Alumnus David Northern Strives for Innovative Housing Solutions

David A. Northern Sr. is often introduced as “the first.”

He is the first African-American to become chief executive officer of Lake County (Illinois) Housing Authority (LCHA), one of the leading housing authorities in the nation, serving Chicago’s northern suburbs. And he is the first African-American elected to the Board of Education of Community Consolidated School District 46 in northeastern Illinois.

David Northern portrait

“Innovation means being keenly aware of the needs of the community and responding swiftly and appropriately,” says David Northern, ’97 (Photo courtesy of Cooley’s Video)

Mr. Northern appreciates the significance of such milestones. “I am privileged to have been the first,” he said. But he’s more interested in finding ways to use these positions to create positive change as “an advocate for the needs of all citizens.”

Mr. Northern regards as a career milestone the 2017 groundbreaking of a $49 million development, Brookstone and Regency at Coles Park. The project will bring 220 units of affordable housing to the North Chicago community in Lake County. For funding, Mr. Northern and his team developed a public–private partnership so that only about $2 million of the project will be taxpayer supported.

Taryl Bonds, ’96, said the project’s successful launch speaks to why Mr. Northern is regarded as a housing industry leader. “While some housing authorities are just beginning to take on such innovative endeavors, David has successfully been exploring these waters for some time, having to operate outside of the box to be sustainable,” said Mr. Bonds, who is chief procurement officer for the Gary (Indiana) Housing Authority.

No matter what the obstacles or political climate, Mr. Northern said, “our goal will continue to be to provide decent, safe and sanitary housing to the citizens we represent.”

That’s a bigger challenge than ever. Many families across the country are now struggling to afford basic housing.

According to new research by Harvard University, almost 40 million Americans live in housing they can’t afford, in part because home prices in many markets continue to rise while wages have not kept pace. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that most poor families devote more than half their take-home pay to rent. The coalition also estimates a nationwide shortage of 7.2 million affordable and available units for a population of 10.5 million low-income renters.

These problems can impact an entire community, Northern believes. When a child or an adult is living in an unstable housing situation, their ability to function in school or work can be impaired.

“Actually, I look at our job as also providing workforce housing for our clients. Many of our clients hold jobs that add to the stabilization of the community. Our combined client income is over $44 million, and our agency budget is roughly $32 million — those two alone provide $76 million to the community’s economy,” he said.

‘Setting the chessboard’

Mr. Northern was born in Gary, Indiana, “the murder capital of the U.S. during the ’90s, when I lived there. I love and appreciate my hometown, but it was not the easiest place to be raised,” he said. At the same time, it sparked an “intense drive to create a better quality of life for others.” He credits family members, especially his mother, as well as teachers and coaches for being the “village” that raised and inspired him.

He came to Ball State with dreams of playing football but couldn’t overcome injuries from high school. He also struggled with educational shortcomings early on. Always good at math, he focused on an accounting degree, encouraged by the fact that “many strong leaders get accounting and other business degrees to help them get placed in CEO jobs.”

Mr. Northern sums up his Ball State experience as “amazing. I loved every minute.” He cites great professors like Professor of Accounting James Schmutte, “who worked hard to ensure I graduated.” While enjoying an active social life (and earning his nickname “Disco”), Mr. Northern showed a serious side as a facilitator for C.H.O.I.C.E.S., an alcohol- and substance-abuse prevention program, and as a resident hall assistant.

Mr. Bonds and Mr. Northern grew up on opposite sides of Gary but got to know each other at Ball State. “We never really discussed future plans,” said Bonds, “but as we got closer to graduation, I could tell that David was beginning to focus in and buckle down.” Bonds sees, in hindsight, that his friend was “setting the chessboard” for his future.

Mr. Northern became the first in his family to earn a college degree. His mother, Kathy Hotchkins, was the second. “I joke all the time that she followed in my footsteps because she received her accounting degree a semester after I graduated.” Since then, many more in his family, inspired by his example, have earned college degrees.

After graduation, Mr. Northern went to work for an agency operating public housing in northwest Indiana. He was hired as deputy director at LCHA while finishing a master’s in public administration from Indiana University-Northwest.

He also married Crystal (Fleming), ’00, whom he met at a fundraiser for his Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. “She brought several of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters to the event to support us. When my eyes locked on my sunshine, I knew that she was the one.” Crystal is now a senior administrative assistant at Rosalind Franklin University, where she’s also finishing her master’s degree in health-care administration.

David Northern and family

Northern enjoys a beautiful fall Homecoming day at CharlieTown with his wife, Crystal, ’00; son, David Jr.; and daughter, Dasanie.

Mr. Northern stayed in touch with Mr. Bonds, encouraging him to consider a career in housing and also urged him to pursue a master’s in public administration, which Bonds earned in 2011. “David is still the ever ‘you need to consider this’ friend, fellow scholar, industry colleague, fraternity brother — and, even though we’re the same age — mentor,” said Bonds.

Keon Jackson also sees Mr. Northern as a mentor, first as his high football coach. “It was easy to gravitate toward David because we had such similar backgrounds and experiences. He has had a tremendous impact on my life personally and professionally. I can honestly say that I don’t know where I would be and how different my life would be if I had not met him at that early stage,” said Mr. Jackson, who now works with Mr. Northern at LCHA as director of capital improvements. “He cares and wants others to succeed.”

Mr. Northern especially wants that for his two teenage children, Dasanie and David Jr., whom he calls “my motivation.” They often hear their dad tell them, “Enjoy school and embrace every learning opportunity.” Mr. Northern has even brought them to some meetings of the school board on which he serves. “That is the main reason I got involved; I care about the future of my kids and the community’s kids. … One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Either you’re at the table or on the menu.’ Now I am at the table.”

Making a ‘tough sell’

After many “long nights and disappointing moments,” Mr. Northern is enjoying watching the $49 million development called Brookstone and Regency at Coles Park become a reality. When finished, the 220-unit development on North Chicago’s west side will provide affordable housing to 50 seniors and 170 families.

Construction for the development began in August. It replaces the Marion Jones housing complex, which was built in 1961 and needed over $22 million to bring it to today’s housing standards, said Mr. Northern. “The decision to invest in a new affordable housing development versus repairing the old was simple.” Still, convincing a community “where people live and play and raised their families … was a tough sell,” he said.

A second barrier was obtaining financial resources. “HUD is no longer building large communities utilizing federal dollars,” said Mr. Northern. His extensive background in housing redevelopment helped him determine “that public–private partnership was our only available option.”

David Northern meets with Robert Dold

Robert Dold (right), then-U.S. representative for Illinois’ 10th congressional district, consults with Northern during a site visit as a decaying public housing complex is demolished to make way for a $49 million development that will provide affordable housing for Lake County residents. (Photo courtesy of Cooley’s Video)

Winding through many levels of political approval was another daunting task. Helpful to gaining that approval was an analysis showing that not only would the $49 million investment enhance the community but the embedded $36.3 million construction costs “will have a total effect of 346 jobs and expand to $56.3 million output to the community,” he said.

The project reflects Mr. Northern’s skills and character, said Mr. Bonds. “David is a very focused, goal-driven leader. There are so many benefiting from his leadership and his example.”

Bonds hopes to soon attend the 18-month NeighborWorks Achieving Excellence Program for community development — the same program Mr. Northern completed in 2016. Bonds joked that he “is finally doing something David didn’t do” by earning a mixed-finance housing development certificate from the National Development Council.

“David continues to amaze me,” said Mr. Bonds. “He has walked with kings; he has literally been a housing delegate that worked with a South African country and attended its housing summit and initiative — who does or gets to do that? But he has not nor will he ever lose the common touch.”

Editor’s Note: Since this article was first published, David Northern, ’97, accepted a new position as director of the Housing Authority of Champaign County in Illinois after serving 15 years at Lake County (Illinois) Housing Authority.