Heartland Housing: Kandyse McCoy Cunningham

As the Director of Asset Management for Heartland Housing, Kandyse McCoy Cunningham oversees the compliance, physical, and financial performance of more than 700 units of affordable and supportive housing for low-income Chicagoans. Working in housing for 25 years, she continues to thrive in the field thanks to her team and the passion of building the life-changing foundation that is a home.

Kandyse McCoy Cunningham

What got you into this work?

I got into housing by accident. I needed a job, and a friend told me about property management. Eventually, I got into affordable housing and I really loved it. I’ve been in affordable housing management for 25 years.  Eventually, I was working for the state as an auditor – and one of my buildings was the Leland Apartments in Chicago. I remember falling in love with the place and actually being recommended to apply for the job – and here I am.

Why is this work important to the community? To the people we serve?

I call affordable and supportive housing life-changing housing. This work is the perfect way to display compassion. Everyone deserves housing – and it should be decent, it should be safe, it should be clean. It doesn’t matter where you came from our what your life was like before, you deserve respect – and our housing programs really strive to do just that.

Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you? Could you talk about that?

I remember the first building we opened when I was on the job – Harvest Commons. I remember seeing the faces of the residents when they received their keys, and when they saw the amazing amenities of the building – you know, that building has an urban garden – and I remember these people just lighting up. I remember people thanking us and saying ‘you are building all of this for us’ – and that’s when I knew.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love leading and working with my team. I feed off of them and they feed off of me – and our teamwork really makes it all worth it.

How can others help your work?

People can help by simply knowing and understanding what it is that we’re trying to do, without preconceived notions. We spend a lot of time dispelling myths about affordable and supportive housing. Understanding homelessness better and supporting initiatives that end homelessness is the most important thing you can do to help.

Housing & Community Triumphs over Polar Vortex

For most of us, the polar vortex produced the coldest temperatures we had ever experienced. In the days leading up to the vortex, grocery stores were flooded with people in a panic to buy the necessities needed to carry them through the two and half days they would be holed up their homes to escape the unforgiving weather.

In Madison, Wisconsin, the brutal cold lasted a whole week. The residents of our Rethke Terrace apartments in Madison, all of whom are formerly homeless, know all too well the serious nature of extreme cold, and trying to survive without essential resources.

“My first night homeless was in January of 2015,” said Kathy, a resident of Rethke Terrace. “All I had was a tent in the woods, now that was some hard living.”

Rethke Terrace houses 60 formerly homeless Madisonians, many of them veterans. The apartments opened in 2016, and many of the residents are experiencing winter indoors for the first time in years because they had been chronically homeless.

According to the department of Housing and Urban Development, individuals with this designation have been homeless for more than a year and have multiple barriers to housing. Many of the residents are experiencing not only housing for the first time in years, but access to the critical supportive services that help them thrive. When the vortex fell upon Madison, many of the residents were unable to stock up at the grocery store. They were instead left with just the food they had received from a local pantry – and stocks were dwindling.

“Oh I was nervous, but our property manager Heidi [Rethke Terrace property manager] was on the ball. She was coming door to door, making sure we had everything we need,” said Randy, an army vet who served for 10 years and die-hard Packer fan. “The community kitchen had some extra potatoes and things lying around, and we aren’t afraid to work with our neighbors when things got tight.”

Randy and Kathy share a bit of celebrity at Rethke Terrace, as they are considered some of the best chefs in the building. More importantly, they love to share their creations.

“I love to cook, I love to bake. I’m making food for everyone on the floor all the time. Lasagna, cookies, you name it,” Randy said.

A day into the freeze, Kathy and Randy realized the extended duration indoors would quickly empty their refrigerators – and that their neighbors were facing a similar situation.

“I grew up in a large family, so I know how to share,” Kathy said. “I had potatoes and onions, one fella had some ground beef, one person had peppers. We were going to make it work.”

Kathy, Randy and at least two of their neighbors – longtime Madison resident Tom and fellow Army vet Alex – joined forces to make it through.

“You know, we made it all work! I gave the last of my hamburger meat and we made some sort of goulash with it,” Tom said.

Goulash, lasagna, a couple of different stews – crockpots were working overtime on the second and third floors of Rethke Terrace. Soon, the whole group was sharing food with one another – and ultimately making sure that none of their neighbors would go hungry before Madison thawed out.

“It all started in the community room. Randy started bringing food down there when he had too much leftover. I would just regularly knock on my neighbor’s doors seeing if they were hungry. We’ve got a good community here – nobody will be going hungry on our watch,” Randy said.

For Alex, his compassion compelled him to do more than just share food. He went out of his way to check on a friend who wasn’t housed and to make sure he had what he needed to make it through those bitter cold days.

“I have a friend who is older and in the same situation that I used to be in, and I know what this winter must be like. When news came about the cold snap, I just thought about how the next few days would be for him. I put myself back in my old shoes, so to speak. There’s still folks out there. We’re the lucky ones.”

Heidi Holden, Rethke Terrace Property Manager, couldn’t be more proud of the budding community in her building.

“This place is home, and everyone here KNOWS that its home. We decorate for holidays, we carve pumpkins, we have a chili cook off next week. We celebrate birthdays, we do it all.”

With 11 years of experience in property management, this is Heidi’s first time working in permanent supportive housing. The residents of Rethke Terrace get to stay here for as long as they can, so long as they can adhere to the building’s rules and their health allows them. Serving the formerly homeless has been quite the experience for her – enlightening in some very positive ways.

“You would think people would want to be alone after all they’ve been through, but it’s the opposite. People crave other people.”

Black History Month Reflections: Mary Church Terrell

At Heartland Alliance, we believe that everyone has the right to prosper and reach their full potential. As we continue to bend the arc of time toward justice, it is important to stop and reflect on the trials and tribulations of racial injustices – and to celebrate the leaders who have become symbols for equity and opportunity for ALL people. For Black History Month, leaders from across Heartland Alliance reflected on heroes from the community that inspire them.

As the Director of Asset Management for Heartland Housing, Kandyse McCoy Cunningham oversees the compliance, physical, and financial performance of more than 700 units of affordable and supportive housing for low-income Chicagoans. She chose to reflect on Mary Church Terrell, national activist for civil rights and suffrage and one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree.

Why did you choose this person?

Mary Church Terrell was one of the first African American women to get a college degree. Education is integral in my family. I’m one generation out of public housing. My grandparents and parents always said that education was the component that gets you forward. My mom would say “you have to be better than me” and her mom told her. I used that as a bench mark.

She helped found the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in 1913 – and the sorority’s first public act was participating in one of the largest Women’s Suffrage Marches of the time. As a member of Delta Sigma Theta, Terrell’s achievements are very personal to me.

How do they inspire the work you do today?

Mary Church Terrell was instrumental in organizing black women to march in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She encouraged the ladies to be more than just a social club, but to be activists. Even though the women of Delta Sigma Theta had to march back of the line and endure the added negativity due to their race, they still marched. It made my sorority more than just a social club. I’m still active in that sorority – we are still activists, and we are very dedicated to community service.

We have a housing first philosophy. Housing is the foundation, but I believe – given how I was raised and how I got here – that education is just as fundamental to success. At Heartland Housing, the residents we serve don’t just stop growing with their housing – they take next steps to build their lives. For example, we house formerly homeless families – mostly single moms and their kids – at our Tree Lane apartments in Madison. When I begin to connect with those women, I’ll have a conversation with them along the lines of “now your housed, now what? What’s your next step to get to point A to point B?”

What do you think it will take to get to the future that Mary Church Terrell fought for?

It’s going to take honest conversation, regardless of if it’s unconformable. We need to achieve the truth. The only way to get better as a society is by really understanding each other. This doesn’t have to be politics, but it does have to be connection. No matter how uncomfortable it is.

I believe that to a certain degree, there is already a lot of opportunity – Mary Church Terrell blazed a path for young black women in civil society and in education. We have to follow her lead, and go down some hard paths in order to build even better opportunities for the next generation.

At the same time, there are systemic issues that we absolutely must address. Systemic racism is not as overt, which can be even more dangerous. It can be lost that there is actually a problem, and we have to keep this in our conversations.

You’ve Got to Give Back: Tom’s Story

“When I was at my lowest, there were people – complete strangers – that believed in me. They really went to bat for me. I was, literally, the luckiest man in the world.”

Sometimes, perspective is everything. For Tom Church, living on the streets of Milwaukee changed not only how he sees homelessness – it changed his belief in people and service. Today, his happiest holiday moments happen when he brings his friends and family together to buy presents for low-income families through our Stuff a Stocking campaign.

Before homelessness, Tom’s life as a division manager for a sales department seemed unshakable. He was successful, independent, and at the top of his game. But just as is it with most of us, one or two speed bumps down can send you careening off what you thought was your path to happiness. For Tom, that speed bump involved addiction. Soon enough, Tom’s habits lost him his job, his home, and most of his relationships.

“It was miserable. I had the toughest time trying to find cash around the city to get loaded and find an empty place to sleep in winter.”

After a number of years on the streets, Tom did find hope – but he needed a little help. A number of social services throughout Milwaukee – including Heartland Alliance – that helped him find sobriety, healthcare, even a home. Tom recognized just how crucial it was for strangers to care about him – a concept that was solidified in his mind after a heart attack that left him clinically dead for almost an hour.

“If it weren’t for these people, I wouldn’t be here today. In every sense of the word, I have owe my life to people who didn’t give up on me.”

And so today, with a home and a future ahead of him, Tom is giving back. Tom is working with his friends and family to donate gifts and stuff stockings to two families at our Maskani Place housing program in Milwaukee.

“Ever since I got back on my own, I knew I had to give back. I’ve got a couple of extra bucks, and I know what it’s like when you have nothing. You’ve got to give back.”