Chattanooga Habitat for Humanity director Donna C. Williams eyes expansion

Chattanooga Habitat for Humanity director Donna C. Williams eyes expansion

June 28th, 2012 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Donna C. Williams, executive director for Habitat for Humanity, talks about the path to her position here in Chattanooga.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Profile of Donna C. Williams

Job: Executive director of Habitat for Humanity

Career: A Chattanooga native, she attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and worked for a variety of computer and technology companies in Chattanooga and Atlanta before starting her own consulting and development firm in Chattanooga. She worked on ML King Tomorrow Initiative before joining Habitat for Humanity as director in June.

Board positions: She has served as vice-chair of the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority and board member of the Chattanooga Community Housing Development Organization, Chattanooga Historic Zoning Commission, Chattanooga Habitat for Humanity, Cornerstones, Inc., Chattanooga Launch and the UTC Chancellor's Roundtable,

Personal: She is single and lives in Glenwood

Habitat for Humanity requires those it helps to put in their own sweat and equity into the houses it builds.

It's a philosophy the new executive director for the Chattanooga Habitat office knows something about as a former developer, Realtor, builder, volunteer and saleswoman.

"I get bored easily and like to learn new things, especially when it can help people better themselves," said Donna C. Williams, who recently turned her volunteer work for Habitat groups in Atlanta and Chattanooga into a full-time job as head of the Chattanooga Habitat group.

Williams is eager to expand the housing assistance group by raising more money while focusing where the new Habitat homes are built. Williams, who has worked on helping upgrade a half-dozen Chattanooga neighborhoods as a builder, Realtor and consultant for several Chattanooga neighborhood revitalization groups, wants to bring that strategy to Habitat houses to focus on redeveloping communities that provide the biggest boost for both the neighborhood and the first-time home owners helped by Habitat.

"Donna brings a wide variety of experience in marketing, sales, planning and real estate to her new role with Habitat," Linda Mines, board president of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga Area, said in announcing Williams' appointment to Habitat earlier this month. "She has a passion for urban revitalization and for helping people become homeowners, and the energy and enthusiasm Habitat needs to become a greater force for change in our community."

Williams had an unlikely path to the top of the 15-employee Habitat organization in Chattanooga.

While attending UTC, Williams worked at the former Leader store where she met Bill Brock who enticed her into joining him in a computer sales business in 1984 when Apple Computers first introduced the Macintosh computer. She spent the next seven years in Chattanooga and Atlanta selling computers and software technologies, including Apple Computers and Simon and Schuster Inc.

"I've always loved Apple's computers, but I must confess that I really struggled just to get through computer science 101 in college," she recalled.

Her salesmanship and early interest in Apple helped her build a successful career in Atlanta.

Williams said she first became familiar with Habitat International while in Atlanta, where she worked as a volunteer, and saw early the potential for revitalizing neighborhoods in Atlanta.

In 2001 when she returned to her native Chattanooga to help care for her mother, Williams decided to pursue her interest in residential development, eventually buying and selling five homes in Highland Park and getting her real estate license to buy, sell and develop real estate properties.

"I always loved real estate and architecture, so I decided to give it a try in Chattanooga," she said.

After buying a house in the redeveloping Highland Park, she got even more interested in rehabilitating entire neighborhoods. Lyndhurst Foundation asked Williams to be a consultant to help with sales and marketing.

She started Live Urban Ventures, a firm that specializes in sales, marketing and strategic planning for urban communities.

Williams says her early experience with computers has helped her in her work with developing and redeveloping communities.

"One of the things I need to do is to articulate the invisible, which is similar to what I had to do in the computer business," she said.

Since its start in 1986, Habitat in Chattanooga has helped more than 200 low- and moderate-income families buy their first home of their own and enjoy part of the American dream of home ownership.

Williams says she hopes to expand that number, including the building of at least 10 more homes this year.

Those who move into the Habitat homes help pay for the house by providing at least 350 hours of "sweat equity" by working on the development or construction of their homes. The home buyers also must repay the Habitat home loans, which typically carry a zero interest loan. To ensure the home loans are repaid and the new homes are maintained, Habitat requires those receiving the houses to complete courses on home financing and upkeep.

As part of its ministry, Habitat in Chattanooga also operates the ReStore, a building materials store featuring building materials and some home goods sold at 50 to 75 percent of retail price. Proceeds from the store support Habitat programs.

"We have a great staff and program, but we're looking at ways to raise even more funds to expand what we can do," Williams said.