Regina Celestin Williams knows firsthand the importance of equitable housing, especially in the Bay Area.
As a Richmond native, Williams grew up in Barrett Terrace, an affordable housing project that provided stability for her and other families in the area, she said.
“I came into affordable housing with a great passion because I’ve benefited from it,” Williams told San José Spotlight, adding that because of affordable housing, her family didn’t have to live with constant stress and choose between rent and medical care. “That’s a great benefit, and it’s something that should be available to everyone.”
Williams has spent her career seeking out the best practices in building and preserving affordable housing projects across the country. Now, Williams takes on a new challenge she hopes will make even more impactful changes to the inequitable housing reality in San Jose: steering the nonprofit [email protected] as its new executive director.
Launched in 2015, [email protected] is a membership organization that advocates for policies and programs that increase the supply of affordable housing.
“When people are in a room talking and the idea of housing comes up, if Regina is in the room, there’s not going to be that many other people who know more about what it takes to get affordable housing built,” Kevin Zwick, [email protected] board chair who has known Williams for years, told San José Spotlight.
In San Jose, Williams previously served as the director of housing development for First Community Housing where she managed $300 million in projects. Local housing champions consider her an expert and leader in the affordable housing world. In 2019, Williams was named as one of the area’s 40 Under 40 honorees by the Silicon Valley Business Journal.
“(At) First Community Housing, what I saw was that we had to react to the rapid change in policies,” said Williams, who took the helm of [email protected] on Nov. 15. She succeeds Leslye Corsiglia, who announced her departure in April. “This is not the moment to be reactionary. This is the moment to place myself in a position where I can be proactively pushing for policy that supports communities that are disadvantaged, stabilize those communities and provide options for folks who live in those communities to live there affordably.”
Strong commitment and extensive experience
Inspired by an affordable housing class at Stanford University, Williams—then an engineering student—pivoted and decided to make it her life’s goal to advance the housing movement.
In that moment she saw how to leverage her technical skills, love of numbers and details into helping people. She envisioned how it would benefit humanity directly. Everything fell into place and made sense.
“The class was transformative,” she said.
After earning her master’s degree in city planning at the University of Pennsylvania, Williams worked at the National Development Council in Washington D.C. and National Housing Trust in North Carolina, where she provided housing consulting services and oversaw the rehabilitation of affordable housing properties.
In 2014, Williams moved back to the Bay Area with her husband for a job with First Community Housing, where she brought to life some of the most crucial low-income housing developments in the area, including the Second Street Studios and the Iamesi Village in downtown San Jose.
“We can’t be more thrilled with Regina joining us as our new executive director,” Zwick said. “She’s incredibly well respected, and she has a tremendous track record of creating really difficult affordable housing developments for the most vulnerable populations.”
Through managing these housing projects from inception through construction, Williams also gained a deep knowledge of what is required to bring affordable housing projects to communities. A strength she brings into her new role.
“Regina has the temperament of a leader. She is someone who is collaborative and measured while leading with her values,” Alex Shoor, executive director of housing advocacy group Catalyze SV, told San José Spotlight. “She knows about how development occurs, and that will be a tremendous asset to the housing advocates in our community.”
Amplify the voice of residents
For Williams, it’s crucial to advocate for housing development and policies with a focus on those who have been most affected. This population turns out to be an unlikely demographic—longtime valley residents, Williams said.
“The folks who’ve lived here and whose families are raised here, they’re the ones being displaced. So those are the folks that really need to be at the center in our work,” she said.
The high costs of construction and land have driven many low-income and minority families out of the area, and Black residents in San Jose are more likely to end up experiencing homelessness, according to the Silicon Valley Pain Index.
The needs—and concerns—of those communities have long been ignored, Williams said. Part of the problem is because low-income and minority groups are not at the decision-making table, she added.
“I can tell you just from personal experience, and being in the meetings, that there’s rarely anyone who looks like me,” Williams said. “So change has to happen.”
Local advocates couldn’t agree more.
“It is going to be awesome to have a woman of color leading a premier nonprofit in our community and to have her pushing all of us on issues of inclusion and equity,” Shoor said.