12 Questions with Jennifer Owens
The Arlington Community Foundation president & CEO talks Amazon, affordable housing, workforce development and other pressing issues.
In October 2018, Jennifer Owens became the new president & CEO of the Arlington Community Foundation, a nearly three-decade-old nonprofit devoted to encouraging and administering philanthropy in Arlington. ACF supports causes ranging from homelessness prevention to education and the arts. A native of upstate New York, Owens currently lives in Ballston with her husband, John, and two daughters, with plans to move to the Waycroft-Woodlawn neighborhood.
What is the Arlington Community Foundation?
It started in 1991 and was founded by Judge [William] Newman. He had seen in San Francisco after the  earthquake how nimble and responsive their community foundation was. He saw a need for that in Arlington, too. We are about a $20 million community foundation and have about 170 individual funds under management. The one thing all the funds have in common is that a donor has indicated what they would like to see happen [with the money]. We are always working to be nimble and responsive to the needs of the day.
What are the needs of the day? What issues is ACF currently focusing on?
Lack of affordable housing, affordability of child care, access to quality health care and workforce development. Workforce development is increasing a person’s ability to secure a living wage through training and connection to jobs that have a pathway or potential for growth.
What’s are biggest challenges presented by these issues?
Our county officials, nonprofits and corporations really need to be working together to solve these issues. Traditionally, a lot of the work has been done by the county and nonprofits. Getting corporations to look down at the sidewalk level in Arlington can be very difficult. They’re global companies that are based here but they don’t necessarily think our little 26.2 square miles are worth focusing on. We are trying to develop ways to get these companies to engage in the local community.
What’s ACF’s most recognizable program?
Many Arlingtonians know us for our scholarships, because so many people are impacted by them. This past year, we awarded more than half a million dollars in new scholarships to 72 local students. Also, more than 100 [students] got renewal scholarships. With the renewal, we gave out more than $750,000 this year. What’s great about this [program] is that it’s a one-stop online application. So, if students are looking for a specific type of scholarship, like baseball or being a new American, they just check the boxes online and that helps our scholarship committee to review.
Describe some other key ACF programs.
We’ve had a longstanding grant with Doorways for Women and Families to do their Pathways for Youth program. That’s specifically targeted to 18- to 24-year-olds who are transitioning from couch surfing or the foster system to the adult system. This a program specifically targeted to that transitional age population.
You became ACF’s CEO less than a year ago. What led you here?
I’m originally from Syracuse, New York and came to D.C. in the early 90s for college. I stayed here for about 10 years, working for two local private foundations. Then I moved back to Syracuse and spent 15 years working at their community foundation. In the decade and a half I was there, it grew from about $75 million to almost $300 million. I did everything from being a program officer to communications to chief development officer, so I was in charge of fundraising. I really feel passionately that community foundations need to be large in order to have a greater impact. We can build awareness, but we really need to be significant grant makers. That’s what I’m trying to build here in Arlington. I was recruited to come back to [the D.C. area] when the position came open. It’s a challenge to come to a community foundation in a building phase, but it was a welcome challenge.
What has surprised you most since you took the helm as CEO?
Before I came [back], I had people tell me that this job was going to be tougher than in Syracuse because people don’t feel as strongly about the community—that Arlington doesn’t have much of a soul. I’ve found just the opposite. There are so many people who have lived here for [decades], bought a house here, engaged in the community, volunteered, and are active in the local political scene. There are also so many multigenerational Arlingtonians who want to pitch in and be part of the community.
In June, Amazon committed three million dollars to ACF to specifically improve access to affordable housing and services. Could you go into more detail about how that money will be used?
One of our primary targets is the buy-down of affordability in rents from 60% AMI (Area Median Income) to 30% AMI permanently. That costs about $100,000 per unit. It sounds counterintuitive, but there are lots of Arlingtonians who don’t make enough to qualify for affordable housing. They can’t even pay the reduced rents associated with the units that we have available. That’s one strategy that the money will go toward. Other strategies will be subsidizing rents down to lower the affordability rate and helping people with short-term issues that might cause them to become unhoused. Like, if a car breaks down or a medical issue that causes people to miss work. There needs to be a safety net to keep people from losing their homes during that transitional period.
At $100,000 per unit, $3 million only buys down 30 units. And that’s assuming the entire donation is going toward that one strategy. The need for affordable housing is much greater than that. How do you and ACF foresee getting the funds to take on these challenges more completely?
Yeah, it’s not a game-changer, but it’s about creating a roadmap for sustainability. I think it will be a combination of getting more people to invest, public resources and corporations. It could be individuals giving toward this issue. Like, here’s what it would cost to subsidize one family in Arlington for a year. Who in this community will take on individually sponsoring one family to stay here? I think we can bring it down to that.
What about Amazon’s responsibility?
I think we fall into a trap of saying Amazon came here and they’ll either be our savior or demise. It’s somewhere in between. There are lots of other companies here besides Amazon. Nestle and Boeing are the big ones, but there are plenty of others with 200 to 300 employees. All of the companies in Arlington need to stay at the table, not just when they want to build a big building or renovate a property. It’s about the day-to-day grind of keeping Arlington a thriving community. I actually don’t think that companies are trying to get out of a responsibility. I think people are not clearly articulating to the companies where they could plug in. That’s what we’re trying to do— bring the voices of the nonprofits together to say, Okay, here are some concrete things you can do.
How do you propose getting Arlington-based companies on board to help with affordable housing?
It’s important to humanize who people are and what we want Arlington to look like. If we become San Francisco and people can’t afford to be here anymore, that’s detrimental to us all. That’s a bad trajectory. We focus a lot on being good citizens and being open to diversity, but we have to look at what we get out of it. If you got to the coffee shop on the way to work, you probably want people to be working at it. When you go to the local hospital, you probably want to know that it is sufficiently staffed. Daycare centers, transportation systems—we all want people working in those [industries]. This isn’t one organization’s problem and it doesn’t simply have to be altruistic. I don’t think corporate goals and the goals of our community are all that different. They need us to work as a community in order for them to thrive as a business here.
Looking to the future, what would you like ACF to do more of?
There’s a real opportunity in Arlington for legacy planning. We don’t talk enough about giving options through people’s estates. A lot of people sell their homes when they retire and move to other places that are more affordable. We need to make sure people recognize what good [can result] even when a small percentage of the wealth that they made here in Arlington stays in Arlington. We can design a customizable plan for you to give through the Arlington Community Foundation. If your [heart is in] food charities or animal charities, we can help with that. [Your money] can continue to do what you care about here in Arlington in perpetuity.
ACF’s annual Spirit of Community luncheon will be held this year on October 15. It will honor longtime Green Valley community activist Alfred Taylor and be co-chaired by Arlingtonians Chuck Todd, host of “Meet the Press,” and his wife, Kristian Todd. For tickets and more information, visit arlcf.org.