Patke’s passion leads to more affordable housing

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DSC_4546Greccio Housing Executive Director Lee Patke grew up in Bryan, Texas. During high school, he worked half the day and attended school the other half, saving money for college. Even as a youth, he did volunteer work: “Giving back to the community has always been an integral part of who I am.”

An eight-year member of the Pikes Peak Kiwanis Club, Patke has been chosen incoming lieutenant governor for the group, which assists children locally and worldwide, through community service and fundraising.

Patke and his wife Laura have four daughters, with whom they enjoy hiking. In addition, he competes regularly in half-marathons and enjoys backcountry skiing and being outdoors. Patke has a bachelor’s in communication from Sam Houston State University and a master of science degree in social work from the University of Texas at Arlington.

Recently, he took time with the Business Journal to talk about his career, passion for helping children and his role at Greccio Housing.

 

How has your career background prepared you for your current position?

I started in sales at a small company in Houston and later managed a small retail service outlet at College Station [Texas] — two relatively entry-level positions after college. And then I found a position at Hershey’s, merchandising at the store level and corporate sales at the headquarters level for [then-] Hershey Foods, for 175 stores and six chain headquarters.

The best part of that experience was the corporate training and resources that aren’t available at smaller places. Eventually, I was on the cusp of … having a career in corporate sales — with all of the perks and benefits — when I realized [what I was doing] just didn’t matter in the world. There was a calling on my heart and mind of wanting to do something more.

I’d been exposed to the mental health industry while working at a residential treatment center in College Station, and it really was a good field for me. So I developed a five-year plan in ’94-’95, and became a health technician at an adolescent facility and applied to graduate school. I moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth area and worked two jobs while completing a master of science in social work. This included two years as program manager for an after-school program for at-risk and low-income middle-school kids. During that time, I became certified as a challenge course facilitator. After graduation, I looked across the country for a job as an experiential therapist at a wilderness-based treatment center for teen boys. I had lived in Texas all my life and was ready for a new adventure.

I drove to Larkspur [Colo.] for an interview at Griffith Centers for Children and loved Colorado. I was offered the job as experiential therapist in their residential treatments center for adolescent boys — it was just a perfect fit.

I graduated on Saturday, loaded up the moving truck, drove to Colorado, and started the job on Monday. It was a fantastic experience, a leap of faith. I didn’t know anyone in Colorado, but Griffith quickly became my home. I was a therapist for a little over a year (and during that time logged 105 nights in the back country with the kids in Minnesota, mountain biking in Moab, Utah — it was a blast), and then applied as program director for the [new] Colorado Springs branch of Griffith. I did that for nine years — started a day treatment program and opened two different group homes, expanded our resident services and started an independent living program for kids leaving the [residential] program.

Following that 10 years, I had an opportunity to apply for a chief operating officer position for Griffith and did that for two years. It’s a great organization, very mission-focused. Our clients had some of the highest needs of any group I’ve worked with. It was an incredible training ground for managing crisis and recognizing and responding to risk in an environment.

After leaving Griffith, I found Greccio and applied as executive director … the right combination to blend all the business experience with the mission-driven heart I have for working on behalf of the community with people who have needs. This is the perfect environment for me.

 

How have Greccio Housing’s services changed over the years?

The first 12 years for Greccio was all about the mission. [So there] necessarily had to be a shift to focus on longevity. The second executive director, Rich Strycker, a banker, took what Claudia Deats-Rodgers, a former Franciscan nun who’s all heart, had built for 12 years and structured it to be viable for the future. He has a strong business mind and strong set of skills.

Since that time, we’ve been called to grow the organization. In the last three years [during Patke’s tenure], we have acquired four new properties — consisting of 104 units of affordable housing. We’ve done well over $1.5 million in renovations and now it’s part of our permanent affordable housing stock. Increasing affordable housing in this community is very important. We want a permanent home with adequate maintenance and supportive services to keep people safe and stable in their homes.

 

What have you accomplished during your tenure at Greccio?

First of all, nobody accomplishes something by themselves. We — the residents, staff and board of directors — have [worked together].

Expansion of our portfolio … and shifting the operation of our resident enrichment program — instead of making offerings, which is passive, we want to engage them at a different level, such as with community gardens. Our resident enrichment manager, Pam Van Overbeke, encourages kids to dig in the garden while she has coffee with their parents. We also offer nutrition classes, meal planning and shopping-on-a-budget. We want people to enjoy the fruits of their labor from the summer.

We could have tended those gardens ourselves, but we would have lost many opportunities to build relationships and engage with the residents. And we wanted to take what Rich started in structuring and expanding so that 100 percent of our operating expenses would be covered by rental income. After three years [end of fiscal year in July 2013], we had started at 82 percent and now we’re slightly over 100 percent, by controlling expenses, shopping health and property insurance, structuring staff correctly and being a good steward of every dollar coming in the door. Every donated dollar goes directly to residential services — not to our operation.

We’ve built something unique to Colorado Springs, given the state funding environment and local demographics, and we’ve stayed in tune with what other cities are doing.

Although we already have quite a few elements of eviction prevention integrated into our program, we recently wrote a grant that we hope will prevent 30 evictions in two years, for people with unique life-crisis events, such as loss of job, divorce, health or mental health crisis, etc. We hope to start that program — SHOES, supportive housing over evictions — as soon as it’s approved for funding.

 

What are the challenges facing Greccio Housing?

The toughest challenge is knowing we can’t possibly grow fast enough to meet all the need. The second piece is overcoming the misperception in society of what affordable housing is. For most people, it conjures up images of Section 8 and ongoing entitlements. We firmly believe there’s a cross-section of society that needs Section 8 — but that’s only 10 percent of what we do.

We provide adequate affordable housing rentals to the working sector of our community. People who take care of your kids at daycare, mow your lawn, perhaps served you lunch today — people who are busting their tails to make ends meet. And frankly, [we provide] a place where their kids feel good about bringing their friends over. It’s what everyone wants: an adequate, safe, warm home.

And the kids — that was the bridge for me from Griffith to Greccio. Children are the ones in our society with no choice and no voice — and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Our clients are people working in the service sector. Eighty percent of our clients make 50 percent or less of AMI — area median income — which for a family of four means $35,000 or less per year.

 

How does the federal environment affect your short- and long-range outlook?

Because we don’t receive a lot of ongoing monthly government assistance, it doesn’t affect us on a day-to-day basis. But our strategic planning takes into account the funding priorities for housing in the future. We have to understand that any potential cuts, while a challenge, compel an organization to position [itself] wisely for whatever the environment will be. You need to be flexible and nimble in the nonprofit sector, and the housing industry in particular.

If you pay attention to the steps and learn lessons along the way, the challenges don’t matter nearly as much as what you learn along the way and whether you use that education for whatever comes next. I love what we do and why we’re doing it. I’m very fortunate.