On July 10, 2024
Local News

Mary Cohen: A leader driven by compassion, collaboration and community

Submitted - Housing Trust board director Donaleen Farwell (left) and Mary Cohen (right) smiled at the board meeting June 6 after signing the merger with NeighborWorks.

Vermont’s charm is undeniable, but the lack of affordable housing here is a challenge that affects people across the income spectrum, and the situation is a crisis for those who have experienced homelessness. 

Housing Trust of Rutland County (HTRC), operating in 28 communities, is a vital 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to remedying this crisis. HTRC develops, manages, and maintains supportive affordable housing, breathing new life into neglected properties and historic buildings, transforming them into quality housing and creating attractive living spaces in established neighborhoods.

“About 36% of our portfolio is housing for those who have experienced homelessness,” said Mary Cohen, HTRC’s executive director, in a recent interview for this article. “In Rutland County alone, the current need is for 2,700 affordable units,” Cohen added. “Often someone has been in a hotel for 18 months, sometimes 36 months, so it’s very hard.” 

In the run-up to HTRC’s pending merger with NeighborWorks of Western Vermont, Cohen discussed her personal and professional mission, and how her work with funders and other housing organizations is strengthening HTRC’s capacity to address the lack of accessible housing options. She was also candid about the complexities of merging boards, organizational cultures, and staff. Following is a summary of the discussion. 

From real estate to social impact

Though Cohen has boundless energy, she is soft-spoken, down-to-earth, and exceedingly modest about her many accomplishments, which include serving on the boards of major Rutland nonprofits.   

A Connecticut native, Cohen earned her bachelor’s degree at UVM, briefly worked in Manhattan, moved to Boston, and eventually to Vermont. She began her career in real estate, which allowed her to balance raising young children with a fulfilling profession. At 35, Cohen earned her MBA at UVM.

After the market crash of 2008, Cohen shifted to full-time nonprofit work, joining NeighborWorks of Western Vermont as operations director and director of its homeownership center. Ultimately, she led the organization’s community revitalization effort in Rutland’s Northwest neighborhood.  

“I was drawn to NeighborWorks’ mission of sustainable homeownership, particularly its focus on helping families achieve stability,” Cohen said.  

Leading with collaboration: The “Real Rutland” campaign 

When Cohen was ready for a change, she was recruited to lead the Rutland Chamber of Commerce, now known as the Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region (CEDRR). At the time, she admitted to the organization’s board that she was unfamiliar with the Chamber’s work.

“The board was so supportive, because they were looking for a fresh outlook,” Cohen said. 

This willingness to learn and collaborate proved valuable assets as she spearheaded the “Real Rutland” campaign, working closely with other organizations to revitalize the downtown area. 

A return to housing advocacy:
Merging with NeighborWorks

Since becoming HTRC’s executive director in 2020, she has fostered stronger relationships with crucial Vermont funders and partner organizations, like the Homeless Prevention Center. This collaboration ensures better support for HTRC tenants transitioning from shelters and allows the HTRC team to focus on core property management responsibilities. 

Mary Cohen

Recognizing the potential for increased efficiency and impact, Cohen and HTRC’s board along with the board of NeighborWorks of Western Vermont explored the benefits of a merger.  

“This is about increasing capacity to serve more people,” Cohen explained. “It’s a trend that’s happening in the state, where single county or individual housing organizations just don’t have the heft needed,” she added.

While acknowledging the complexities of merging the finances and operations of NeighborWorks of Western Vermont with those of HTRC, Cohen is committed to fostering a collaborative work environment. She believes in empowering her team and prioritizes in-person communication.

“I have information in my head and I sometimes assume everybody knows what I know, which is not always the case,” said Cohen. “I am not a micromanager so I have to be really vigilant about communication.”

Looking forward:
Building a stronger future

HTRC is activating a comprehensive five-year strategic plan whose priorities include developing 100 new housing units; providing safe and quality affordable housing so that residents can thrive; ensuring the organization’s financial stability; nurturing a strong staff culture; and strengthening the organization’s board.

Further exemplifying Cohen’s dedication to respecting the dignity of those who have experienced homelessness, Cohen championed an idea proposed to her by Kelly Sweck, owner of Five Elements Salon & Day Spa. Sweck now provides free haircuts and styling services for tenants of HTRC property Lincoln Place, many of whom haven’t had a professional service in years.

Beyond work:
A life of balance

To be sure, Cohen’s work seems to leave little time for relaxation, but the reality is quite the contrary. She is a dedicated mother of four grown children and grandmother of three. Cohen is often spotted at local restaurants chatting animatedly with friends, and she herself is a passionate cook who confidently hosts large groups for amazing meals, as she did one recent Friday evening. She loves all kinds of music, attending concerts near and far from Rutland. And, she proudly proclaims that she is a fiercely competitive tennis player.

Considering all the purposeful pivots in Mary Cohen’s life so far — from Connecticut to UVM, on to Manhattan, Boston, and Vermont — it’s reasonable to conclude that abundant positivity is the key to her success. In an era where “transformative” and “belonging” are often overused, Cohen’s work is transforming lives every day, especially for those who have experienced homelessness and need to believe they truly belong. She is the epitome of compassion, collaboration and community.

For more information, visit: housingrutland.org. 

Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is principal and owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann consulting, L3C, based in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions: lizdimarcoweinmann.com.

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