Ability Housing president and CEO Shannon Nazworth, MFE's 2020 Executive of the Year
James Crichlow Ability Housing president and CEO Shannon Nazworth, MFE's 2020 Executive of the Year

Sparked by a volunteer gig, Shannon Nazworth has dedicated her career to helping some of the most vulnerable individuals and families have a home in Florida.

After a move to the Sunshine State with her family and seven months pregnant, Nazworth wanted to get to know people in her new community so she volunteered at Habitat for Humanity of Jacksonville—offering office skills instead of wielding a hammer. That turned into a job as business manager at the affiliate as well as later stints at Habitat for Humanity International and the Beaches Habitat for Humanity affiliate.

“I really learned a lot. I learned a lot about housing, real estate development, the people we serve, and the community,” says Nazworth, who is multifamily executive’s 2020 Executive of the Year. “While I knew I wanted to work at a nonprofit, I never thought in college that I would get into affordable housing. But I have come to realize how critically important it is, and I am incredibly grateful that I fell into this work.”

At the end of 2003, she combined her skills in housing development, finance, operations, and advocacy to serve as president and CEO of Ability Housing, a Jacksonville-based nonprofit that focuses on developing affordable and supportive housing for low-income residents, including families and individuals who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness, seniors, veterans, and adults who have a disability.

Under Nazworth’s leadership, the nonprofit has stayed true to its mission “to build strong communities where everyone has a home.” Ability Housing’s portfolio has grown from a group home providing housing for six adults with developmental disabilities and 15 scattered-site houses to the expansion into multifamily rental housing with over 500 units housing more than 1,200 Floridians.

“We came from a very small 1 1/2-person staff, and now we are up to 11 people and helped over 1,000 people last year,” she says. “The best thing I did was get the right team. I am blessed to have a great board—deeply committed community volunteers who give a lot of themselves—and the most remarkable staff.”

While the nonprofit was started in the Jacksonville area, it recently expanded its footprint to Central Florida when it was approached by community leaders. AdventHealth, a faith-based nonprofit health care system, asked it to undertake a substantial rehab. The redevelopment of the Wayne Densch Center replaces the original 64 transitional housing units with 75 revitalized apartments and on-site services for formerly homeless individuals and families. The last building was placed in service in August.

Ability Housing’s next development in Central Florida is Gannet Pointe, a joint venture with Birdsong Housing Partners that will bring 80 units of affordable housing to Osceola County.

In 2019 alone, the nonprofit completed two new affordable housing developments that nearly doubled its portfolio: the 166-unit Village on Mercy in Orlando and the 80-unit Hyde Park in Jacksonville.

“We have too few nonprofit tax credit developers in Florida; Shannon proves that a mission-based nonprofit can and should be developing [low-income housing] tax credit properties,” says Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition. “Her portfolio is evidence that a mission-based nonprofit developer is ideal for providing homes for the most vulnerable populations.”

Her commitment to serving vulnerable households goes beyond her work at Ability Housing. She has helped change the conversation about homelessness and permanent supportive housing in Florida.

In 2018, Ability Housing released findings from The Solution That Saves study, one of three state pilots to provide data on the effectiveness of permanent supportive housing. The study found that it’s 30% less expensive to have people live in supportive housing than maintain homelessness.

“Housing is health care. Housing is economic development. Housing is sound education,” she says. “If nothing else, the last few months with COVID-19 have made it more abundantly clear how important it is to have a home. You can’t keep yourself safe without a place to live.”

Nazworth prides herself on “being a leader in Housing First and evidence-based practices and helping people understand that the best way to help anyone out of homelessness is get them a place to live first and then give them the supports they need to be successful.”

She is a fierce advocate, serving as chairwoman of the Florida Council on Homelessness and on the board of the Florida Supportive Housing Coalition as immediate past president.

“She’s really been integral in advocating for quality and stable housing as well as really helping develop sound policies and best practices at the local, state, and national levels,” says Bill Aldinger, director of policy and special programs at Florida Housing Finance Corp. (FHFC).

FHFC executive director Trey Price agrees, adding that Nazworth and other special-needs advocates were successful in amending the State Apartment Incentive Loan program to set aside 10% of appropriations for special-needs housing. “She does a wonderful job advocating for her nonprofit and for the housing industry at large.”

Nazworth and Ability Housing also are helping to further affordable housing in the state by sharing their expertise with other nonprofits. They are providing development services for Genesis Horizon to create San Juan Village, which will be completed in November, in Jacksonville, and St. Vincent DePaul to create Ozanam Village II and III, which will be completed in October and December, respectively, in Pasco County.

“She’s not only a leader in developing and operating supportive housing for Ability Housing, she has also stepped in and helped other nonprofits to develop and operate permanent supportive housing for these households in many places across the state,” adds Aldinger. “She’s been a mentor to many nonprofits who want to provide permanent supportive housing and Housing First properties for the most vulnerable individuals and families in Florida.”

For Nazworth, it all comes down to seeing the families moving in, the kids playing on the playground, the bikes on the racks—all the things that make a home a home.

“Creating the housing, the impact it has is so foundational to all of our success,” she says. “Just knowing the people who have lived in our housing, and many who no longer live there and are in other housing out in the community, gives me the greatest gratification.”