The following article was originally posted on NeighborWorks America’s website and written by Madelyn Lazorchak, Communications Writer, NeighborWorks America.
Julie Porter grew up as the youngest of nine children. Her older brothers and sisters were raised in a country farmhouse with no hot running water, but Porter was born in town, where the family moved when they bought a rambling house in McPherson, Kansas, for $11,000.
“That house, that home, meant a lot to me,” Porter recalls. “It was the center of gravity, not just for our family, but for our extended family, our friends, and our church.” Money was always tight, she says. “But we always had the house.”
That home, and the desire to help others have homes, too, is what led Porter to banking and community lending, where she started out as one of the few women at the table. Her banking job led her to nonprofit organizations, where Porter could play a different role in getting families into affordable homes. Working at a nonprofit is where she belongs, she says.
Porter became a senior program officer at Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) in Kansas City, and later served as executive director. She was full of ideas. “I really wanted to put my stamp on it,” she says. “That was the biggest thing. I saw what the organization could be and wanted to take it in that direction.”
One of the first things she did was to begin a place-based community improvement program called NeighborhoodsNOW. The goal was to invest holistically in neighborhoods through a variety of community engagement strategies and targeted funding in partnership with public and private stakeholders.
Eight years ago, she was given a chance to lead a NeighborWorks organization across the country in Charlotte, North Carolina. She’s been at the helm of DreamKey Partners, formerly known as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, ever since.
A self-described real estate junkie who loves deals and “seeing things grow out of the ground,” the idea of working for the Charlotte housing intermediary was a natural fit, Porter says – even though the job was 1,000 miles from where she grew up. “I’m in the right place,” she says.
DreamKey Partners adopted its new name at the beginning of March 2021, a move to become more in step with what the organization does and what it intends to do. That includes a major expansion. In 2019, the organization had 2,200 affordable rental units in its portfolio. “We want 4,400 by 2023,” Porter says. “And it’s hard to go into other areas of North Carolina or South Carolina or Georgia when you have Charlotte-Mecklenburg in your name.”
Porter says the “dream” part of the name is apt. “We value helping others achieve their dreams, especially when it comes to living in stable, affordable housing,” she says. “I think the new name represents that role. We’re offering the keys to new opportunities.”
Charlotte is known as a hot real estate market. Affordable housing continues to be a real need
and it is estimated the City is 34,000 units short for people earning less than 60% of Area Median Income. There were needs elsewhere, too. As Porter continues to focus on Charlotte, her goal is to embark on more projects in neighboring states, and to make a difference in people’s lives.
One way her organization has made a difference this year has been through its Rent and Mortgage Assistance Program (RAMP), which became a national model during the pandemic. The organization hadn’t offered an assistance program before, Porter says, but they found they had the capacity to do so.
The program began as COVID-19 forced families and individuals to shelter in place, which made being able to stay in a home essential. When the United Way approached DreamKey Partners about starting a pilot program, Porter said “yes.”
“One thing Julie always says is ‘yes,'” relates Erin Barbee, who helps lead RAMP as senior vice president of programs and fund development. “Everything’s on the table. And then we figure everything out on the back end.”
Barbee says the program started with a series of spreadsheets. They moved their financial counselors to a virtual platform and began working with residents from some of their own rental units and those who lived in housing provided by two other local organizations. What started as a $500,000 pilot program continued to grow, with an influx of funds from the county and state.
“Relationships grew and the program grew,” Barbee says. Soon, they had $2.2 million to disperse. Then more. Through it all, Porter remained flexible. So did the board. They hired temporary employees, then permanent ones.
Barbee says RAMP, a program they’ve demonstrated for organizations from Minnesota to Utah, will remain a part of DreamKey Partners’ programming. As 2020 became 2021 and the program continued, the city of Charlotte invested another $27 million to help residents get the counseling and help they needed to stay in their homes. The second phase of the program opened Feb. 9. Barbee says they’ve helped 350 households over the past few weeks, with many more to come. The website she started –built on GoDaddy because she hadn’t expected it to be a permanent part of their services – gets 52,000 clicks a week.
“I’m excited with this next chapter for us,” Barbee says. As the organization assists and counsels renters, she says, the hope is that residents will get the financial capability they need to move toward home ownership. Meanwhile, DreamKey Partners continues to work to get more land and to build more projects, forming new partnerships along the way, including with faith-based organizations.
When Porter talks about doubling their housing portfolio, she laughs a little. She knows it is an aggressive goal. But she says that other goals during COVID-19 continued to be met and she believes the same will happen with this one.
As an example, she talks about the organization’s goals for education classes that prepare residents for homeownership. She wasn’t sure, with people forced to move to the virtual space, that her staff would be able to reach the people they wanted to reach. But by offering the programs online, they’ve reached more people from a wider geographic area. Education programs are helpful whether you’re purchasing a home in Charlotte, North Carolina or Rock Hill, South Carolina, she says. “If you deliver value, people will tap into it.”
The pandemic has been a time of great learning – and also great stress. Barbee says Porter’s support has made a difference for the staff. “She always puts the staff first, even above herself,” she says. She recalls a day at the end of 2020 when the staff seemed particularly stressed, she says.
“We need to laugh,” Porter told them. She surprised them recently by hiring a virtual comedian – “one who told housing jokes,” Barbee says – giving them an hour to laugh together over Zoom. “It gave us the oomph to say, ‘all right, we’ve got this,'” Barbee says.
Porter, who sits on the boards of Community Housing Capital and the Canopy Housing Foundation, says her philosophy when it comes to work is that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not moving forward. As a leader, she gives her staff permission to explore, to make mistakes, to adjust and to try again. “The times I’ve made the biggest mistakes are the times I’ve learned the most,” she says.
Her focus now is on growth – the growth of DreamKey Partners and the growth of her staff as she helps prepare the next generation of leaders. “If I have a management philosophy, it’s ‘give it a try,'” she says. “If you fail, get up and try again.”