Q&A with Darnell Williams, Senior Vice President of Property Operations
March 29, 2023
Darnell Williams has been an integral part of Eden Housing’s growth over the last five years, and following an extensive national search was recently named senior vice president of Property Operations, from his previous position as vice president of Asset Management. Darnell was selected because of his passion and proven commitment, coupled with his collaborative and data-driven approach to problem-solving and ability to develop outstanding leaders, which has made him a key player in Eden’s growth.
Among his many accomplishments, Darnell spearheaded the overhaul of Eden’s rent policy, resulting in a more equitable and transparent set of policies for the organization’s residents.
In his new role, Darnell will lead the operational activities of Eden Housing’s affiliates, including Eden Housing Management Inc. (EHMI) and Eden Housing Resident Services, Inc. (EHRSI). He will also help ensure that Eden’s 400+ site and resident services staff are supported and trained and that the properties remain fiscally sound and well-maintained while offering a comprehensive resident services component.
We sat down with Darnell to learn more about his background which led him to the affordable housing space, along with his career path, including some of his most noteworthy accomplishments and upcoming plans.
What led you to work in affordable housing?
While I certainly didn’t recognize it at the time, my passion for affordable housing stems from my upbringing on the southside of Chicago.
My father was one of seven siblings raised in the Cabrini-Green Homes housing project on the northwest side of Chicago before moving to the southside. As a career handyman and mechanic, there was nothing my dad couldn’t fix with his hands and a few tools. Although we had an up-and-down relationship over the years, he was my “Superman” and a fierce protector of his family. Unfortunately, he struggled with alcoholism until his passing in 2021, which deprived us of experiencing a better future together.
My father and mother met at Calumet High School on the southside, married and had two children – my older brother and me. She was one of four raised by a single mother living in several housing projects throughout their youth. Like my father, my mother experienced a very challenging childhood – one that arguably created a mental and physical callus toward society that imprisoned her mental state for the better part of her adulthood. My mother is a survivor to the fullest degree, but sadly has struggled with drug addiction, namely heroin, for 30+ years. It has been and continues to be a hindrance to our relationship.
My mother and father divorced when I was young, and as a result, my older brother and I stayed with my mom, who eventually remarried to my eventual younger brother’s father – who, to his credit, made every attempt to raise us as his own children. Unfortunately, after a few short years, their marriage ended and my mom – a newly single mother of three boys – had to figure out how to take care of her family. The four of us spent years bouncing around low-income housing apartments, routinely sleeping on friends’ and family’s couches, including several brief rotating stints in Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens housing projects. For years we watched our mom balance raising us with dealing with boyfriend after boyfriend who physically and mentally abused her. I believe that this, combined with her childhood, was the pivotable moment that broke her mentally and when she began using drugs.
Eventually, my mother and her boyfriend at the time were arrested on felony drug charges, and my brothers and I were forced to separate. My younger brother went to live with his father, and my older brother and me were sent to a foster home for a few weeks until the authorities found our father to come and get us.
My father continued to raise the two of us in the Roseland Community on the southside. I was fortunate enough to thrive in school and sports; I was valedictorian of my high school class and eventually went away to attend college at Truman State University in northeast Missouri.
These, along with many other unsaid experiences, shaped my passion for this work. I did not realize growing up that affordable housing was a possible career. I never saw a community manager, a maintenance technician, a resident services professional or anyone working in the projects. I’m not sure anyone ever did.
Instead, I went to college envisioning a career as a DEA agent. I wanted to help prosecute the people who were responsible for putting drugs in our communities – the poison that my mother and several friends and family members have been impacted by over the years. However, while studying criminal justice, I realized the challenges I would face as a DEA agent if I ever wanted to have a family of my own. Like my father, I’m also a fierce protector of my family, and I could not sleep at night worrying about what could happen to my loved ones while I was away trying to arrest some of the biggest international drug dealers in the world. I decided a life in business was better for me. I was hired into the industry when I first moved to the Bay Area by Evans Property Management, Inc. (or EPMI), which was the management arm of A.F. Evans development company. There was an immediate and organic connection to this work, and the rest is history!
What are some of your favorite highlights/accomplishments as VP of Asset Management?
I am proud of many significant accomplishments in my asset manager role. While there are too many to name here, most notably, I led the expansion of a robust asset management program and supported a team of amazing professionals who show up daily and work extremely hard to advance our work. I cannot say enough about their collective efforts to limit portfolio risks and leverage opportunities to ensure long-term sustainability of our portfolio.
My proudest highlight of this work was overseeing the overhaul of Eden’s rent increase policy by leading a cross-functional team, resulting in a more equitable and transparent set of policies for the organization’s residents.
What are you most looking forward to in your new role?
At Eden, we realize that safe and affordable housing helps families stay secure, allows communities to thrive and solves many of our cities’ most pressing challenges. I’m looking forward to continuing to be part of the solution. In this new role, I will lead Eden’s largest workforce – our property management and resident services staff – who are 400+ operations professionals tasked with delivering stable and safe communities and offering robust resident services programs. I want to support the advancement of training programs and systems to assist our staff, and I look forward to celebrating the accomplishments of our team who is the heartbeat of our industry.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
I find a great sense of fulfillment in helping others. Home is where your start is, and I’m fortunate to work for an organization that lives by this understanding and works tirelessly to solve the problems faced by many communities we serve. I want to have a positive impact on the lives of those less fortunate, who perhaps are living experiences similar to my parents, friends and family.
What trends you are seeing in affordable housing?
There is a phenomenon brewing before our eyes – our existing housing stock is aging rapidly and there are insufficient funding sources to address the needs of several communities. This, in the face of a housing crisis across the nation, presents a problem, and as an industry, we must not sleep until we solve for both through further intentional advocacy and partnerships with local, state and federal officials. We cannot risk the possibility of losing affordability in our communities by having a singular focus on new construction.
Eden is a leader in the sustainable housing space – committing to national programs with HUD and the Department of Energy, such as the Better Building Challenge aimed at reducing the waste of energy in buildings, and the Better Climate Challenge aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We intend to understand and leverage resources driven by the Inflation Reduction Act to advance our efforts in this space and continue to further this work through our building practices and other focus areas to reduce the impacts of climate change.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I am a family man. Married to a beautiful wife, we have two beautiful children who keep us on our toes each day. I do it for them – I am very intentional in making sure that they never experience the harsh realities that I experienced in my past. More often than not, outside of work, I am spending time with them, doing activities that range from fun and amazing to intentionally boring and relaxing – so long as we’re together, that’s all that matters.