpriced, things have to change. We need a better path to homeownership for regular people, from the bus driver to the schoolteacher.

We’re big proponents of both new development and rehabilitation of old buildings. We’ve built our business around preservation, but of course you can’t do historic preservation on every home. There are vacant and dilapidated, or not fully utilized, spaces that we could adapt. If we could repurpose those commercial buildings, we would have housing for the homeless population of LA and still have lots of other affordable housing. We need to find the right balance of preserving and repurposing available supply and new construction to reach a housing availability that allows everyone to participate.

There are a lot of other discussions around building accessory dwelling units, and activating duplexes, triplexes and quads that may not be fully utilized in our neighborhoods. And then there’s the density conversation — should we be able to stick up to 20 units on land that used to be a single family parcel? I think there’s a balance in there.

There’s a reckoning during this time of crisis, when our challenges are significant, to decide how we change the narrative. During the pandemic, we’ve had this artificial floor as a supportive mechanism, with no rents and forbearances. Looking ahead, business is going to be very tough, because we don’t know what’s coming. Will there be more federal support? Right now, I’ve been meeting with all the congressional staff for the region, talking through policy reform, because the federal relief needs to make sense.

We launched the Center for Economic Recovery at NHS last fall, and we’ve got a number of work groups that meet to collaborate and talk. We have data and policy teams. Some kind of neighborhood stabilization will be needed. There will need to be foreclosure prevention, and business interruption protection and preservation. There will be commercial disruption — we’ll never be back to a “normal” way of going to work every day for 99 percent of the companies in a commercial building. That will leave an opportunity for thousands upon thousands of buildings just in the LA region.

And no one should be put out, tenants or homeowners, due to the pandemic. But how do we do it? I don’t think that the solution is canceling rent and mortgages — but that suggestion is a great way to get conversations going. What we can do is change policy. We saw it with the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights during the last crisis. That came late, but it came hard to help provide support for people. So the tweaking many groups are doing with that now, and statewide reform to fit the crisis we’re in now, are great.

We can generate bonds and all kinds of interesting tax based programs. Look at the cap-and-trade program. That came out of nowhere, and it’s going to be up to a half billion a year of funding. Now they’ve got some rules they have to change, and we’re speaking up about that right now. They don’t encourage homeownership at all, so we wrote in, and we’ll keep commenting and advocating with legislators about it.
The Black Developers Forum pushed for a 10 percent set-aside for BIPOC communities out of the tax credit allocation every year. That’s $100 million+ a year. That’s the way you’re going to keep people of color housed.

I’m probably a Pollyanna to believe that stuff, but I think we can do it. I feel like there are voices talking now that have never spoken, and those alignments and collaborations are going to matter for us in the future, to protect everyone and make sure people are housed in decent, safe, affordable housing.

The fact that I have a chance to participate in all these conversations, and to work with a team and other nonprofits who are trying to push that envelope, is a very big deal. We still have great gaps in the housing continuum here in our little cities, but we’re starting to talk about it, and that matters. I’d be the most proud if we could build a real housing and community continuum that meets the needs of every person.