This CEO leads with heart to remake Anchorage’s housing landscape
She sees the roughest parts of town as they could be. She surrounds herself with a staff of doers. With partners that include Rasmuson Foundation, her team is rejuvenating some of Southcentral Alaska’s most-neglected neighborhoods.
Carol Gore is president and chief executive officer of Cook Inlet Housing Authority, a role she stepped into 18 years ago for a temporary stint that turned out to be a great fit. She took hold of a little-known Alaska Native housing authority and transformed it – as well the quality and quantity of Alaska housing itself.
When she first started in what was then rented space on Spenard Road, the only legitimate business within sight was a flower shop. Next door sat a strip club that eventually was shut down by federal authorities for drug trafficking.
“There was a lot of activity. The more I watched I said: ‘Someday we are going to own that and make it something different,’ ” Gore said. She wanted to respect the history of Spenard “while at the same time moving the neighborhood forward.”
Cook Inlet Housing Authority, or CIHA, bought up properties. Now a new building is where the strip club used to be, the urban-vibed 3600 Spenard Road, a mixed-income, mixed-use property that counts Rasmuson Foundation as an investor.
Her colleagues, and her backers at the Foundation, credit her leadership and vision with the region’s evolving housing landscape.
“Carol realized early on that there is dignity in housing,” said Bob Juliussen, CIHA’s construction manager.
CIHA has served as a regional housing authority since 1974. Since Gore was hired officially in 2000, only one position on its five-member board has turned over, evidence as stability that she credits as key to forward momentum and innovation. The housing authority builds and operates housing developments in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula that serve people of various income levels, Alaska Native and non-Native alike.
It has developed stretches of Spenard including around its headquarters on Spenard Road and large areas of Muldoon, where its Rasmuson Foundation-backed senior housing development includes a hot lunch program provided by the Salvation Army and a community center. It also targeted Mountain View, which had transitioned over the decades from a working-class neighborhood of home ownership to one of multi-family rentals and absentee landlords to a place of last resort with a bad reputation. Gore saw its dynamic potential.
Many foundations consider it too risky to bet investments on a strong leader. What if that person leaves?
“We feel exactly the opposite,” Diane Kaplan, Rasmuson Foundation president and chief executive officer, told the Association of Fundraising Professionals recently in Anchorage. Carol Gore, she said, stands out as a prime example of a singular leader who makes things happen.
Ahead of the game
First, Gore identifies top community needs: housing for seniors, Alaskans with disabilities and working people who can’t afford market rates, said Bryan Butcher, chief executive officer of Alaska Housing Finance Corp., the quasi-state agency that often partners with Cook Inlet Housing.
Second, she hires a great staff, he said.
“I romance them and they don’t even know it,” Gore said. Juliussen, her first hire at Cook Inlet Housing, was Cook Inlet Region Inc.’s 2009 shareholder of the year.
And third, she elevates Cook Inlet Housing by taking on issues outside that of a traditional housing authority, such as her current role leading a new Anchorage initiative addressing homelessness.
“She sees the world as a bigger place where she can have a larger impact. Not just ‘We have a job to do. Let’s do it and go home,’ ” Butcher said.
Modern roof lines, pleasing colors and multiple siding materials now are seen all over Anchorage, an approach to construction that CIHA embraced before the municipality revamped its land-use and development code, Juliussen said. CIHA uses solar panels, geothermal heat sources and other sustainable materials.
“From the start Carol was ahead of the local building community as far as energy efficiency, and building aesthetics were concerned,” he said. “Her commitment to building it better challenged local designers and builders to do just that.”
Gore is a passionate visionary and gifted in communications, and is results oriented and people focused, Juliussen said.
One CIHA development that stands out is Loussac Place on A Street, what used to be old-school public housing apartments.
“They were run down when I was in high school and that was 35 years ago,” Butcher said. CIHA, with financing from AHFC, tore down the worn-out apartments and built a new mixed-income development, transforming an eyesore into a place anyone would like to live, he said.
Mixed income levels, he said, are key to creating a healthy community. At Loussac Place, Rasmuson Foundation funded a computer lab, one of the extras that it can provide with money that is less restrictive than AHFC financing, Butcher said.
“Having a kind of central community center is key,” Butcher said. “That’s where Rasmuson funds come in and pull the whole thing together.”
‘We buy the ugliest thing’
Rasmuson Foundation also has joined with partners to fund developments themselves, awarding $6.5 million in grants to CIHA over 14 years to develop housing units as well as playgrounds and a community center.
In 2017, the Foundation committed an additional $3 million in a low-cost loan to CIHA aimed at improving a notorious property in Mountain View, the most diverse neighborhood in the United States.
Located behind the Boys & Girls Club, abandoned by their owners, Marina and Karina Condominiums drew more police calls than anywhere in town.
“We’ve all been focused on that for more than 10 years,” Gore said. “If we could, with a scalpel, change that, that changes everything.”
The complex deal required unwinding the ownership of every condo, so that CIHA could buy each one. The agency is redoing rentals that were in terrible disrepair inside and out to make, as Gore says, “a place where families and individuals can thrive.”
Her investment strategy is unconventional for a developer.
“We buy the ugliest thing. We buy the thing that is contaminated. We buy the thing that has the most hair on it. Because the private market is never going to take that on,” Gore said.
Gore, who is Aleut, started at CIHA in 1999 on loan from Cook Inlet Region Inc. at a time the housing organization was much smaller. It operated 267 rental units for seniors, most of them in Anchorage. Its work centered on home repairs but there was no big vision or even a logical approach to repairs. Someone with a faulty furnace might get new carpet. Its brochures advertised “free money.” Federal funders were concerned.
“It was like the Wild Wild West,” Gore said.
Like a village
Gore threw out the brochures. She closed programs that weren’t working. She sliced her inherited staff of 72 to 40.
“Those bold moves were necessary at a time there was so much turmoil,” said Maria Tagliavento, who was deputy director when Gore began and stayed as Gore’s right-hand until her recent retirement. Gore’s gentle persona can be misleading, she said. “People don’t realize how much steel is behind that softness of Carol.”
Gore said she wanted to create the sort of place where she always wanted to work. “Where everyone had an equal opportunity to contribute. Where the mission actually mattered. Where we held ourselves accountable.”
She brought pilot bread, smoked fish, jam and butter for lunch gatherings modeled after a Dena’ina tea party, chai peat. Employees were urged to ask questions of their new chief executive and gradually they did.
“That morphed into a potlatch with a myriad of cultures bringing everything including a roast pig head with an apple in its mouth. That is now our staff meeting,” said Gore, laughing.
Early on, Gore sat in the reception area to greet each worker as they walked in. Latecomers got the message. She anguished over people in need being put on waiting lists without an offer of other resources.
“We were simply the office of ‘No,’” she said.
‘It just keeps marching on’
Wasn’t the better answer more housing? She pushed against regulations and became the first in the country to combine block grants designated for Native American housing with other fair housing dollars. What was important, she said, was establishing a community where everyone was honored, where everyone mattered. That was the lesson of village life.
With that, in 2002 CIHA developed South Anchorage’s Strawberry Village, a neighborhood of whimsically colored homes with porches and spots for gardens that remains a proud accomplishment.
The agency now has 160 employees and oversees more than 1,400 rental units. It considers itself a community developer, an unusual landlord that promotes independence and self-sufficiency. Gore is creating a senior advisor council for retiring staff to contribute, and she is grooming the next leaders.
“So when I leave we don’t skip a beat. It just keeps marching on no matter who walks in the house.”