Kristine Giornalista knows she is never going to know everything required to do her job.
Rather, she knows she has to pick the right team and ask the right questions.
As manager of neighborhood services for the village of Oak Park, Illinois, the 2004 alum applies the critical thinking skills she developed at the La Follette School.
Affordable housing is Giornalista’s specialty, an expertise she gained on the job at Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, an anti-poverty nonprofit based in Chicago. She worked there 6.5 years, then joined IFF in 2011. She served as senior project manager the multistate nonprofit community development financial institution until August 2014, when she joined the staff of the village of Oak Park, the Chicago suburb where she lives.
“I finished my degree at La Follette, and, wanting to be close to my family in Wisconsin and to be in a large metropolitan area, I came to Chicago without a job,” says Giornalista. “I ended up at Heartland Alliance and learned how to do affordable housing development on the job.”
The La Follette School’s Master of Public Affairs degree gave her the perfect blend of management and analysis tools to become an expert in the highly specialized field of affordable housing finance. “Although my training at La Follette was not a one-to-one match, the education definitely prepared me to work in affordable housing,” she says. “The degree is a real benefit for working in the nonprofit sector.”
In addition to the critical thinking skills, Giornalista appreciates the background in statistics. “When I do see numbers, I am not afraid of them,” she says, “and I know how to look critically at the statistics that come up in my line of work.”
Giornalista came to La Follette after realizing that she did not want to pursue a master of social work degree. “I was attracted to the social work major because I am interested in doing good and helping vulnerable people in our society,” says Giornalista, who enrolled through the accelerated program for University of Wisconsin–Madison students. “I realized pretty quickly that providing direct services was not what I was suited to do. I was more interested in macro level issues.”
Within the affordable housing sector, Giornalista describes herself as a generalist. “I stayed with a project from conception through construction completion; I was involved in securing multiple layers of financing, assembling and managing the development team, and keeping the project on schedule. Being a project manager is a lot like plate spinning, keep all the parts moving. I made sure everything is still spinning and not about to drop off.”
Giornalista’s work for IFF fell into three areas. The first is consulting with other nonprofits that want to provide affordable housing but lack technical expertise. Giornalista will help them with identifying a site location, closing on financing, and hiring an architect and general contractor. “We try to implement their vision and do a lot of the heaving lifting, such as applying for public sources of financing,” she says.
These projects have very little debt and are financed through state and federal tax credits and grants. IFF looks at state and federal priorities for affordable housing and helps the client shape the project to meet those priorities.
Around the time Giornalista joined IFF, the organization launched Home First, an initiative focused on creating housing opportunities for persons with disabilities. “The 1999 Olmstead decision by the U.S. Supreme Court declared that people with disabilities have the right to live in the most independent settings they are capable of being in. To comply, Illinois’ governor entered into three consent decrees a few years ago, which shifted the funding priorities of the state housing agency to support the development of more community-based housing for people with disabilities,” Giornalista says.
Under Home First, IFF’s first project involved acquiring condominium units in Chicago. “We capitalized on an unfortunate situation, buying units from people who were underwater on their mortgages,” Giornalista says. “IFF got the property cheap, rehabbed it to provide maximum physical accessibility and is now renting it out to people transitioning out of long-term care facilities. We are creating integrated housing in the community.”
Working with condo associations brings its own challenges, Giornalista says. “With single site developments, we would help the clients get zoning approval and then they could do what they wanted. Condominiums have their own overlay of rules that we have to negotiate, and sometimes those associations discuss whether they can screen out people with certain kinds of disabilities. Walking through that process has been interesting.”
Giornalista also worked with the West Cook County Housing Collaborative, a group of five contiguous suburbs who banded together in 2009 to work together to address the foreclosure crisis. “The five suburbs, which are very diverse in their demographics, hired IFF to coordinate the acquisition of funding to address foreclosures and stabilize neighborhoods,” Giornalista says. “The group has attracted more than $14.5 million and most recently won a $3 million grant from the Illinois attorney general to continue an affordable homeownership program.”
In August, Giornalista started applying her project management skills in a new setting, the village of Oak Park. As manager of neighborhood services, she oversees the village’s housing programs, the Community Development Block Grant program, and residential property code compliance. One of her first major tasks will be to implement recommendations from the Village’s Fair Housing Task Force, which was recently formed in response to findings that private landlords in Oak Park were discriminating against African Americans and persons with disabilities. Giornalista will also be closely involved in implementing a new software program aimed at improving communication and processes within the Village. “We’re focused on enhancing the customer service experience for residents and businesses. We want to be a partner in neighborhood stability and economic development.”
Giornalista expects to continue to rely on her La Follette School training. “The La Follette School gave me the confidence to think on the ground in different settings,” she says. “I understand the context in which government entities and non-profit service providers are working. The La Follette School provided a great foundation for understanding how government and nonprofits work.”