By Liz DiMarco Weinmann
As the days become colder in New England, the phrase “right at home” may conjure up a warm, comfy, and secure place, where we scrub off the day, slip into our oversized loungewear and thick socks, and hunker down under cozy coverlets. For many low- and moderate-income families in Vermont, however, the setting described above is more like an idyllic dream than a reality, as finding affordable housing today has become a serious challenge.
Making affordable homeownership a reality is what Heather Starzynski has been passionate about for over 10 years, having worked in the field of community development throughout the United States. A supremely dedicated and impact-driven advocate, as well as an expert, in the often-complex arena of affordable housing and community development financing, Starzynski is the new executive director of West Rutland-based NeighborWorks of Western Vermont (NWWVT).
Starzynski joined NWWVT in May, following a national search led by former Project Vision director Scott Tucker, then-board chair of NWWVT, after the retirement of the organization’s longstanding director, Ludy Biddle. Tucker, who is now Wilmington’s town manager, is one of Starzynski’s most avid champions.
“Not only is Heather’s experience and expertise in affordable housing, nonprofit management and financial management outstanding, but she demonstrated early on her passion for supporting the needs of rural communities and her belief that relationships and relentless investment in staff, are keys to success,” said Tucker.
That enthusiasm from Tucker and from those on the current NWWVT board and staff, reflects the overall values of the organization itself, beginning with the promise on NWWVT’s website: “NeighborWorks of Western Vermont is committed to sustainable homeownership for Vermonters.”
NeighborWorks of Western Vermont started in 1986 as Rutland West Neighborhood Housing Services, a consortium of four towns: Rutland, West Rutland, Castleton, and Fair Haven, with the intent of stabilizing four neighborhoods in those towns by providing low-interest loans to homeowners for home repairs. The focus of the program was to make health and safety, as well as structural and energy-efficient repairs, affordable for homeowners in those four neighborhoods, with the hopes that the improvements would inspire other investment throughout each town.
Today, many Vermonters have benefited from NWWVT’s Heat Squad program, which offers comprehensive low-cost energy audits and reports, as well as objective advice, referrals to trusted contractors, financing options, and submission of required data for users to receive rebates from Efficiency Vermont. But Heat Squad is only one of NWWVT’s programs.
NWWVT’s spectrum of services includes homebuyer education; down-payment assistance loans; and financial education for individuals as well as companies that want it for their employees. Of note is NWWVT’s Homeland Program, which offers 20% down payment grants to home buyers. The goals of the Homeland Program are to help low- and moderate-income buyers buy a home they otherwise could not afford, and to keep those homes perpetually affordable so that future low- and moderate-income households will be able to buy a home.
Starzynski arrived at NWWVT following similar community development posts in Chicago and at a large national community development nonprofit in Washington, where she had oversight of multimillion-dollar grant funds, operations, budgeting, and partnerships across more than 245 nonprofit organizations nationally. She grew up in a small town in northern Michigan that she describes as “a lot like Rutland, only Rutland is larger and livelier.”
After earning her master’s degree in public administration from University of Missouri-Kansas City, with a concentration in nonprofit management, and urban policy and administration, Starzynski built and expanded her experiences in directing programs. She also served as a course instructor in economics.
“I joined the nonprofit sector for a job, and I stay because of how it has changed my own life,” explains Starzynski. “To be supportive of safe, energy efficient, healthy and affordable housing for everyone isn’t just the ‘thing’ that this sector does. Rather, giving families the foundation from which to change or launch the trajectory of their lives is really what I believe we’re trying to accomplish, together.”
Officially on board at NWWVT since May, Starzynski has been working tirelessly to move the organization forward via a concerted focus on strategic planning, especially in integrating principles and practices of racial equity, diversity, and inclusion (REDI), as well as strengthening the organization’s capacity to mentor and retain skilled staff dedicated to creating and sustaining lasting positive impact. The current NWWVT team includes about 20 professionals.
Starzynski readily acknowledges that ensuring affordable home ownership takes deliberate collaboration with others outside the organization as well. To that point, she is one of the most approachable, responsive, and gracious nonprofit leaders; her emails always begin with a friendly greeting and appreciation for the recipient.
“My colleagues across the housing spectrum, from homeless prevention to affordable multifamily developers and to those organizations like our own that support homebuyers, homeowners and renters with counseling, financial education, services on home and rental repair and energy efficiency, have been working hard to minimize the impacts of the housing situation we’re facing in Vermont. Coming together, along with employers, contractors, town leaders, for-profit real estate developers, the legislature and our social service support network, is what it will take to recognize affordable home ownership as the foundation for building a state economy and communities that thrive.”
For Heather Starzynski, the mission of helping more Vermonters feel “right at home” is one that she pursues with the purpose, pride, and zeal of the most ardent community advocate. Building on the enthusiasm of her staff, board, and community partners, she is determined to help more Vermonters make affordable homeownership a reality, now more than ever. For more information, visit: nwwvt.org.
Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is a Strategic Growth Specialist, Nonprofit Leader, Business Educator, and Author. She is Principal and Owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann, L3C, based in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions, lizdimarcoweinmann.com.