You might say you're a "numbers" person. You might say you're a "people" person. Susan Dewey is both.
That can be a rare but powerful combination, and Dewey has long directed it toward a vexing issue that challenges Virginia and the nation as a whole: affordable housing.
In 2019, Dewey marks her 20th year as executive director of the Virginia Housing Development Authority, which is considered one of the top state housing finance agencies in the country. That Dewey is only the third leader in its nearly 50-year history is a testament to her commitment – and her belief that quality affordable housing is such a vital part of social stability.
"Bettering the world" is how Dewey describes the effort. "I am able to do something every day that I feel is good for people.”
Established by the state in 1972, the VHDA provides financing throughout Virginia, with $2 billion a year in loan activity – including $93 million this fiscal year to address the most critical affordable housing needs. It is an independent, self-supporting agency that provides loans to first-time homebuyers, finances the development of affordable housing and offers support programs to Virginians. (The VHDA doesn't use taxpayer dollars for its program; it raises money from capital markets.)
“Susan Dewey is a humble, gracious servant,” said Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors and board member of the nonprofit Partnership for Housing Affordability. “She has played a pivotal role in the transformation of Richmond – financing the development of thousands of units of affordable housing and revitalization of many city neighborhoods.”
Recent local projects that were financed in part by the VHDA include Artisan Hill in the Fulton area, Church Hill North (at the former Armstrong High School site) and The Goodwyn at Union Hill. Such developments include residential units reserved for people under certain income thresholds.
The VHDA doesn't work alone. Instead, it partners with municipalities, developers, nonprofits, real estate agents and others to fund affordable housing projects and initiatives.
“It’s all about partnerships. ... I bring people together around the table,” Dewey said. “Without the VHDA, many projects couldn’t move forward because of the cost.”
Dewey's background is in finance – she is a certified public accountant, and she joined the Virginia treasury after earning her master’s in business administration. She rose through the ranks to become state treasurer before joining the VHDA in 1999.
Within and beyond the housing industry, Dewey has earned the respect of leaders in Virginia and elsewhere, said Kit Hale, a longtime member of the VHDA board of commissioners.
“Susan has grown the organization to one of the most influential, mission-driven housing finance agencies in the country,” said Hale, who is managing partner at MKB Realtors in Roanoke.
Among other roles, Dewey led the National Council of State Housing Agencies board during the housing crisis tied to the Great Recession, and she has worked with the federal government to help housing agencies promote affordability.
Dewey said innovation is a key element. She noted that an important tool for the VHDA is the ability to finance mixed-use, mixed-income projects, which the General Assembly approved in 2005. These provide quality residential communities at a variety of income levels, aimed at deconcentrating poverty.
“Virginia is one of the only states with that kind of program,” Dewey said.
Lafayette noted affordable housing is hard work – "complicated, costly and time-consuming" – so having strong, reliable partners is crucial. Dewey relishes that role for the VHDA, in both the numbers it serves ... and the people who benefit.
“It’s the challenge of continually thinking about what we can do better," Dewey said, "and how we can provide more affordable housing.”
IN HER WORDS: SUSAN DEWEY
executive director, Virginia Housing Development Authority
Hometown: Great Bridge (in Chesapeake)
Family: husband Rick, two children, two grandchildren
What is something about you that might surprise others?
In 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, I have always had annual mammograms, and it was stage 1. But it was very hard on my family, as all cancer is. I remember my children saying, "But cancer doesn’t run in our family." It does now.
I didn’t tell many people for two reasons. First, so many women have much worse diagnoses, and I felt very lucky. I have so much sadness for what many women and their families have experienced. Second, I wanted to keep working without talking about this subject.
Today, I am not sure I would have made the same choice in keeping it so quiet. I learned a lot during this time. The people you meet in cancer waiting rooms certainly make you appreciate life and what is important.
My husband has been a huge help. Rick was a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, and he happened to specialize in late-stage breast cancer. He knew a lot more about it than I did, and I realize it was extremely hard on him. He went with me to every appointment. He started keeping journals for us to document this time – and has continued to do so since then.
Describe a small moment in your life that has had a lasting impact on you
Growing up, I had not been exposed to colleges because my parents did not go. So even though I was valedictorian in high school, I was not focused on college (though I knew I wanted to go).
One of my teachers had gone to the College of William & Mary and talked to me about it. I got a chance to go for a weekend my senior year to visit a friend, and I really liked it. But I did not take any action.
My brother was a student at Randolph-Macon College at the time. On his way home to Chesapeake one weekend, he stopped at William & Mary, and he walked around campus until he found an application. When he got home, he made me fill it out! He has always been a mentor for me, but that act was critical to my future.
After getting my undergraduate degree, I stayed and got my MBA. I also am blessed to have many friends from William & Mary who have been part of my life for decades. We all go back for Homecoming – I have not missed one since my freshman year more than 40 years ago!
If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?
It is hard to pick just one! Recently, I really liked the movie "The Post" and became fascinated by Katharine Graham. She grew up in a different time, when husbands were always the breadwinners. Then she suddenly found herself running The Washington Post. She did what she believed best when she risked publishing the classified Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal articles.
I think it would be fascinating to hear about all of the famous people she had met. I admire her courage, passion and determination, and as the first female Fortune 500 CEO in America, she certainly led the way for other women.
My favorite quote from Katharine Graham: “To love what you do and feel that it matters – how could anything be more fun?” It really expresses my feelings for the work I do at the VHDA.
Tell us about a setback or disappointment and what you learned from it
People have joked with me over the years about running for governor. Well, I actually did. I ran for governor of the Model General Assembly – the YMCA-sponsored program that helps high school students understand the legislative process in Virginia.
I was asked by my high school to attend and run for governor. There were four nominees across Virginia. Unfortunately, I didn’t put in enough effort, and I lost. Most people will tell you that I am very competitive, and losing was not something I was used to doing.
It was a good lesson, though, because I was reminded of how important it is to put your best effort into anything you decide to do. Over my career, I have been very involved with the real General Assembly, and I often think back at how important this early experience was.
Tell us about an object you own that has great sentimental value
My engagement and wedding rings. Now, I know everyone is sentimental about wedding rings, but I have worn the same ones for 37 years, and I never take them off.
When Rick and I got engaged, money was tight. In fact, he asked me to marry him while we ate a free dinner after winning a dance contest!
The engagement ring is a simple garnet – it belonged to his mother’s mother, who wore it for many years as her own engagement ring. The wedding ring is a gold band with a few tiny rubies – it belonged to his father’s mother.
While I could have gotten new, fancier wedding rings with diamonds later, I never have wanted to replace them.
Who is your role model?
My dad was a major influence on my life. He and my mother were childhood sweethearts and grew up on the same street. They eloped before he left for the war. He was part of the crew that went in right after D-Day. While he didn’t talk a lot about his experiences during World War II, he made a commitment to God that, if he could get home again to his wife, he would have his family together in church every week. He honored that commitment – we went to church every Sunday, wherever we were.
Dad was an insurance salesman. There were stories about how he paid for some families’ premiums if they were struggling so their policies wouldn’t lapse. He loved people. He knew everyone’s name and something about them. If people came to visit while we were eating, we moved over and shared our dinner with them. I am very extroverted like he was, but I wish I could remember people’s names as well as he did!
He instilled the love of education in his children, even though he didn’t get to go to college. We celebrated all birthdays and holidays to the nth degree – he was famous for his grilled steaks and his homemade ice cream. And Dad taught all eight of his grandchildren to ride on the same little blue bike that I still have. I hope to teach my grandchildren how to ride it, too.
What is something you haven’t done that you’d really like to do?
I would like to visit all of the states. I have been to 43 so far (plus D.C., the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico). This is something my husband and I started years ago, and now our children and their spouses are keeping track of their progress, too.
We have very strict rules in this competition. You must spend the night and do a planned activity so you really experience that state – you can’t just drive or fly through for it to count!
We have not been to Hawaii – and we would like that to be the big finale – but it is hard to find time to visit and plan an activity in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and Nebraska. I also have to go to Missouri and Ohio, while Rick needs to add Kansas and Oklahoma. We are hoping to fly out to the Midwest soon and rent a car to travel to several of these states.
What is your favorite movie, etc.?
My family loves movies. We have our own party each year for the Academy Awards, complete with decorations and ballots, and my husband fixes Steak Oscar. So I can’t pick one.
But we have a definite favorite TV program: "Friends"! We frequently watch reruns and know all the lines. We also compare our family members to the characters (I’m definitely a “Monica”). I even have a daughter named Chandler ... but it was a family name, and she was born before the show started!
If you had to pick a different profession or course of study, what would you choose?
University professor. I have my CPA and enjoy finance and accounting, but I really love public policy. Having worked in and around government most of my career, I enjoy the strategy and planning that goes into this area.
I have always loved to teach. In high school, I thought I would be a teacher. Over the years, I have been asked to talk to classes at a few universities, and I enjoy that. I also am frequently asked to mentor others. I love working with young adults as they consider their career paths, so being a professor would be very rewarding.
How would you spend a great day in Richmond with a close friend?
Our first stop would be the state Capitol. There is so much history discussed on the tour, and I have spent a lot of time there! I also would love to take our friends to the Executive Mansion because it is the oldest continuously lived-in governor’s mansion.
We would then have lunch at the Tobacco Company. I am so glad it is open again. When I first came to Richmond in 1982, it was one of our favorite places – and still is.
Then we would take a stroll along the beautiful James River, along the Canal Walk. The next stop would be the Virginia War Memorial. I remember sitting in the amphitheater one year on the Fourth of July, watching fireworks and looking over at the Shrine of Memory, knowing that the Virginians listed on that wall died for our country. I can look out of my office every day and see the renovations that are in progress.
Of course, I would then take them to VHDA headquarters. Our office was built on the site of an old motel beside the former state penitentiary. Our building was very important to the revitalization of Oregon Hill.
We would cross Belvidere Street to my family’s favorite restaurant for dinner, L’Opossum. To end the day, we'd have a nightcap at the Jefferson Hotel. My daughter had her wedding reception there, so it is very special to our family.
If you could deliver a message to a large audience, what would it be?
Affordable housing is critical to our communities. Housing often does not make it to the top of the political priority list, but it should. Food and shelter are basic needs. If you cannot get them, how can you think about education, health or jobs?
Virginia is a diverse state, so the housing needs vary greatly among the regions. Every day at VHDA, we work to provide affordable housing across the commonwealth. Unfortunately, there is still the concern with NIMBY – “not in my back yard.” We work with our partners to overcome NIMBY and provide a range of housing opportunities, from nice rental units to first-time home purchases.
And I am encouraged that we are seeing a growing awareness of the critical link between housing and other public policy issues.
Hospitals see patients who repeatedly come into emergency rooms for shelter. Schools wrestle with the problem of children who are not permanently housed – and who cannot focus on learning when they move frequently. People with disabilities cannot access housing in their communities to meet their needs. Workers often sacrifice quality of life to drive long distances in traffic to find employment. Businesses avoid areas that lack sufficient housing for their workers.
VHDA’s vision is to be a mobilizing force for affordable housing, which is a major factor in these issues. We can’t do it all – the needs are too great. But we can be a catalyst for change and for bringing key partners together.