Covid will continue to impact the world for a long time, so buckle your seatbelt. When things shut down for a month in March/April 2020, we were all pretty much in shock. We had no clue how much more difficult things would become, and the persistent impact of this pandemic will still be felt for years to come for millions of families. As much as we’re tempted to begin to leave Covid behind, there is still critical recovery work to be done for many families.
In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing options. This has led to a host of social challenges. In this series called “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” We are talking to successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, who share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Ford.
Amy Ford is a vice president for Silvernest, an online roommate-matching service that pairs empty nesters, retirees and other aging adults with housemates for long-term homesharing. In her role, Amy is focused on generating a vision and roadmap for Silvernest’s growth with current and future partners.
Amy joined Silvernest from NCOA (National Council on Aging), where she was the senior director of financial wellness, responsible for leading a team in the Economic Security division that provides education to older adults on a variety of topics related to financial wellness. Prior to that, Amy led an NCOA team that provided education to older adults who were considering accessing their home equity.
Before joining NCOA, Amy supported housing counselors in the training division of a large community development organization, NeighborWorks America. She also previously worked in government and community relations at Loyola University in Maryland on strategic community-based partnership development.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory?” What led you to this particular career path?
My interest in being a helper was encouraged kind of young. Growing up, my family was engaged in our community and pretty service-oriented. My friends and I even started a club in middle school called “Kids with a Cause” and we did little service projects in the neighborhood (I’m equally embarrassed and proud of that fact). I attended a Jesuit university that emphasized service-learning programs, and my interest in connecting community service experiences with justice and equity issues came into focus.
In particular, my work at the National Council on Aging helped strengthen my passion for issues facing older adults in our country. Seeing the lack of choices some have as they age made an impact on my worldview. Limited resources impact the ability to retire, afford medication, live in a safe and appropriate home, ageism in the workforce — unfortunately, the list of challenges is long. Equally as challenging, is that the list of solutions can sometimes feel short. However, many of us as we age are homeowners, and how we leverage that opportunity to combat these challenges can be really powerful. So, I’ve spent most of my career working on housing issues and opportunities for older adults in our country.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
There wasn’t a single event, but rather a recognition after several years at one organization that made me realize how much I enjoy diverse work with lots of different people and projects. When you dive deep into the work, and listen, and learn from others, you eventually become pretty skilled at something — and that was the case with me. One key takeaway I picked up early on was to learn from your own work, and also pitch in and support others’ initiatives and be a collaborative team member who cheers for, and works alongside, your peers and colleagues. You end up learning more, and I find I enjoy my work much more thoroughly if I’ve build amicable and supportive friendships with the people I work with.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been very fortunate to learn from some wonderful leaders and mentors in the aging space. As a young woman starting out, there were moments of doubt, or questioning of my own expertise. I had a wonderful mentor, Ramsey Alwin (now CEO of the National Council on Aging), who always gave me the floor in big meetings and encouraged me to use my voice and the knowledge I had earned. She made it a point to encourage me to take up space in a room. Once I embraced my own expertise, and began to take the mic more often, opportunities continued to become available for me.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I love the Moth Radio Hour, in part because I am fascinated with ordinary or extraordinary stories where the central themes or ideas feel common or shared, which can make us feel more connected as people in the world. That’s a big reason why homesharing appeals to me — shared experiences can strengthen our human experience and help us feel grounded and connected.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Actually, it’s something my mom often said to me, and it’s nothing earth shattering, but she would say, “It’s easier to include, than exclude.” I’m sure it was in reference to some birthday party guest list, but that message was strong in our house and became an important philosophy in my own family and life. Life feels fuller when we walk through it with a warm and open mentality that invites everyone under the tent, and not to mention it takes so much more work to keep others out or at bay. More diversity in a room, or a conversation, or within a home or work environment, drives a better end-result.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the shortage of affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. I know this is a huge topic, but for the benefit of our readers can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
Not only do we have a housing stock shortage for new homebuyers and our aging population, but we have even less housing that could be considered affordable. When you layer on top that our existing housing stock itself is aging, and requires significant modification and improvement to remain safe and livable, it paints a very dismal picture of affordable and stable housing for older Americans. Also, people are living significantly longer than they had planned — maybe 15–20 years longer than they imagined they would — because of better health care and technology. As a result, housing isn’t changing hands at perhaps the same rate as previous generations. Lastly, complexities in local zoning on land use, available financing and credit can all contribute.
Ultimately, a narrow lens and lack of creativity on this issue is in play. Imagine if we broadly adopted innovative solutions that could make a real difference in a short amount of time? What if we opened up the empty bedrooms across the country? What if we leveraged existing stock to alleviate some of the burden? It’s simply not feasible from a financial or timing standpoint to try and build our way out of this crisis.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
Silvernest exists to change the way we live as we age — to empower people with choice and independence, to enhance financial wellness and to facilitate powerful social connections.
In our partnerships model, we’re working with states/governments and non-profits to introduce and scale homesharing across the US. We’re lifting up local programs and partners to help them achieve a variety of their goals, whether that is to increase access to more affordable living situations, boost workforce housing, prevent a foreclosure or enable aging in place. We’re validating that a homesharing program can tackle these complex challenges. By partnering with a variety of entities across the country, we’re helping them execute against their local goals, while spreading the good word of homesharing, its impact — and, of course, its joys!
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
More of a testament to some of the talented and kind colleagues I’ve enjoyed over the years, but the older adult foreclosure prevention program I oversaw while at NCOA was extremely meaningful. My role at the time was to usher in the resources, monitor outcomes and reporting, oversee training and technical assistance, etc. I would also provide auditing and oversight by listening to recorded counseling sessions. I will never forget the many voices on those recordings. Those struggling are often in the margins, out of view, but the challenges facing many cash-strapped older adults in the U.S. is staggering.
In this one instance, the client was spending a lot of money on food, and the housing counselor couldn’t figure out why her food budget and the electricity bills were so high. The counselor was trying to help her with a repayment plan to catch up on some arrears with her lender. After much discussion, the counselor learned the woman had a very old fridge that was pulling on her electric bill and causing her food to spoil prematurely. The counselor connected the client with an energy assistance program that was able to secure her with an energy-efficient fridge, and then help her enroll in food assistance. It ended up netting out to around $600 a month in savings — plenty to get on a repayment plan and stay on track with her loan.
There were hundreds of similar stories during that program duration, and I learned an epic amount about how older adults’ limited resources and lack of support and option could have dire impact.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
With any complex challenge, diversity in solution sets and a willingness to innovate and try something new are both key.
From my perspective, these are three of the most important steps to get us where we need to go.
- We need to build more housing.
- We need to provide new and inventive ways for people to renovate and update old homes with affordable mechanisms or tools.
- We need to also encourage communities to consider how sharing space and growing the shared-economy mindset can lead to an abundance of opportunity.
Many entities we speak with want to innovate. They want to try new things, to pilot programs and learn, but there’s always plenty of hoops to jump through or funding considerations or complexity that bogs down the ability to identify a pot of money and try something, measure its impact, and then learn and scale. We really need a broader willingness from funders or philanthropists to give these innovators a chance, so they can get their pilots underway and gain knowledge from them.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws which you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
I would always advocate for ways to incentivize homesharing on a broader scale. That could be through removing zoning restrictions, tax incentives or rebates to share space, or even local programs to fund repairs and renovations to set a home up to share.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started as a leader within my company and why?” Please share a story or example for each.
I began my work with Silvernest in June of 2020, right smack in the middle of the early pandemic event. There were many unknowns at that time, but if I had to summarize a few tips at the outset of this role, they would be:
- It’s going to be harder than you think. Just because you see your value proposition and its impact potential very clearly, you have to put in the effort to bring others along, and that takes patience and understanding.
- It’s going to be better than you think. When you really believe in what you’re offering, or what you’re trying to accomplish, the joy that can flow through your days is remarkable.
- Disruptive ideas and solutions are worth it, but you have to be more patient than you want to be. Building time and space into your plans for your potential partners to learn, digest, ask questions, bring in other champions to the conversation, etc. is time consuming. But, when you’re asking people to do things they’ve never done before, you have to add in time for education.
- You have to make it exceedingly simple for people to understand and buy what you’re selling. Complexity will demolish your ability to make progress. Even if your solution is simple, if people are unfamiliar with it, it’s smart to take feedback and rethink your approach often. If you’re not making progress, it’s likely time to reevaluate how you’re showing up in new conversations. A dose of self-awareness is always welcome medicine.
- Covid will continue to impact the world for a long time, so buckle your seatbelt. When things shut down for a month in March/April 2020, we were all pretty much in shock. We had no clue how much more difficult things would become, and the persistent impact of this pandemic will still be felt for years to come for millions of families. As much as we’re tempted to begin to leave Covid behind, there is still critical recovery work to be done for many families.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Humans are better together, so I’d love to instigate a movement where we leverage connection, as well as our differences and our diversity. Our shared-human experience is one of the greatest gifts and opportunities. There are roughly 44 million empty bedrooms across the nation. Imagine the impact we could have if we inspired 1 million homesharing arrangements by 2030? Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are epic influencers who show us how wonderfully challenging and FUN sharing a home can be in their show Grace and Frankie. I’d love for them to become the spokeswomen for the modern way to age by sharing space! And who wouldn’t want an original Golden Girl Betty White to speak out and encourage the concept?!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
If Chip and Joanna Gaines would be open to a meal, I would fly to Waco tomorrow and cook something for them myself! While they’re epic influencers in the world of design and the renovation/remodel space, they’re also supporters of vibrant and caring communities. I’m sure we could find a lot of interesting and exciting opportunities that help bring people together, under one roof, to share in the joys and benefits of sharing space and a home.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I would welcome the chance for them to follow and interact with me and Silvernest on any of my social channels. You can find us on Twitter at @AmyNicoleFord and @SilvernestLife, on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/amy-ford-5814793a and https://www.linkedin.com/company/silvernest, and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Silvernestlife.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.