Avesta’s Dana Totman named Nonprofit Business Leader of the Year

When Dana Totman was first courted by the board of York-Cumberland Housing in 2000, the then-deputy director of the Maine State Housing Authority saw a struggling, stagnant organization in desperate need of new leadership.

"They were not real productive, they were just kind of plodding along," he says.

Poor financial health, low workplace morale and failing programs at the affordable housing development and management company in Gorham might have scared others off, but Totman was eager to enter the organizational scrum and start mixing things up. It didn’t start off so well.

"I used to say the only thing worse than the 45 minutes it took to drive from Brunswick to Gorham was getting there – like, ‘What series of problems will hit me today?’ But we worked through it fairly quickly," says Totman, who for the last 13 years has been president and CEO of what is now Avesta Housing.

Totman’s first order of business was to identify key challenges facing the organization, starting with stabilizing its flagging finances. Within his first two years, he oversaw the sale of five developments, refinanced 15 projects and restructured the nonprofit’s portfolio, giving Avesta more fiscal breathing room and allowing it to invest in new staffing, technology and properties.

The organization’s portfolio has more than doubled under Totman’s watch, from 800 units in 2000 to 1,900 today, and revenues and assets have increased dramatically: Avesta had $32 million in assets in 2000, and $166 million in FY 2012, with revenues climbing from $9.7 million to $27 million. Last year also marked the opening of five projects – a record for the 40-year-old company – despite the distraction of a statewide controversy in affordable-housing circles.

Not that Totman ever shies away from controversy. When he was hired, he was given carte blanche by Avesta’s board of directors – "we had this discussion not about what the organization was, but what it could become." To that end, Totman fired a number of longtime staff, beefed up the company’s property management work and moved its headquarters from Gorham to downtown Portland to better serve low-income people.

"In all my positions throughout my career, I’ve tried to take an organization to another, better place," says Totman.

In Totman’s role as deputy director for the MSHA, he helped the organization focus on scalable, productive projects, and develop a scorecard to gauge their impact.

"If you don’t have that, how do you know if you’re doing a good job?" he asks.

Totman brought the same principles to Avesta, which is now the largest nonprofit housing developer in northern New England. Following last year’s record of opening five properties, four more are slated for this year.
From country to city

A quick walk through Avesta’s Portland headquarters illustrates Totman’s focus on urban developments. One wall of the office shows photos of Avesta’s projects arranged chronologically from left to right. Starting with single-story developments in rural communities – mostly senior housing – the projects become larger, more ambitious multi-story buildings as the years go on, reflecting Totman’s affordable housing mantra: Keep the focus on the people you are serving.

"Rural areas may be less expensive, but urban areas are a better fit for housing. We were trying to bring housing closer to where people should be living and aligning that housing with jobs," says Totman.

The shifting focus to urban development has allowed Avesta to balance its housing portfolio across demographics. When Totman took the helm in 2000, 80% of Avesta’s developments were senior housing; today it’s 50%.

The move to Portland also helped Avesta establish partnerships with attorneys, bankers and social service agencies, who, he says, welcomed the organization. The network of support encouraged Totman to pursue another passion: developing first-in-the-region, long-term affordable housing for the chronically homeless with federal, state and private funding.

In March 2005, Avesta, in partnership with Portland social services agency Preble Street, opened Logan Place, a $4.1 million "housing-first" project of 30 single-occupancy apartments with on-site resources from Preble Street. The collaboration has reduced the cost of health care and emergency room visits for residents by over 70% and led to an 88% drop in incarceration, according to a 2007 report by the state. The two organizations followed up in 2010 with the $5 million Florence House, a similar project catering exclusively to homeless women.

Totman says the housing-first projects for the homeless have been the most rewarding accomplishments in his time with Avesta.

"Those were just really heart-lifting efforts. To see how their lives changed and see how much money we saved in police calls and emergency hospital visits. It was cool to be on the cutting edge of that," he says.

As a longtime hiker who has completed the Appalachian Trail, scaled the Alps and Mt. Kilimanjaro, Totman says his outdoorsy lifestyle has given him an appreciation for the needs of the city’s homeless.

"I might be on the trail for weeks with nothing but my backpack, but at the end of that, I get to go back to my nice house," says Totman. "So when I see [the homeless] out there with their backpacks, it really reminds me who we are serving."
Confronting a challenge

The housing projects for the homeless involved a daunting mix of economic, social and political factors. But Totman relishes the role of marshaling partners toward a common goal.

"I like this business because it’s very complicated. It’s financial, political, social services, behaviors, relationships. There are a lot of different forces that have to collide," he says. "We really learned a lot about partnerships in that effort, where we do what we do well and others provide certain services."

Totman also overhauled Avesta’s property management division, restructuring its financial planning, cutting expenses, reviewing revenue sources and making staffing changes, all of which led to the division operating in the black for the first time in 2012.

"My natural tendency is to be developing new things and relationships. I’ve learned that [new and existing initiatives] are equally important, but I’ve really had to work hard [at it], " he says.

The CEO oversaw the creation of Avesta’s Home Ownership Center in June 2012, a program that originally was designed to help people become homeowners but pivoted toward a mixed purpose.

"We ended up having to put as much focus on helping people get out of their homes as getting into them. If someone is not able to keep their home, we want to be able to help them restructure their debt or help them access any of the resources out there to keep their home and help with their mortgage," he says.

So far, the program has helped 300 low-to-moderate-income people and raised $235,000 in grant funding. The impact of the national mortgage crisis was bittersweet for Avesta. It meant more work and needier people, but it also highlighted Avesta’s mission.

"It’s put more of a microscope on housing and affordable housing than [was] on it before. So many people were touched – well-meaning, hard-working folks who were losing their homes – so there was much more sympathy and understanding for our cause," he says.

There was also more scrutiny of affordable housing operations, touched off by a Norway Advertiser-Democrat investigation that showed incompetence among some affordable-housing and Section 8 providers. Rather than run for cover, Totman saw the controversy as an opportunity to assess his organization and launched a portfolio-wide survey of properties. The result? A 97% satisfaction rate among residents.

The reassuring result underscores Totman’s dedication to the organization and its mission.

"Now it’s about growing in different areas and continuing to refine things; trying to stay crisp in our ability to do new things going forward," he says.