HCD Member Spotlight: Mitzi Barker, FAICP

Mitzi Barker, FAICP

HCD Member Spotlight: Mitzi Barker, FAICP

Interview with Mitzi Barker, FAICP as told to Deborah Myerson, AICP

Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

How It Started 

As a high school student, I volunteered  during Robert Kennedy’s campaign in California to help support farm workers in registering to vote. Bobby’s commitment to use his privilege and access to power to advance social justice has been my inspiration. I aspired to go to law school and enter politics. But during my undergraduate studies in political science, I discovered how so much public policy is made and implemented not by lawyers and elected officials, but by planners.

My junior year of college, I interned with a neighborhood development organization, where I conducted outreach in a principally Hispanic area of the city to learn more about their housing situations and needs. It was some of the hardest work ever – and convinced me that what I really wanted to pursue was a career in parks and recreation planning. After all, everybody likes parks!  Unfortunately, Bureau of Outdoor Recreation funding dried up after I graduated, as did much of the economy. 

Fortunately, my husband had an Air Force ROTC commission and we ended up in Biloxi, Mississippi. I happened into a job with a solo consultant who was working in this new thing called “community development.” He taught me everything I know about grant-writing; I crunched numbers and drafted maps, by hand. We worked with lower-income communities across Mississippi and Alabama to write CDBG grants and manage the programs. By the time I left 3 ½ years later, he’d put me through grad school while I managed over $12 million in projects in six communities.

I’ve been a member of HCD since the division was titled “Housing & Social Services,” probably the late 80s/early 90s—when the principal means of member connection was a listserv housed at Cornell University. It’s been exciting to witness how the profession has grown to embrace housing as a distinct subdiscipline. It hasn’t always been so:   

After presenting a session on achieving economies of scale in homeless services during the 1984 National Planning Conference, an attendee came up to me and asked, quite pointedly, how on earth a “houser” could have possibly passed the AICP exam.

How It’s Going

I feel like my work, either directly or indirectly, helps move the needle toward improving affordable housing opportunities and housing access for people who have limited income, have experienced homelessness, or other barriers to housing equity. 

I wish there was greater understanding of how commoditization of housing has resulted in deficits that impact not only individuals and their families but devalue large parts of our communities unnecessarily. 

What gets built is highly influenced by forces outside local communities. While comp plans and land use regulations shape where housing development in various densities should occur, the terms and availability of funding and financing dictate what is actually constructed.  As a case in point, during Alaska’s pipeline boom of the late 70s, it was relatively easy for developers to obtain financing for 4-6 unit buildings, and the city had an ample supply of relatively small lots, with infrastructure, on which these projects could be sited. As a result, our city has a large stock of hastily-built, unattractive 4-6 unit buildings which are now prematurely reaching the end of their useful economic life.

The housing development sector tends to be slow to change. But, once it leans in a particular direction, it is equally slow to respond to market shift and adapt. This may be a pessimistic view, but as the Millennial and Gen Z cohorts continue to struggle with getting an economic leg up, cities will eventually have to face the undersupply of affordable housing. Delayed interest in and means for homeownership has implications for how communities will allocate land resources. I think we’re going to also see some changes in what “senior” housing looks like. Boomers are projected to experience longer lives with less disability than our parents and older siblings. Projects now being built may not meet their demands.  

AICP — Behind the Scenes

I have been among a cohort of seasoned AICP members who volunteer to review essays submitted by applicants for AICP certification. Every essay is reviewed twice: one by an APA staff member, then by one of us. In a single exam season, one can review 75 essays. Applicants are asked to write three essays from their experience, and demonstrate their grasp of the principles of planning as a comprehensive discipline

The most difficult essay question: “How you have influenced public decision making?” Applicants may feel that this is beyond the experience of a planner early in their career. Yet, junior planners are often called upon to do research, analyze and present findings, come to conclusions, and frame recommendations for action. Hopefully, they are working with a more senior planner or supervisor who is then taking a policy recommendation to a decision-making body – such as a neighborhood development corporation board, or appointed or elected officials that make decisions on behalf of a community.    

Planning for Pieces 

I am an accomplished (and ever-learning) art quilter. Quilting is not something I ever wanted to do. But about 25 years ago, a church group was making a service quilt, and I contributed a block. I got fascinated with the geometry, and learned to do free-motion quilting. I like to experiment with different media for embellishment. 

Advice to Planners

Learn housing finance! It really makes a difference when you understand what it takes to get housing built. Planners are too often perceived as “gatekeepers,” rather than as conveners and problem-solvers. We need to come to the table with an understanding of what lenders, HUD, developers, the state housing finance agency need out of the deal. Planners have a multi-variate world view. We do this better than most of our colleagues. 

Then, there’s housing policy, and the underlying philosophy. What is the goal? How can we shape programs to meet all the needs of those funders? Housing doesn’t happen without someone paying for it. 

We are Keepers of the Flame

There are never enough resources to get on with putting plans into action. An inordinate amount of time and motion is consumed by figuring out how to piece together multiple funding sources, which often have conflicting priorities and requirements. 

But, what we do matters. We embody the legacy of Jane Jacobs, Catherine Bauer, Paul Davidoff, and others. Planners are the ones who have the ability to take a comprehensive view. Observe and figure out the interrelationships among economics, politics, public policy, and funding, and how to influence it. Do not grow weary in doing good, and don’t ever settle for “it is what it is.”

The HCD Member Spotlight is a feature that shares the passions, projects, and programs of housing and community development professionals.

Let us know who we should talk to next! Tell us a little about them, and why we should talk to them. Self-nominations are also welcome.