Beyond Four Walls and a Roof: Hudson River Housing’s Elizabeth Celaya on Building Resilient Communities

By Sven Thiessen and Katie Ellman

Elizabeth Celaya ‘02
Elizabeth Celaya ‘02

Resilience is increasingly a key objective as leaders seek to ways to help communities weather economic and environmental challenges. Hudson River Housing, based in Poughkeepsie, NY, has grown its mission from providing shelter for homeless families to creating sustainable, inclusive, and participatory communities.

Sven Thiessen of Bard MBA sat down last month with Elizabeth Celaya, Director of Organizational & Community Development for Hudson River Housing, to discuss how the organization promotes resilience by engaging and activating community members.

Celaya oversees the agency’s Community Building & Engagement Department and provides leadership to chart a course for future growth through strategic planning, partnership development, and fundraising. Under her leadership, the Middle Main initiative she began with only a shoestring budget and a handful of interested citizens has grown into a key driver of change in the City of Poughkeepsie.

The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s November 4th Sustainable Business Fridays podcast. Sustainable Business Fridays brings together students in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Podbean.

Bard MBA: Tell us about Hudson River Housing and the mission of the organization. 

Hudson River Housing is a private, not-for-profit organization. We were founded in 1982, with the mission to serve the homeless. Our first project was a nineteen-unit shelter for homeless families. Then, in the early ‘90s we evolved to begin real estate development and property management. It was a natural and perhaps somewhat obvious evolution, where we realized that while we were meeting this important safety net need of providing shelter, folks had nowhere to go from the shelter because there was no affordable housing in the area. We continue to develop all types of housing units, ranging from single room occupancy units to apartments and single-family homes. We also wanted to make sure that we were setting people up for success in being home owners, so we launched a series of counseling programs for people in financial literacy, budgeting, and the process of homeownership. In 2007 we opened a home ownership center, where all of those services are now concentrated.

The most recent evolution of the organization has been in community building and engagement. Around 2008, a series of things kind of came together that led to us creating a true community-building line of business, as we call it: with the recession and the housing market collapse, foreclosure was top of mind for everybody. We started to see a dialogue emerge around sustainability and vulnerability in communities—how can we make places more resistant to economic shock? So, given our long history of work in the City of Poughkeepsie, we honed in on vulnerable neighborhoods and started bringing together resources to focus on making targeted change by becoming much more place-focused with the work we were doing. We looked at how to align things like real estate development with a broader, more holistic view of improving communities, and all of the different components of the community, including social connections, economic opportunity, the physical amenities of a place. So that’s really the work that community building does now: we look at creating sustainable, inclusive, and participatory communities.

Bard MBA: What are some of the goals and activities of the “middle main” initiative? 

We have a constantly evolving strategy so that we’re very responsive to what the community needs. With what people are telling us, we segment our work into three major buckets: resident and business engagement, neighborhood marketing and promotion, and property and street rehabilitation.

So under resident and business engagement, we run monthly community meet-ups, we have a monthly community leadership program that provides local residents and stakeholders with the skills to become more effective advocates in their own community, and we also work closely with our small business community. We form relationships particularly with our micro businesses that do not always have access to opportunities through networks such as the Chamber of Commerce. So we work on creating a network for those unique, independent businesses, helping to promote, connect and support them as much as possible.

Under neighborhood marketing and promotion, we were the recipients of a national grant to establish a neighborhood marketing campaign. Through that, we worked with specialists in place-based marketing to look at what was unique about this neighborhood—what we could promote about it in a way that maintained the authenticity of it and build upon its existing aspects in a positive, strong way. We’ve developed a whole brand package that we’re utilizing to create a stronger sense of place and build a sense of community pride.

And then under property and street rehabilitation—certainly those are some of the more conventional strategies that we have in terms of property acquisition and rehabilitation, but we’ve also done some things that are a little bit more unique.  We’ve created a pocket park in the neighborhood—there’s a huge lack of green space in the area, so we were able in a small way add a little bit of that to the community. We also work on cleaning initiatives, working with community groups to clean up garbage cans and things like that for the community, the real needs of the neighborhood.

Bard MBA: Do you have any real estate or property developments going on right now?

Absolutely. The most prominent one is the redevelopment of the historic Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory. Once the home of the Poughkeepsie Underwear Company, it was sitting vacant in the neighborhood. It’s about a seven million dollar redevelopment.

We’re doing a mixed-use development: we’re going to have fifteen residential units in the building, but we also have 7000 square feet of commercial space. We’re focusing that commercial space on things that can really respond to community needs, particularly around the area of job training, education, programming for use, and things with low barriers to entry. We’re going to have a shared-use commercial kitchen that will be available to small food startups, food trucks, guest chefs, nutritionists, and folks who want to do cooking demos. We’re also going to have a coffee roaster and coffee shop, to provide job training opportunities to folks who are coming through a homeless services program and looking for the next step on their journey. We’re also going to have eight artists’ studios available at a very low cost for community artists to rent space and showcase their work to the public.

It certainly represents a shift for our organization, moving beyond just focusing on housing as four walls and a roof to thinking about all of the things that go into creating a strong quality of life for an individual, for a family, and for a whole community. This project is a good example of how we’re using a brick and mortar redevelopment to get at bigger-picture issues.

Bard MBA: Are there any aspects of the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory development that are sustainable from an environmental perspective? 

We partnered with the organization Clearwater before we were even under construction on the building itself to build a demonstration green infrastructure project on site. It’s designed to manage the stormwater runoff from the roof of the building and parking areas, filter it through a bioswale and into a series of rain gardens. The property is adjacent to the Fall Kill Creek, so this filters all of that runoff before it enters the water system in the City of Poughkeepsie.

Recently we’ve also started a partnership with Vasser College and their new Environmental Cooperative. They’ve been working with us to ensure that the plantings are coming up as they should, and they’ll be bringing student volunteers and classes to the site, both to help us with maintenance as well as to learn about what we’ve done there.

Overall, Hudson River Housing is certified as a Green Organization by NeighborWorks America, so there’re sustainability metrics that we meet throughout the operations of our organization, from using recycled paper in our copy machines, to using reusable dinnerware at some of our residential facilities, to making sure we have low-flow toilets and energy efficient lighting. We’ve made some major strides in the past few years in bringing our entire organization up a notch in terms of how we operate as a business, in addition to things we’re doing with our building projects.

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