Love Affair with Her City

6 min read

Sheila Dillon, Boston’s Chief of Housing

The homepage states, “The mission of the Department of Neighborhood Development is to make Boston the most livable city in the nation.” It then goes on to explain, “DND’s main functions are to set and implement the City’s housing policy, manage the City’s real estate portfolio, and strengthen Boston’s small businesses.”

According to many associated with the affordable housing sphere, Boston’s success in realizing that mission has a lot to do with the expertise, drive and personality of Sheila Dillon, Director of the Department and Chief of Housing in the Mayor’s Cabinet.

The well-deserved 2015 Vision Award will be presented to Ms. Dillon in a ceremony at the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association’s Fall Forum on the afternoon of Monday, November 2 at the Langham Hotel in Boston.

Sheila was appointed to her current post in August 2012 by the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who was widely admired for his commitment to housing, healthcare and facilities to support Boston’s previously underserved populations. Before that, she had been Director of the Rental Assistance Bureau of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, where her responsibilities included the Section 8 program and the state’s rental voucher program. She has held various housing-related positions for the city government, including Deputy Director of Housing at DND, where she oversaw both affordable housing development and programs for the homeless.

Menino’s words at the time were both accurate and predictive of Sheila’s ongoing contributions to the city’s well-being and commitment to services. “I am confident that Sheila will be a tremendous leader and asset to the Department of Neighborhood Development and the City of Boston,” he declared. “Sheila brings not only a deep understanding of today’s most important housing matters, but a strong record as a leader on these issues which are so critical to cultivating strong neighborhoods where residents and businesses can thrive.”

Sheila’s “origin story” is an inspiring one: She came to Boston after receiving a Master’s degree in psychology with the intention of getting a Ph.D. and going into clinical psychology. “But I’d always been very interested in real estate development, and I started working for a private developer in Chestnut Hill. My first assignment was to empty out a building of elderly residents so it could be condo-ized. I was appalled at what I was expected to do. I quickly resigned and said to myself, ‘Hmmm, what now?’ I soon learned there was a whole other dimension to housing that actually did good for people and I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I got a job with Dorchester Community Development and I’ve been in the field ever since.”

Sheila’s twin roles require a wide-ranging skill set. As a member of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s cabinet, she works with all relevant city agencies and advises the mayor and his staff on housing policy, small business development, legislation and issues effecting individual neighborhoods. “It’s a major coordination role that consumes a lot of my time and energy,” she comments.

As DND Director, Sheila oversees a multifaceted and diverse, yet interrelated, group of service in four program divisions: the Boston Home Center helps residents obtain, retain and improve their homes and supports first-time homebuyers with courses and financial assistance; Neighborhood Housing Development develops and preserves affordable housing for the city’s most vulnerable residents and renovates abandoned properties; the Office of Business Development’s goal is to revitalize neighborhood business districts; and Real Estate Management and Sales manages the city’s portfolio of tax-foreclosed land and buildings as well as surplus properties.

In addition, DND works with HUD to provide funding and supportive services for the homeless and those suffering from AIDS.

Sheila manages a staff of approximately 150 and a budget of $100 million. DND’s financial responsibilities include processing federal funds that support city housing projects and programs, administering contracts for services, and oversight of the affordability of properties developed using DND funds.

NH&RA Executive Director Thom Amdur notes, “It’s my understanding that pretty much nothing gets developed in Boston without going through Sheila’s office. And this is a tough job. Boston has a complicated government structure and Sheila has to work across agencies. She’s a bridge-builder. She’s out in the field a lot managing a range of often-conflicting constituencies. She has to coordinate developers’ plans with the city’s needs and the individual community’s wishes, and make sure they fit in with the mayor’s priorities – all on a civil servant’s salary. It’s no sure thing that a new mayor will keep on a previous mayor’s political appointee, so it’s quite a testimonial to Sheila that Mayor Walsh recognized her vital role in the city.”

Sheila simply says, “Both mayors have been extremely dedicated to housing issues.”

With this complex set of “customers” to satisfy, her Master’s Degree in Psychology from Pepperdine University is undoubtedly beneficial, though Pepperdine’s idyllic perch in Malibu is certainly a far cry from Sheila’s current beat; a city she says she “fell in love with.”

Born in Albany, New York, Sheila grew up in Burlington, Vermont. She received her undergraduate degree from the State University of New York, Oswego, and an M.B.A. from Suffolk University. She lives in South Boston with her husband John Martin, a construction attorney (“We don’t mix work at home.”), and 15-year-old daughter Maeve. Eighteen-year-old Pearse is a freshman at Skidmore.

“What I love about South Boston,” Sheila says, is that it is transit-oriented, close to downtown, safe, and it’s been good to watch it becoming more diverse,” she comments.

Something similar could be said for Boston as a whole, which has been a center for thought leaders and innovation in affordable housing. “We have a long tradition of progressive perspective here. It’s a culturally rich, mixed-income city where all of the wealthy people didn’t live in one neighborhood or flee to the suburbs.”

But Boston and other cities are facing a new set of trials, she notes. “Our challenge comes from our own success. As cities become more desirable places to live, there is more and more pressure on housing, with less federal funding. Going forward, we need to raise our own funding and in general become more self-reliant.”

The city’s higher educational establishment is a big plus. “We collaborate with and use the colleges and universities. They want real problems for their students to solve, and we give them that.”

Aaron Gornstein, President and CEO of the nonprofit Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), says: “Sheila has demonstrated her unwavering commitment over many years to expanding housing opportunities for low-income residents of Boston. She has helped to improve the lives of thousands of low and moderate-income residents throughout the city and the region.”