By Gail Spector
When Josephine McNeil retires from CAN-DO (Citizens for Affordable Housing in Newton Development Organization) later this year, she’ll leave a legacy that includes a lot more than the 44 affordable housing units she helped create.
McNeil co-founded the non-profit developer of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families in 1994. After running the organization part-time for a few years, she became CAN-DO’s first and only full-time staff when she was appointed executive director in 1999. She plans to fully retire in the next six to eight months, but not until after CAN-DO’s annual fundraising gala on March 12.
“Josephine has had a tremendous impact, a profound and lasting impact. She puts so much into every project,” said Newton City Councilor Ted Hess-Mahan, who served on CAN-DO’s Board of Directors from 1998-2003.
CAN-DO is the only developer of affordable housing in Newton outside of 40B projects, according to McNeil. Of the 44 units that have been built, 37 are deed-restricted so they will remain permanently affordable.
Projects have served a gamut of needs. Developments have been built for veterans, developmentally disabled adults, domestic violence survivors in need of transitional housing, young parents at risk, and other low-income families.
The newest developments underway comprise two units each on Taft Avenue and Cambria Road, which McNeil hopes will be homes to homeless families.
As the sole staff for the non-profit, McNeil has served as “chief cook and bottle washer,” said Hess-Mahan. “She’s the heart and soul of that organization.”
Her work has not come easily, said McNeil, who also serves on the Board of Directors for the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber.
“It’s been very difficult to get housing created in this city. The main difficulty is that the cost of creating a unit of housing is astronomical because of the high cost of housing in this city,” she said, adding that the city has to absorb most of the funding because of the difficulty securing funding from the state.
“It’s a tough environment out there,” agreed Hess-Mahan. “CAN-DO competes for Community Preservation Act funds against all other causes. When you get down to it, people care more about parks than they do about affordable housing.
“It’s so hard to create affordable housing in Newton but she inspires me because she never gives up,” he said. “In the current climate in Newton, where every project gets opposed, there’s always somebody who’s objecting.”
Creating housing has been just one part of McNeil’s job for the past two decades.
“We are focusing on providing extensive services to the families,” McNeil said. “Housing is the first thing they need. We have people whose income is so low, they will never be self-sufficient. We need to overcome barriers to earning more money. “
CAN-DO has adopted “mobility mentoring,” the professional practice of partnering with participants so that over time they acquire the resources, skills, and behavior changes necessary to attain and preserve economic independence.
“One of the things about affordable housing is, it’s not just about getting people into the units, it’s keeping people in them,” said Hess-Mahan. “Whether they need furniture, clothing for the kids, toiletries, Josephine knows who to reach out to.
“She’s also a shoulder to cry on, and someone who can give a stern talking to when needed. She’s everything for these folks. I don’t know where she gets the energy.”
McNeil has shined in her work with neighborhoods, Hess-Mahan said, citing the Kayla Rosenberg House on Christina Street. “The people who were initially wary or outright hostile got turned around because Josephine was a force of nature. She moved heaven and earth to make sure that happened.
“Every single [CAN-DO project] became a real asset for the neighborhood,” he said. “What Josephine has been able to do in Newton is sell the idea of ‘yes in my backyard.”
McNeil gets “the most satisfaction out of knowing that the work we have done has made a significant change in people’s lives,” she said. “I do this not to build buildings but because I want to provide housing for people and to give them the opportunity to make a better live for themselves and their families, in a community like Newton. When it works out, that’s where the joy comes.”
Under [Chamber President] Greg [Reibman’s] leadership, the business community recognizes that it needs to be involved in supporting housing projects, McNeil said, adding that she’d like to see more engagement. “Businesses should be concerned about the lack of housing for people making minimum wage. It’s a vacuum that needs to be filled.”
Upon McNeil’s retirement, CAN-DO will affiliate with Metro West Collaborative Development. Metro West will provide the staff for CAN-DO, allowing for more capacity, said board member Bart Lloyd.
“By structuring it as an affiliation, money that gets donated to CAN-DO will stay in Newton,” Lloyd said. “That’s what we were trying to preserve. The affiliation brings out the best of both organizations.”
McNeil will be honored at CAN-DO’s 14th annual celebration on March 12 from 4-7 p.m. at the Newton Marriot. Visit newtoncan-do.org for more information.