Ivory Mathews takes helm at Home Forward
Ivory N. Mathews, the new executive director for Home Forward (upper left), addresses the housing crisis during a meeting in Portland this month with President Biden’s Housing Secretary, Marcia Fudge (center, head table), and other local officials, including members of Oregon’s congressional delegation.
For Ivory Mathews, the first Black woman to lead public housing authority Home Forward, the job is a continuation of a lifelong journey from poverty to activism.
Public housing has changed drastically over the years, even in Home Forward’s decades long history for Portland and Multnomah County, she said, which in the past had harmful policies, as did other public housing organizations.
“When you look at all the properties that we purchased early on, they had harmful restrictions, like properties that might say only white people can live here,” she said. “And in the early 1960s when fair housing came about, those things were supposed to have changed during that time.”
Ivory N. Mathews, the new executive director of Home Forward, Portland and Multnomah County's housing authority.
But change has been a long time coming, and is still an ongoing process, and a recent memorandum from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge directs all HUD organizations to eliminate barriers that prevent those with criminal histories from participating in HUD programs, examine all policies and report back by Oct. 14.
That work is already underway at Home Forward, Mathews said, as she promises to meet the deadline with ease.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” she said. “Home Forward is an organization that has over 80 years of harmful policies and we’re doing the work to make sure that as a part of our reparations is getting rid of those harmful policies.”
That means “Creating a culture where people who are our residents, and where our community understands that we will no longer tolerate these inequities in providing services to the families that we serve,” she said.
Over the years of working in public housing, Mathews said she realized that she wanted to work in her career at a higher level.
“I wanted to work my way up to the highest point of oversight in the affordable housing arena so that I can have the opportunity to sit on boards and talk to the media and try to provide truth and mitigate all this negative conversation about what affordable housing might mean to some people,” she said.
That goal has come to fruition not only as executive director of Home Forward, but her recent appointment to the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, and as assistant chair for legislation for the National Association and Redevelopment Officials, both national organizations.
In addition to her work heading up the local office, as a member of those two organizations, both based in Washington D.C., Mathews also has the opportunity to lobby for local support, and she’s getting it.
“HUD is very responsive now,” she said. “They’re not just appeasing us, they’re actually listening and coming back and giving us the autonomy that we need to do this work better.”
Home Forward is much more than housing, Mathews said, more than brick and mortar.
“We look at our families from a 360-degree lens,” Mathews said. “We care as much about putting a physical unit in place as we do about making sure that the family is thriving and that what we provide to individuals is more than a house. It’s a place they can call home, something where they can live, and thrive and work, as any other citizen does in the city of Portland, or Multnomah County, or Gresham, or wherever our footprint is.”
Part of that Home Forward lens is creating of a new strategic plan, Mathews said, which will be released in about a year. That means a lot of internal work with staff, the Home Forward board, residents and community partners to fine-tune the framework of the new plan.
“We want to be the best we can possibly be,” she said. “Everyone who takes a paycheck from Home Forward is an ambassador for affordable housing and quality of life.”
There’s also a lot more positive energy at the national HUD level with the new Democratic administration, she said.
“They are extremely responsive to supporting and giving housing authorities what they need to work on addressing local solutions for affordable housing,” she said. “It certainly warms our heart. It’s a big sigh of relief.”
Mathews grew up in rural South Carolina and said the first time she experienced quality housing was when she went to college. She had great parents, but both had low levels of education and though they worked hard, it was never enough to secure stable housing.
“We were truly the working poor,” she said. “They made a dollar too much to qualify for any type of government assistance or anything like that, but it also left us with missing some of the basic necessities, and that was housing.”
Mathews was able to go to college because of a basketball scholarship to Newberry College, a small liberal arts college in her home state.
“That was really the gateway for transforming and transitioning my life,” she said “When I was in college I did a lot of volunteer work through my basketball team with children who lived in affordable housing through the local housing authority.”
Through that program she worked with the local housing authority in mentorship and afterschool programs.
“I always felt a strong connect with the families there and the children because I knew exactly their life experiences because I had lived those experiences,” she said.
Because of her volunteer work, at her college graduation Mathews was surprised to be named the recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award for excelling in community service, one more sign of the direction her life was to take.
“I had no idea this award was even given until my name was called at graduation and was totally a shock to me,” she said. “So these were the kind of things that overlaid my purpose.”
Mathews majored in sociology, which she said helped her understand her own life and her journey.
“It made me more focused on reaching those goals that could transform my life, having been a first generation college student,” she said. “I knew this would be an opportunity for me to change the trajectory of my life and then my children’s and their children’s children.”
After graduation, Mathews landed a job working in compliance for the Aiken Housing Authority in Aiken, S.C., where she looked at all the federal regulations in specific programs to make sure there are standard operating procedures, that staff is property trained and getting feedback from residents.
“Working in that arena I felt like it was a way to advocate for families,” she said, noting that federal regulations can be interpreted in different ways.
“So I helped people in that role, helped people understand that sometimes you are dealt these cards, that some of us, like myself, were born into poverty,” she said, as well as having health issues or the need for older people to age in place.
“We all need a place to call home,” she said.