Jul 13Checking in with Ismael Guerrero, President & CEO of Mercy Housing
Community. “A social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common culture and historical heritage.”
Spend more than five minutes talking to Mercy Housing’s President & CEO Ismael Guerrero, and you will realize that the word “community” is at the core of why he has worked tirelessly in the affordable housing industry for over 30 years.
Spend more than five minutes talking to Ismael, and you will learn that the Chicago neighborhood where he and his siblings were raised made a lasting impression on him and was the catalyst in his pursuit of establishing a career making a positive difference in the lives of others.
Drawing from his childhood experiences in Chicago, followed by his work with community nonprofits dedicated to affordable housing, Ismael’s success and legacy are bound up in the belief that the most pressing problems will be solved through community-led initiatives and creative, cross-sector partnerships that will fundamentally change the housing and human services systems.
Growing up in Chicago
Before ever meeting, Ismael’s parents moved to Chicago separately to make a better life for their future children and provide for their families back in Mexico. Ironically, they came from the same area in Mexico and would meet at a church dance in Chicago. They would later marry.
“My parents were the bridge and caretakers for two generations – their parents and their children,” Ismael explains. “It was never about them because of that value system, which would later become my value system.”
The story of Ismael and his family is an immigrant story – he emphasizes that it is not a unique one. Their journey however did form his values and made him appreciate why the community was so important to him, “it wasn’t just the housing, but the people that helped make up this community. It was the parish hall – the community would host celebrations and potlucks,” he says.
The Parish and its Impact
For Ismael, the parish created a sense of community. It included the rectory, the school, the community hall, and the church. Beyond that though, it was the parishioners and the community that congregated there who made it special.
“The parish was a place where if anybody was in need of anything, the moms would get together, make food and deliver it to a family’s home,” Ismael recalled. “It was a place where we all knew someone at some point may need help. We were in a foreign land and living in a neighborhood that was chaotic – there was so much uncertainty with jobs, crime, and immigration status.”
The southwest Chicago neighborhood was all about taking care of one another, which impacted young Ismael. He was constantly exposed to people taking care of each other.
“When I think about the communities Mercy Housing is serving, I know that residents can take care of each other – we have created those communities that have given them the opportunities,” he explains.
The Resurrection Project
Ismael knew he wanted to do something meaningful with his life. His teachers all agreed that his strengths in math and science could lead him to a very successful career in engineering or finance.
“You can get trapped in a certain career path,” Ismael noted.
At the time, some of the largest corporations in the country were looking for engineers. They were recruiting heavily, and some of his teachers believed that a job in engineering would lead to guaranteed work. So, Ismael pursued his engineering degree and landed in the corporate world. Though he liked the work, he realized that it was not where he wanted to be.
At the same time, he had received a phone call from an old neighborhood friend, who told him about The Resurrection Project. This new affordable housing and construction nonprofit focused on homeownership, and his friend asked Ismael if he would be their new project manager.
The job was back in his old Chicago neighborhood, making it even more special for Ismael. He packed his bags, took a pay cut, moved back to his hometown, and began his nonprofit career with The Resurrection Project. Resident-led, The Resurrection Project is a collection of parishes, priests, and lay leaders from the community who have joined together to address neighborhood issues such as affordable housing, crime, and childcare.
“I saw the power of the community coming together and wanted to be a part of it,” Ismael explains.
Call it “kismet” or “fate,” but Ismael returning home was the start of something magical.
A Passion for Creating Communities
Ismael originally joined Mercy Housing in 2000, when he was hired as Vice President and Director of Real Estate Development for Mercy Housing Mountain Plains. He enjoyed it but felt like he needed to learn more to be better at his job. Ismael left Mercy Housing when U.S. Bank opened its Denver office to make affordable housing equity investments. He wanted to learn about the equity and tax credit business. He had never worked at a bank but jumped right in and learned all he could about the investor side.
Four years later, he had gained experience but did not want to stay in banking – rather get back to working in the community and making a difference.
At the same time, the CEO of the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) was retiring, and Ismael applied for the job.
He knew he had a great reputation in Denver, and his passion for his community was only growing stronger. But doubts crept into the back of his mind while he waited to hear about the position. He lacked public housing experience and had only managed a small team. But it turned out that DHA didn’t want a “traditional” director. “It was the support from the Denver community that got me the job – it was awesome,” he reflected.
After serving as the CEO at DHA for 13 years, Ismael heard that his friend Jane Graf, Mercy Housing’s CEO, was retiring. Someone suggested he apply for the position. Ismael had a vision for the potential for Mercy Housing
Having been a part of local healthcare partnerships, Ismael was aware that Mercy Housing had already established some of those key relationships in the healthcare world. He knew what those partnerships would do for neighborhoods, housing, and residents. “If we can do that on a national level, then the impact could be so much greater.”
Leading Mercy Housing
COVID-19. The Pandemic. As it happened, Ismael started his new job as the new President & CEO at Mercy Housing in June 2020. He describes the experience as, “Very challenging. The first six months were very hard.”
He spent the first several months meeting people virtually, and establishing new relationships proved tricky.
Early on, he knew he had to find a way to physically meet employees and residents and get out and see Mercy Housing’s properties. staff. He embarked on a west coast road trip from L.A. to Seattle. “That trip gave me the energy I needed to continue,” he notes. “I was very inspired.”
As Ismael reflects on 2020, he shares that one of the benefits of starting the job during an unprecedented time was that it gave him the chance to see how the team responded to a crisis. “It was impressive to see how people were pivoting and flexing and seeing them prioritize resident safety and wellbeing.”
Connecting the Dots – The Essence of Affordable Housing
For Mercy Housing, the industry is not a transactional business. It’s not about Mercy Housing trying to just produce more affordable homes – It’s about impacting the lives of residents.
And as conversations continue about the need for more affordable housing, Mercy Housing is inviting more residents and neighbors to the table. “We have seen strong leaders and smart people in our communities, but they aren’t always included in the room where decisions are being made,” he adds. “They know what is needed – they have a lot to say and life experiences we can learn from.”
Ismael adds that “without their input, we may actually get it wrong, despite our experience. Including residents in the early stages is so much better because resident voices are heard. The industry side often thinks that we have the answers and don’t appreciate that engaging residents could make things so much better.”
When asked if it’s possible to solve the affordable housing crisis, Ismael adamantly answers, “Yes!” But how? He goes on to explain that it “starts with changing the current systems that created the problem and cites a quote he once heard, “homelessness is a symptom of a broken-down human services system.” Homelessness shows just how broken our housing and human services are and the need for fundamental reform, from access to healthcare and mental health services to rental subsidies for all in need.
“We can build a million units, but if we don’t change the systems and residents’ lived experiences, we will never get ahead.”
Ismael has served as Mercy Housing’s President & CEO for nearly two years. “It has been an incredible two years,” he says. “I continue to be inspired. I am more excited about where we will be in the next 10 years – growing our impact, the places we are serving, growing our portfolio – do things better; do things differently, and do things together.
Read more about Ismael’s path to Mercy Housing here