Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month - Interview with Jacqueline Rivera

Posted By: Eric Garduño BAAA Leadership Profiles, Diversity & Inclusion,

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15 through October 15.  As part of BAAA’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Government Affairs Director Eric Garduño is conducting interviews of BAAA members to learn what Hispanic Heritage Month means to them, and to learn about their experiences in on our industry.  This week's interview is with Jacqueline Rivera, CEO of the Clearwater Housing Authority.  

Jacqueline Rivera Photo

Jacqueline Rivera
Clearwater Housing Authority

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?  

It is a time to highlight the multilayered umbrella of the people and cultures that make up Hispanics or Latinos. Latinos come from Mexico, Ecuador, Spain, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and more.  Sometimes people don’t understand that Hispanics aren’t just one thing, that we are this big, diverse set of cultures that can’t be painted with the same brush.  We have different views of the world, and no single group represents all Hispanics.  Hispanic Heritage Month gives us a chance to show others that being Hispanic encompasses this variety of cultures. 

As CEO of the Clearwater Housing Authority and as a Latina, have you had any unique experiences that other CEOs may not have had?

I have been CEO for almost 30 years and from day one, people were asking me what are you going to do for Hispanics.  I responded that, when it comes to the work of the Housing Authority, what I do is for everyone and that everyone must be treated equally and fairly.  But I am also fully aware that I am usually the only Hispanic in the room, especially in high level meetings.  That can make a person feel isolated, like something is missing.  You are also more self-conscious about what you are putting out there in the world, knowing you may be the only Hispanic some of your peers ever interact with.  This gives me a chance to help change perceptions, to show people who may not know very many Hispanics that we are not so foreign after all.

How would you describe the work of the Clearwater Housing Authority?

We are a business with a social conscious. Our portfolio includes market-rate, affordable, and assisted housing.  We have structured our portfolio so that our market-rate units, which are about 80% of our physical portfolio, help to subsidize the affordable units.  Aside from this structure, we have the same challenges any other management company has.  For the last 18 months it’s been tough to fill positions, especially in the maintenance area.   We have had to issue RFBs several times due to a lack of contractors bidding on the work.  Plus, costs have increased 20-25% over the last year.

How did you get started in the industry?

I was born and raised in Chicago, and for college I attended DePaul University and majored in finance.  Near graduation, a friend passed my resume on to the Chicago Housing Authority who was looking to hire someone for their Finance Department.  I got the job and found that I was the only woman, and only Hispanic in the whole department.  That just motivated me to work hard and hold my own.  After a few years, I moved to the operations department, which handled property management.  Even so, my finance background has been a key asset.  Every decision, whether buying paint, hiring staff, or issuing a bond, all have to go through finance, so that degree and background has really helped me understand every detail of our work.

What is the most important quality for someone to bring into this industry?

You need courage and integrity to do what is right and to do it correctly.  People in our industry are in a unique position.  We get to see the human condition of our residents.  We know their family, their history, and their world.  We have access to their homes.  We all must come with the courage and integrity to do the right thing, even if no one is watching, and even if the resident may have yelled at you or treated you badly.

What are you reading these days?

I am an avid reader and go through a book a week, so usually I am all over the place on reading topics.  I have always loved fantasy stories and am a big fan of JRR Tolkien.  Right now I am reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.  The thesis of the book is that life and death go hand-in-hand.  We too often ignore our own mortality, maybe we never get to that will.  The book is about embracing death, to better understand it, and deal with it.  For me, it has provided insights on how to console staff, who are sometimes the first to find a resident who has passed.

Do you have any restaurant recommendations to share with everyone?

If you are interested in great music and tapas, I highly recommend Spain in downtown Tampa.  But if you want something off the beaten track, you have to try the food truck Comparres on Armenia.  The owner grows his own peppers, his ceviche is beautiful, and the lengua is fabulous.  To satisfy your sweet tooth, Mr. Penguin’s on Platt has some of the best Italian ice and soft serve around, and I go there for their peanut butter Italian ice.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in our industry?

Don’t let fear overtake you. People will say you can’t do that because you are a woman, or because you are Hispanic, or because that is not how we do things. Just keep going. If at the end of the day you are doing everything you know to be right and true, with integrity and honor, then you shouldn’t let fear stop you.  I have had to battle people in positions of power, people who were not good for the industry, and I wasted too much time worrying about it.  I still did what I had to do, but it would have been easier if I had kept that fear in check. 

What does being a member of the Bay Area Apartment Association mean to you?

The Clearwater Housing Authority has limited membership subscriptions as a general rule, because membership subscriptions can be a waste of money if you are not careful.  We have chosen to be a member of BAAA because the information the association provides about our industry is so valuable.  Our staff are busy and have such little time to keep up with things, that we rely on the updates and forums for open discussion on important issues to stay on top of what is going on. We could make some mistakes without the information that BAAA provides.