Interview with Dina Harris, National Faith Homebuyers President and CEO
Here at CCB, we love to recognize folks doing great work in communities. We will be regularly interviewing people who are doing this amazing work and sharing their stories to learn more about their backgrounds and what inspires them within and outside of their jobs. For our first interview, we spoke with Dina Harris, the President and Chief Executive Officer of National Faith Homebuyers, a Detroit-based non-profit organization that provides down payment assistance, finance counseling, and community workshops and classes to support first-time homebuyers. Learn more about National Faith Homebuyers here.
Adam: Dina, thanks so much for agreeing be our inaugural partner interviewee! To start, can you tell us where you’re from, where you’re based, and a little about your organization?
Dina: You’re very welcome! I grew up in a small suburb outside Detroit, Michigan, so I feel a very close connection to the communities we’re supporting through the work we do.
National Faith Homebuyers (NFH) helps anyone, regardless of their background or income level, but we primarily work with Black and Latino families. We manage down payment assistance for five municipalities in Michigan and offer between $7,500 and $15,000 to each family we work with. I’m also currently working on a proposal to house Afghan refugees who are currently staying in Detroit hotels.
When I first moved NFH to Detroit, I was the only employee! But with the help of community leaders and student volunteers, we made NFH what it is today.
Looking at the number of people securing loans and becoming homeowners, our numbers at NFH keep rising, while national levels are dropping. We are different from other organizations and efforts because we teach lenders why it is so important to support our communities. And we also coach families so that they are prepared before they walk into a bank to apply for a loan. We do a lot of credit counseling and personal finance and couponing workshops, while also appealing to children with interactive activities like coloring books. In addition to our unwavering passion and commitment to this cause, we never send families into banks unprepared.
Adam: It’s amazing to learn how you grew from an idea to the large organization you are today! Why do you think you do the work you do? What moved you to create an organization like National Faith Homebuyers?
Dina: I started National Faith Homebuyers in 1996 in Ann Arbor. As a newly single mom with a reduced income due to a recent job loss, I was looking to buy a house. I had experience working in public housing and Section 8 for a city outside Ann Arbor, and I took a class to start my own business. Believe it or not, housing wasn’t my initial plan! But after learning more about the connections between personal finances and housing opportunities, I began to weave housing into my vision to provide financial training services to families.
Growing up in public housing, I saw how generations of Black families were so heavily dependent on the program. I saw the hopelessness of my neighbors who had been consistently denied access to opportunities that would improve their financial situations. At the same time, I noted the racial differences in how some of my neighbors of other races were receiving economic opportunities that allowed them to move out of public housing and purchase homes, while others stayed in public housing for generations.
My experiences and observations prompted me to start working in my town’s public housing department at the age of 14 and to continue doing so for the next 20 years. I’m still not satisfied with public housing as an institution and its ability to help people become more socioeconomically mobile. But I’m really excited about new and creative ideas for subsidized housing like expanding the portions of new developments that are allocated for affordable housing and allowing people to use their Section 8 vouchers to purchase homes.
Moorea: Thanks for sharing that Dina, it’s always really moving to hear the details behind what drives leaders like you to do work that so many others are unwilling to. Somewhat related, is there someone from your past or even today that really inspires you, personally or professionally?
Dina: Charles Beatty really took me under his wing and treated me like a daughter. He told me I could accomplish my dreams and took time to mentor me. He also taught me the importance of keeping my ego under control and staying humble. God is also a big part of the work I do. My work is ministry for me. I get ideas in the middle of the night and am always excited to work for the sake of helping people, not to get awards. Results are important to me; I always track data to identify the outcomes of the work we do at NFH so we can make sure that we are doing the absolute best we can.
Adam: Mr. Beatty sounds like a wonderful man! I’m really curious, what’s something you wish more people knew or understood about the work you do?
Dina: Many have tried to compete with NFH or replicate our model, but they can’t figure out our special secret…the formula is being nice and decent! We show our clients that we believe in them, and that we have hearts. It’s funny because I sometimes scare banks because of how nice I am. It shocks them! Being nice, but also firm and goal-oriented is the key in this industry.
But I’d also like people to understand how deep the inequities in appraisals are. For example, a large national lender gave NFH a building in southwest Detroit that appraised at $330,000, but it should’ve been over $750,000. Things like this make me realize that if they’re giving me this much trouble, the amount of trouble they give everyone else must be astronomical. I also think students are an untapped resource and that they have brilliant new ideas for home construction. I hope to explore different ways to build houses out of recycled materials in the future.
Moorea: A business strategy that never goes out of style: being nice and decent! What do you tell young people when they ask you for career advice?
Dina: Really all I can say is to follow your dreams, but also don’t be afraid to change them! With drive and passion, you can accomplish anything. But make sure that you’re also listening to yourself and doing what you really want to do, because it won’t come easy.
Adam: That’s really helpful and advice I hope students and non-students alike follow. Somewhat related, when all is said and done, what is your dream and what is the change you want to see in the world?
Dina: I really just want to level the playing field. I want to help people become more financially aware and to overcome the fear, intimidation, and generational trauma that has caused us to be afraid of gaining financial knowledge. But I also want the world to stop blocking us from gaining access to financial knowledge that will help us be more socioeconomically mobile.
Moorea: Last question…how did you get so cool?
Dina: My grandchildren! I like to think I’m a cool grandma too! I really prioritize family; all my children work for me to carry on NFH’s purpose.
I’m also a dreamer. I always plan with the end goal in mind. I close my eyes and imagine all the families NFH helps standing in front of their very own house. That image keeps me going and helps me remain hopeful. I also take piano lessons and am hoping to take acting classes soon! And after I retire, I hope to travel to Europe and explore more of the world.