Alumnus Champions Affordable Housing
January 27, 2011
“Affordable housing” may sound like an oxymoron in Washington, D.C., but for Shiv Newaldass (C’03), it’s a personal crusade.
As director of advocacy for Manna Inc., a nonprofit that develops affordable housing and provides step-by-step assistance for low-income potential buyers, Newaldass can more than sympathize with residents of D.C.’s subsidized housing complexes—he’s one of them.
As a child, Newaldass emigrated with his family from Trinidad to D.C., where he found a new home in Sursum Corda, a low-income housing development just north of Union Station that has been a known drug trade hub since the 1980s. It was here, in an urban village conceived by Catholic activists and named after a Latin phrase meaning, “lift up your hearts,” that he got his first introduction to Georgetown.
“What really kept me focused, in school, and out of the streets were my tutoring sessions,” said Newaldass. The sessions were provided by Georgetown’s Sursum Corda Literacy Program, which since 1988 has sent undergraduates to the neighborhood twice weekly to teach reading skills and to mentor students. Led by English professor John Hirsh
, the 40-year-old program is one of the oldest partnerships of its kind in the United States.
Newaldass was a bright student from an English-speaking household, but his immigrant status placed him in a remedial class for non-native English speakers at his D.C. public school. With help from Hirsh and program collaborator Elizabeth Desan, who recognized his untapped potential, Newaldass earned scholarships to attend Jesuit elementary and high schools, and, eventually, Georgetown.
As a first-year student, Newaldass shied away from becoming a Sursum Corda tutor. “I was worried that if other Georgetown students found out where I grew up, they’d look down on me,” he admitted. By his senior year, though, the English major was a star tutor in his old community, where Hirsh recalled, “the kids respected that he was a successful college student from their own neighborhood.”
Though he held a lucrative job in real estate after graduation, Newaldass continued to live in Sursum Corda. When the cooperative faced property mismanagement issues and teetered on the edge of foreclosure in 2005, he explained that he couldn’t bear to see his neighbors “evicted by the city or misled by developers.” He quit his job and joined the neighborhood’s board of directors, where he spent two years working 12-hour days for no pay.
That hard work was met with success; Sursum Corda residents were able to keep their homes, and the Rev. Jim Dickerson, Manna’s founder, offered him a job. “At the time, I jumped on it because it was a stable job with a decent salary,” Newaldass laughed, “but it turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
As director of advocacy, Newaldass organizes citizens to lobby city hall for affordable housing programs and responds to legislative developments or budget cuts that could cause housing shortages. His personal experience with subsidized housing and professional knowledge of real estate make him uniquely qualified for this role. “Growing up in Sursum Corda, I saw firsthand the impact of poor public policy,” he explained. “If no one helps people buy their own homes, they become trapped in poverty and dependent on subsidies.” Now, he works to ensure that new legislation aligns with the needs of people like his fellow Sursum Corda residents. He is currently battling laws that, by restricting owners of affordable housing from reselling their homes for profit, effectively negate the benefits of owning a home.
Newaldass remains close friends with Professor Hirsh, and he makes an annual visit to Georgetown to advise each new crop of Sursum Corda tutors. “Georgetown taught me to work toward a higher good,” he said, crediting the Jesuit emphasis on social justice with his perseverance in a job that can be, at times, thankless. Hirsh disagrees. “Shiv was always committed to justice. The Jesuit ethos confirmed a natural gift he’s had all along.”
Photo of Sursum Corda neighborhood courtesy of Rachel Claytor, all other photos courtesy of Shiv Newaldass. All College NewsUniversity News