John Chow’s career has taken him full-circle back to providing affordable housing solutions, and his latest role brings his passion and expertise in housing and development to Rock Island.
Mr. Chow is the new CEO of Community Home Partners (CHP) and executive director of the Rock Island Housing Authority (RIHA). Prior to joining CHP and RIHA last fall, he was chief of staff and chief of development and operations for the Housing Authority of Joliet, Illinois. He replaces Susan Anderson, who retired this month after 22 years leading RIHA and CHP.
“Susan (Anderson) set the foundation with Community Home Partners as a non-profit to aggressively start developing new housing units,” Mr. Chow said. “I want to build on the pillars already here by reimagining what affordable housing looks like, rewriting the perception of public housing, and establishing a longstanding relationship between CHP and the entire community.”
One of Mr. Chow’s first goals is to forge strong relationships with stakeholders across the Quad Cities region and with state and federal housing officials. “We have to be on the same page, the same team” as CHP applies for tax credits to advance its projects, he said.
He applauds how RIHA has replaced much of its aging public housing facilities with brand new housing options.
“Community Home Partners and the Rock Island Housing Authority have a strong history of providing affordable housing for Rock Island, with exceptional quality,” said Lori Pappas, chairman of the RIHA Board of Commissioners. “With the retirement of our long-standing CEO and executive director, we had an opportunity to search for someone to advance Rock Island housing even further, and we found more than we could have hoped for with John.”
Son of immigrants
Born in Rangoon, Burma, (now Myanmar) in southeast Asia, Mr. Chow immigrated to the United States in 1971 with his father and mother, Sein K. Chow and Mi Sun Lee Chow, and his seven siblings. Raised in southwest Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, he recalled how his father had been a principal and his mother an educator in their homeland.
In America, they worked factory jobs to support their young family. The 10-member family lived in a two-bedroom Illinois with eight children in one bedroom. They attended Chicago public schools.
“My dad worked 30 years in a factory and, I don’t know how, put six of us through college on a blue-collar salary,” said Mr. Chow. His mother retired after 35 years at Tootsie Roll candy factory.
A 1987 Iowa State University graduate with a degree in architecture, Mr. Chow launched his career in Joliet right out of college and worked his way up from the housing authority’s construction manager to department supervisor and inspection supervisor.
“I truly think it’s about passion to be in this industry of affordable housing,” he told the QCBJ. “Not too many people aspire to be a leader in affordable housing.”
He later joined the University of Chicago, where he spent nearly 14 years in charge of managing its 200+ buildings and leading new construction projects.
Returning to his passion
But Mr. Chow eventually was drawn back to the Joliet housing authority, where he supervised development and construction of affordable homes. “I was satisfied (career-wise) at the university,” he said. But Mr. Chow, who turned 60 in December, knew affordable housing “was how I wanted to end my career.”
In Joliet, he said, “I grew into what the mission is all about… understanding the socio-economic issues that got us here to an affordable housing crisis.” He now wants to expand affordable housing options for Quad Cities residents.
He will relocate to the Quad Cities with his family, wife Chanchira Chow, and their son Spencer. They also have a daughter, Sydney.
Pointing to Mr. Chow’s history of leadership and creative thinking, Ms. Pappas said “He came to work ready to start ‘Day One.’ He was clearly an exceptional candidate, and we are fortunate to have him.”
Ms. Pappas said the authority will, under Mr. Chow’s direction, “further explore senior housing, rent-to-own and mixed income options, all while building more communities within Rock Island.”
Mr. Chow noted that the lack of affordable housing options has risen to a national crisis with a shortage of 6.5 million housing units. But he is enthused that the new federal infrastructure bill addresses it.
Citing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) statistics, he said housing is considered affordable when housing costs are 30% or less of a person’s income. Yet 10.5 million Americans pay more than 50%. In Rock Island alone, 1,700 people are on a waiting list for affordable housing.
Public housing image
Top of the list of his goals is developing even more affordable housing, including a 60-unit senior housing project proposed on the Valley Homes site. The former public housing was demolished during Ms. Anderson’s tenure.
He credits her with changing people’s view of public housing in Rock Island. “It’s not the image of ‘housing of last resort’ anymore. The new perception is we build high quality homes that people want to come and live in.”
But across his industry, Mr. Chow said “A lot of leaders still don’t get it… (they see it) as let’s just rehab buildings. But with HUD decreasing funding every year, funding is short and assets are getting old. We need to do something else.”
His priorities also include helping residents “break the cycle of dependency.”
“Affordable housing was started as an avenue for those in need, but it was not meant to become a generational housing situation,” he said. Families “should not have lived in affordable housing for two and three generations. It should be temporary housing to get them on their feet again.”
Mr. Chow said the goal not only is to build homes but build up residents’ lives. “Through our self-sufficiency program THRIVE, community members can advance their education, gain financial literacy, and ultimately work and save toward buying homes of their own,” he said. “Our job as servant leaders is to properly portray the impact this kind of program can have on our communities at the city, state, and hopefully at the national level.”