T.K. Somanath hung up his hat 2½ years ago as the first president and CEO - for 25 years - of the Better Housing Coalition.

But he didn't sit still very long.

Somanath was lured out of retirement early this year to become interim CEO of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, bringing stability to an organization that has seen high turnover at the top and providing experience in delivering affordable, quality housing to the poor.

"No one understands the housing challenges facing this community better than T.K. Somanath," RRHA board Chairman Samuel S. Young Jr. said in announcing the leadership change in January.

Somanath replaced Adrienne Goolsby, who resigned as CEO of the housing authority in January after nearly three years in the role.

"I enjoyed an 18-month break after retiring from BHC, but I could not refuse the request from the RRHA board to help the agency in an interim CEO capacity," Somanath said. "So here I am for almost (11) months and probably will be here for another (several) months until the board hires a charismatic, energetic leader to continue with the noble mission."

Somanath inherited an organization with more than 200 employees and about 10,000 residents in six large housing developments at sites across the city.

The RRHA is a locally administered and federally funded housing authority, providing real estate development, rental housing assistance and property management of public housing communities for low- and moderate-income families throughout Richmond.

The agency, whose priority is to advance mixed-income housing and communities through redevelopment, is in the early stages of a massive redevelopment project that could reshape the East End of Richmond.

"I am having fun re-engineering this important agency in transforming large public housing communities to improve the housing environment for the very poor families with children and seniors in our city," Somanath said.

John McCann, immediate past chairman of the Better Housing Coalition, said he was surprised that Somanath took on the challenge of interim CEO on a fairly long-term basis.

Somanath has pushed forward on the agency's East End development plan, McCann said. Also, a plan is in place to finally complete the Blackwell neighborhood, which extends the historic Manchester District, and Somanath has advanced a plan for redevelopment of Creighton Court, a housing development in the city's East End.

"T.K. knows how to work with all of the constituents and get things done," McCann said. "He is doing a really good job making good things happen in the city."

By accepting the interim position, Somanath returned to his Richmond roots. His career path in affordable housing began when he took a job in early 1972 with the housing authority soon after arriving in the United States from India. 

His introduction to housing here was jarring. "I couldn't believe the big divide between the poor and the rich," he said.

The civil engineer arrived in Richmond in late 1971 by chance while traveling by bus from New York to Florida looking for a job. He ended his trip here when he discovered his luggage had been lost.

He paid $3 to spend his first night in Richmond at the YMCA and stayed at the Y for a few months, finding work at a Standard Drug store on East Broad Street - cleaning up after the store closed - and then as a survey crew member for Timmons engineering firm at its Main Street office before landing the job at RRHA.

His wife, a medical doctor, joined him in Richmond, and they raised their family in Brandermill near the Swift Creek Reservoir in Chesterfield County.

Only a dozen or so people from India lived in the Richmond area when the Somanaths decided to make their home here. The area is home now to thousands of Indian immigrants. Somanath is co-founder of the Hindu Center of Virginia.

Somanath left the housing agency in 1990 to become president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition, leading efforts over the next 25 years to revitalize, preserve and develop about 1,600 housing units in 13 communities in the Richmond area.

"It has been a great privilege to serve thousands of low-income families with decent, beautiful, affordable housing in our region," he said a few months before retiring.

Whether in Church Hill, where the Better Housing Coalition created a critical mass of quality housing in a 10-block area, or the transformation of a rundown housing complex into Winchester Greens, a mixed-use, mixed-income community in Chesterfield, Somanath has been at the center of change.

He has proved that once a critical mass of houses is built or revitalized, private development follows - and neighborhoods are transformed.

As McCann has said: "Changing lives and starting the transformation of a difficult neighborhood is what motivates him."

IN HIS WORDS

Something that might surprise others

I used to race cars and motorbikes in my college days.

Something you’d like to do

Learn to play a musical instrument - sitar - and learn Spanish.

Alternate profession or course of study

I would pursue astrophysics - to learn more about how our universe works and understand space science.

A small moment in life with a big impact

During 1986 at a Leadership Metro Richmond Retreat in Wintergreen, Mary Tyler Cheek McClenahan’s remarks to my class regarding her personal conviction of civic duties, social justice and of what she felt was a personal responsibility to the community had a lasting impact on me. Later, when I was hired as CEO of Better Housing Coalition, founded by her, it gave me an opportunity to work closely with her to implement her vision to revitalize older neighborhoods and provide good-quality housing to many Richmonders who could not afford to live in decent places.

Favorite book

"Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita," by Swami Rama. This book helps to analyze and train the internal process of the mind so one becomes creative in the world we live in to attain peace and tranquility.

Role model

My parents instilled great values in me, which have helped me to lead a peaceful and purposeful life and to be a change agent.

Proudest accomplishment

Providing holistic solutions to revitalize older neighborhoods with beautiful, energy-efficient and affordable housing for thousands of working poor and seniors in our region.

Favorite thing about Richmond region

James River and historic neighborhoods - Church Hill and Fan District architecture and Swift Creek Reservoir.

T.K. SOMANATH

Position: interim CEO, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority; retired CEO, Better Housing Coalition

Born/hometown: Jan. 6, 1946; Mysore in southern India

College: University of Mysore (bachelor's in civil engineering)

Family: wife Mukthalata, son Bharat, daughter Rupa

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