20151214_DISCO_CRISLIP

Heather Crislip, of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Sept. 28, 2015.

In June 2012, as the nation and city struggled to recover from the worst housing downturn in recent history, Heather M. Crislip was appointed president and CEO of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia Inc., a fair-housing advocacy group in Richmond.

"Following the foreclosure crisis, we’ve seen a dramatic lack of credit available in minority communities, in addition to more blatant discrimination," Crislip said. "We still do tremendous work in foreclosure prevention and homeownership, but we have worked to return our focus on fair housing and enforcing the Fair Housing Act."

Much of the agency's efforts are in public education, training, advocacy and policy work, but Crislip said litigation is one tool to ensure enforcement. "Private fair housing organizations are the primary ways fair-housing laws get enforced, and we take that responsibility to the public very seriously," she said.

HOME filed a suit this year in conjunction with the National Fair Housing Alliance and other private fair-housing centers across the country against US Bank, Deutsche Bank, Cypress and Fannie Mae, alleging that the lenders failed to equally maintain bank-owned properties in African-American and white communities. The case is pending.

A federal lawsuit filed by HOME this year alleging that an apartment complex in Richmond was constructed out of compliance with requirements of the Fair Housing Act was dismissed but reinstated after the Justice Department intervened. That case is set for trial in January.

"I am very focused on taking a venerable, respected institution like HOME and pushing it to address the issues of segregation and discrimination that still exist in our region, which are not the same barriers of the last generation," Crislip said.

"Fair housing is the most important civil rights issue of our time, and those of us at HOME are determined to achieve it."

IN HER WORDS

A small moment in life with a big impact

After college and while I was in law school in Connecticut, I had a choice to work in a bank or in New Haven’s Welfare Department. I chose to leave my comfort zone and enter a career of public service in a large urban area. I was attracted to the Welfare Department and the ability to make a change for the city’s most disadvantaged. New Haven was home to some of the nation’s most esteemed institutions, but I had never seen chronic poverty and racial segregation like I saw in The Hill neighborhood I worked in, which was nearly entirely African-American and had poverty rates that topped 50 percent. We often talked about “The Tale of Two Cities” to describe our work to empower our clients in the shadow of the nation’s elite, which was both poignant and deeply disappointing. The perspective I gained working with those who had few options to meet basic needs, and seeing my community through their eyes, has stayed with me.

Alternate profession or course of study

I wish I had chosen to major in historic preservation while I was at Mary Washington. We’ve always lived in old houses with good bones and spent our weekends working to restore them. More sophisticated knowledge in historic preservation would serve more of a passion than a vocational interest of mine. Mary Washington is home to such an outstanding program, so I’ve always seen that as a missed opportunity.

Something that might surprise others

I chose to move to Richmond from Honolulu. We lived there for six years, where I worked for the Hawaii state Senate and the University of Hawaii. We chose Richmond to be closer to our families, the cultural activities and the diversity of the region. Hawaii is another world. It has a unique cultural context that helped me unpack my cultural privilege and assumptions. It also strengthened my commitment to social justice issues and the need for institutions to change their policies and practices to attract, sustain and honor traditionally excluded populations. While the context in Hawaii was different than Richmond, I was deeply involved in and molded by my work in the most important social justice issues in the community I served. Most of all I learned to listen, not assume my own solutions, challenge my own perceptions and seek ways to support and make progress for that community.

Role model

John Moeser, for his decades of work to approach difficult issues of poverty, race and urban planning in our region. John is thoughtful, kind and unselfish with his time and wisdom. I admire him for modeling the change he wants to see in society and for being willing to speak truth to power. He is a gentle man with an honest, aggressive approach to righting the wrongs of our region.

Favorite book

My dear friend and Mary Washington classmate Kristen Green’s "Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County" was published this summer. I’ve always known Kristen was one of the bravest, most thoughtful people I know, but her work on this tragic historic series of events is honest and deeply moving. I’m both frustrated and remorseful to learn the horrific details of how African-American children were literally locked out of educational opportunities and a bright future in Virginia, but I feel an even stronger commitment to dismantling continued racism in our commonwealth.

Something you’d like to do

I’m very fortunate professionally to have found a place at HOME that assists individuals in need every day and is a voice for big systematic change, which is exhilarating. I want to use that platform to effect big change. Outside of that, I’m very focused on raising two curious, brave, grounded little girls to serve our society for the next generation.

Proudest accomplishment

I’m proud of the work HOME has accomplished in the past few years. We’ve hosted data-driven conversations on the history of housing discrimination and the foreclosure crisis that bring greater understanding to the issue. We’ve filed large-scale and innovative cases based on the failure to maintain bank-owned properties equally between African-American and white neighborhoods in Hampton Roads and Richmond. We’ve launched investigations and filed a federal fair-housing lawsuit around how failing to construct new multifamily dwellings in compliance with the Fair Housing Act discriminates against persons with disabilities. Ultimately, we’ve brought fair housing back into the community’s focus, demonstrating through various avenues that where you live makes all the difference.

Favorite thing about Richmond region

It would be easy to list all the amazing assets of our region - cultural institutions, the river and our housing stock, to name a few - but what I really like about the region is how we are currently figuring out who Richmond is today. There is a sense of possibility and change in that conversation that I find authentic and exciting.

HEATHER MULLINS CRISLIP

Position: president and CEO, Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia

Born/hometown: Sept. 11, 1973; Blacksburg

College: University of Mary Washington (bachelor's degree), University of Connecticut (law degree)

Family: husband Andrew, daughters Grace and Renna

Commenting is limited to Times-Dispatch subscribers. To sign up, click here.
If you’re already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.