Creating affordable housing solutions goes far beyond the four walls of a development. Truly meeting the challenges of housing inequity head-on requires considering a community as a whole with its unique challenges and strengths. Only then can a true sense of home – of safety and of opportunity – be achieved. This is something Holly Knight, CEO of BGC Advantage, understands deeply. During a recent conversation with Knight, we were able to delve into her background, inspirations, values and more. With a career spanning 25 years in both the public and private realms of affordable housing, expertise in disaster relief and sustainability, and a proven track record of community engagement, Holly Knight has a deft grasp on delivering results no matter the challenge.
During our conversation, Knight offered a wide variety of stories that have stuck with her through the years. Of wading through water in rainboots following Hurricane Katrina to meet with those who found themselves without a home. Of finding solutions for kids stuck at home during the pandemic without proper space and resources to attend online school. Of the impact of her mother’s commitment to education equality and her lifelong volunteerism. All of these stories, despite their disparate settings and circumstances, serve to illustrate the same point; the most effective among the figures in our field are the ones that take note of the communities they serve and keep them at the core of their mission. The following conversation provides deeper context as this applies to Holly Knight and BGC Advantage.
Why do you feel that affordable housing has become such an area of focus in your life and career?
I have spent my entire professional career working in and advocating for low income families and affordable housing. Before launching BGC, I spent 15 years with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where I was an early champion for the RAD program. But before that, I worked for the Boys and Girls Club, connecting with the residents I still serve today. I enjoyed working with the kids, but something really clicked when I realized that none of the interventions were possible if the most basic need of housing was not met. I penned my very first Tax Credit Application to the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, which I still have today. I hand-wrote every page with slow deliberate script, learning that every rooftop represented another child I could reach and how tax credits made that possible.
How did your work as a volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club in Louisiana early in your career impact your values and goals? What does the organization mean to you, especially given your past role as Executive Director?
I get my servant’s heart from my parents. They were both active volunteers who loved working with kids. My sister and I were encouraged to be involved, so I started out as a volunteer in high school teaching drug elimination classes. After college, I worked in Public Housing with the Boys and Girls Club, where I started writing grants and eventually became an executive director. We organized resumé workshops to help parents get employment or higher pay. We brought in volunteers to offer reading and homework assistance. It was a humbling experience to see so many boys and girls who desperately needed love, guidance, and attention from stable adults who cared. I was like a sponge, absorbing everything I could about the challenges our kids’ families faced, and I felt a calling to help in any way that I could. I tried to expose my kids to new things and experiences to broaden their horizons and give them new dreams to dream.
You have been able to see the affordable housing industry from both the private and public sectors. What was the most valuable lesson you learned in working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development?
I honed my technical skills at HUD, where I worked with troubled agencies and learned about Brownfields, funding sources, and Hope VI. I made invaluable relationships while working there, but I also learned that I would have to step outside the government to make the most significant impact. There simply is not enough affordable housing to meet the needs of our deserving workforce and seniors. And the capital needs of public housing are too great. It takes the creative use of both public and private funding to preserve and create affordable housing.
In addition to creating and rehabilitating affordable housing, you’ve had extensive experience in disaster relief, specifically following catastrophic hurricanes like Katrina. How have experiences like those informed your worldview and professional activities?
Last year we completed Royal Cambridge Homes with CREA in Alexandria, LA. Although every rehabilitation comes with its own set of challenges, this project was uniquely fraught by tax reform, three tornadoes, three hurricanes, two tropical storms, and the COVID-19 pandemic. All development, especially RAD development, is full of mini-disasters. You are constantly problem-solving. Perhaps, recovering after a catastrophic event like Katrina taught me to handle life’s small disasters with a little more resilience, but no less persistence, because in the end, there is a resident that needs my help.
What inspired your move to the private sector with the founding of your private development enterprise, BGC Advantage?
Working through the recovery after Katrina, I spent a lot of time thinking and speaking about the need for more public and private partnerships through Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). I started to present at more conferences, trying to educate developers and investors about the possibilities of RAD. I also started to think about leaving HUD, but who leaves HUD after fifteen years of service? Either you leave in the first five years or stay until you retire, but I couldn’t shake the thought. I am a woman of faith, and I could hear God speaking to me. He called me to leave, and I answered. Through my development work, I feel that I am doing God’s work by taking care of my residents.
How has this shift changed what you are able to accomplish in the field of affordable housing?
After working with HUD, I am armed with the insight and flexibility to better support its goals. At HUD, I worked on initiatives at the state, regional, and national level by collaborating across agencies, including the Department of Services (the Weed and Seed initiative), the Environmental Protection Agency (environmental issues), the Health and Human Services (disabilities and mental health challenges), and VASH ( veterans services). As a HUD partner, I can weave these resources into our private efforts to better benefit the residents and communities we serve.
I can also begin grassroots efforts to instigate change. My mother taught me that big changes can be made by starting small. As the school board homeless liaison, I watched her assist unhoused families by developing a coalition to organize 18-wheelers full of donations that she would warehouse and distribute. She would knock on car windows to ensure children were fed, clothed, and enrolled into the school system with a backpack full of supplies. This inspired me to start my own coalition, working with other housing industry professionals to Lift the RAD Cap from 60,000 units. Friends and neighbors sat around my kitchen table to help cut ribbons and stuff envelopes in preparation for our trip to Washington, DC. Our little band of investors, brokers, and developers met with senators, representatives, and their staff to help them understand that this cap impacted more than public housing. We demonstrated that lifting the cap would stimulate jobs and spending, leverage financing, and revitalize housing opportunities. I am proud to say that we were successful and that others have taken charge of moving this initiative forward with the RAD Collaborative.
One of BGC Advantages’ key attributes is a commitment to environmental sustainability in your developments. Why is this such an important aspect of the work that your group does?
I was the regional subject matter expert for RAD, Disaster, and Energy Performance Contracts at HUD. For me, the environmental benefits are secondary to the resident benefits. Reducing resident cost burden in utilities is just one of the many life-changing and sustaining things we’ve done in affordable housing. That’s why we install energy efficient appliances in all of our developments. When you pay for energy efficient appliances and windows upfront, it leads to long term savings for the resident. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Our holistic approach to energy conservation includes doors and windows seals and on demand hot water heaters. We leverage free services from the utility companies to evaluate whether gas or electric will be the most fuel efficient choice for each property before we start building, and in some of our properties we install smart home features to give residents and property managers even more control over utilization.
Plus, I get really jazzed about the utility allowance that’s part of subsidized housing. In a typical apartment complex, the ownership group may take care of your water bill, but you’re almost certain to pay those vastly-expensive gas and electric bills each month. However, with subsidized housing in play, you might get a monthly utility allowance of $100. That may not pay the entire bill, but it’s a good start, and it is a huge help if you’re on a tight budget.
Your late mother was committed to providing high quality education for low-income children. How did/does her work and life impact your own goals and aspirations?
Mom taught special needs students—she saw right away (and imparted to me) that the kids behind in school were generally behind economically. The tough cases took long hours and deep commitment. She graded every assignment personally, never passing that off to an assistant. As she often said, “I wouldn’t get to know the kids and their abilities if I didn’t grade their papers and understand their mistakes.” I guess that’s why I am so hands-on in every aspect of my business today. I have to personally inspect each of our developments to make sure they meet my standards and expectations. And I am most fulfilled when we have the opportunity to see our residents thriving and enjoying a sense of community. This year, for example, we held a back-to-school event with a resource fair and motivational speakers to distribute book bags and school supplies, conduct exercise clinics, and offer free haircuts and COVID- 19 vaccines. It is gratifying for me and all of our employees at BGC to see our properties come to life with families cooling off in the splash pad and climbing the rock walls. Changing the quality of life for our residents, it’s why we do what we do.
Shifting the balance of opportunity and stability through the creation of affordable housing is not, by any means, an easy job. These goals take admiration, grit and spirit. There are so many figures in this field that exemplify the hard work and determined focus necessary to deliver effective results; Holly Knight is one such example. Having seen and felt the impact of affordable housing solutions in both the public and private sector, she understands the positive difference these communities make on families and individuals alike. She’s also been there in the hardest of times – helping people pick up the pieces.
Holly Knight has created change on both personal and policy levels, all in the pursuit of the same goal: to provide the basic dignity of housing. She has seen how this vital foundation can touch every area of a person’s life, and she’s worked hard to provide it in ways big and small. This strong spirit of generosity, informed by her mother and solidified through her career, is one that we can all aspire to as we go about our own work. CREA is immensely proud to partner with BGC Advantage and aid in furthering our shared vision of affordable housing for all.