Executive Spotlight: Carolyn Valli, CEO of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity
PITTSFIELD — Carolyn Valli moved around a lot as a child. But, all that rootlessness helped the native of New York's Capital District learn the value and the power of homeownership.
That perspective fits in well with her current job.
Valli is the CEO of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity in Pittsfield, one of two Habitat chapters in the Berkshires. The nonprofit's mission is to build strength, stability and self-reliance through shelter.
Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity builds homes for local residents who live from Lanesborough to the Connecticut state line, and it also runs the ReStore in Pittsfield, which sells new and used building materials. Valli also brings plenty of business experience to this position, having spent many years in the mortgage industry.
We spoke with Valli recently about her love for what she does, her family's early restlessness and the services that her Habitat chapter bring to the community.
Q: How did you get involved with Habitat for Humanity?
A: I've always been blessed by jobs. Habitat was what I was called to do. ... I was the first person [the Central Berkshire chapter] ever hired.
Q: What attracted you to this type of position?
A: It really matched my belief system. Habitat is about a hand up, not a handout. There's an equal opportunity that everybody can acquire through homeownership.
I grew up where my parents didn't own a home and we traveled a lot. We moved from apartment to apartment. We didn't have the roots that promote good health or growth. Just from growing up, I get how key ownership is for a family.
Q: Having experience in the mortgage industry must have helped you in this position.
A: One of the reasons they wanted to hire somebody was to have someone kind of head all of the different parts of Habitat.
Back when I started, we didn't have the ReStore, just volunteers building houses. ... It takes someone to organize the volunteers and then [figure out] how to raise the money to do all the work. In addition to my business background, I did lot of outreach as a part of my church. ... At Habitat, you have to have a business mind and a community heart. That just speaks to my skill set.
Q: How do you get the funding to pay for building the homes?
A: Through a combination of things. The ReStore generates money for home construction. We do a lot of grants and donations, obviously. ... The board made a great decision two years ago to see if we could partner with local lending institutions. We were really blessed that Greylock [Federal Credit Union] stepped up.
Q: What types of houses does Habitat build?
A: Different styles. We're building town-style homes now in Pittsfield at Gordon and Deming [streets]. ... All of our homes are built with aging in place. ... We really look at what fits in with the neighborhood and what fits in with the family. We want it to really stick into the neighborhood, not stick out like a sore thumb.
Q: How is Habitat structured?
A: It's a global organization [based in Atlanta] that's in 13 countries. There are affiliates across the United States; 19 in Massachusetts alone. ... Each chapter is called an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. ... We [operate under] a federated [business] model.
A lot of times, people think the money doesn't get filtered down to the affiliates ... but they do give us a lot of support. ... There's a Northern Berkshire Chapter in North Adams. One of the great things about Habitat is that it's like a family. We help them. They help us. We've a very sharing kind of group.
Q: You mentioned your background earlier, moving from apartment to apartment. It sounds like you bounced around a lot.
A: I grew up in Rensselaer (N.Y.) and lived there until I was 10. In four or five years we probably moved seven times.
My stepdad was a glazier. They were building the Astrodome then, and he had an idea to move to Texas to help build the dome. Not actually being a planner, he got us there after all the jobs were taken. He had to work in a gas station.
I lived in El Paso, where I was the only student in school who spoke English. I remember every day that I was the one person who didn't understand anything in the room. ... .We also lived in southern Arizona. He was always chasing after jobs until we came back to New York state.
Q: What's the most rewarding part of your job?
A: I used to think it was when the families got the keys [to a house] and opened the door. But, now it's the first time the kids run into their very own bedroom.
Q: How important has it been to own a home in the Berkshires during the pandemic?
A: People who own homes are going to be able to bounce back better than those in rental units because the bank will allow you to defer the principal and the interest on the mortgage and you still own the asset. If you go month to month without income, you'll be in a situation where you can't pay the rent and will be out on the street. ... Fortunately, for the city of Pittsfield, we have Berkshire Housing, which has done a phenomenal job with the RAFT (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition) program that helps with rentals and some mortgages.
The other thing that we are seeing coming out of this is that the rents are still going to go up, which will make it even more difficult to find regular workforce housing. This is a big problem in our community.
I was just talking to people down in Stockbridge, and the people who work there can't afford to live there. The median home price down there is $575,000. You've got to make a lot of money to afford $575,000.
Q: So, what needs to be done?
A: I think we have to invest in a variety of different options. One of the things we have to think about is land use. If everybody didn't necessarily need homes on more than half an acre, we could have more housing.
We certainly need more affordable homeownership so people can have a chance to build wealth again. I think we need to have a housing summit after this is all over and really look at the entire housing continuum, because housing is a fundamental condition for good health.
Q: You've told me before that you would like to run a bed-and-breakfast when you retire. Why?
A: I really love people, and I also love to cook, so that would really be a very cool retirement thing for me. The other thing I would like to be able to do is look at these big system problems and have data and help direct conversations about how do we fix these big things so our community is better in the long run. Two ends of the spectrum.
Q: Most people say they just want to play golf when they retire.
A: We were talking the other day and somebody said, "I can't imagine you retiring because I can't imagine you slowing down enough to retire." Well, when I retire, I'm not going to sit around knitting all day ... I'm going to be involved in stuff. It'll just be in a different way.
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