SECOND STREET — Since becoming the executive director of Community Corp. of Santa Monica in 1991, Joan Ling has overseen the addition of 1,200 units to the city’s stock of affordable dwellings, quadrupling the number of apartments the organization manages.
It’s a feat that’s won her immodest praise from Santa Monica’s numerous affordable housing advocates. But as she prepares to retire from Community Corp. this spring, she’s got nothing but humble words to describe her decision.
“I feel that we right now have an incredibly talented group of people working at Community Corp,” she said. “It’s time to step down and make room for people who are going to do a better job than I can.”
Though she plans to stay involved with affordable housing issues by teaching college courses and consulting on housing projects, she said she plans to use much of her new-found flexibility to fulfill a long-deferred dream.
Having spent the past 20 years working to make sure as many people as possible in Santa Monica have good quality, affordable roofs over their heads, she’s planning to spend much of her time without one, as she prepares to embark on a tour of the country’s great outdoors, where she said she’s always felt a sense of peace and completeness.
For the next six or seven summers, Ling, 55, said she plans to drive to a new region each year, systematically visiting each of the country’s 58 national parks.
“I am a bit compulsive,” she explained.
She’ll pick up friends on the way and take her time to camp and hike all around the U.S., she said, without feeling like she’s delaying important projects in Santa Monica with her absence.
“I just want to be able to spend a month in a place and not feel like I have to rush back to work,” she said.
Community Corp.’s board of directors has hired a consultant to begin a search for Ling’s replacement. No matter who they find, it seems certain Ling will be dearly missed.
Besides the sheer quantity of projects that have been completed in the past 20 years, affordable housing advocates said quality design and construction have been a hallmark of Ling’s tenure.
Community Corp. developments “rival the finest condo projects in every neighborhood,” said Deny Zane, a former mayor and a founder of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.
Besides benefiting tenants, the buildings “counter the public’s adverse image of affordable housing projects just by example,” he said, helping to build confidence in non-profit housing development.
Pulling it all off in Santa Monica, where high property values and a dearth of vacant land add to the challenge, makes Ling’s accomplishments even more impressive, Zane said.
“She’s done an amazing job. She will be sorely missed.”
Councilman Kevin McKeown, who during three terms on the council has championed low-income housing development, called Ling “the living embodiment of our community’s commitment to provide affordable housing.”
“Anything I could say about Joan pales next to the simple fact of her accomplishment — hundreds of working families, seniors, and people with disabilities, housed in dignity. Pick any child growing up safe in a Community Corp. of Santa Monica building — that is what Joan has given us,” he said.
Councilman Richard Bloom added: “We have been fortunate to have her steady hand guiding Community Corp. She has a rare combination of intelligence, commitment and expertise that has made her singularly effective in helping the city provide critically needed housing assistance to thousands of low-income individuals and families.”
In Ling’s own assessment, one of the achievements she’s most proud of has been simply to cultivate a positive reputation for Community Corp. among the organization’s tenants and other Santa Monica residents.
“We’re perceived in the community as a community-based organization, not a developer,” she said. “We’re driven by progressive values that put an emphasis on valuing individuals and families and promoting social justice.”
An embodiment of that commitment, she said, was the creation three years ago of a Resident Services Department at Community Corp. that seeks to connect tenants with education, health care and career services available through a range of social resource providers.
“We are serving our residents beyond just providing a shelter,” she said. “We are providing a home and security and community.”
It’s a legacy she’s pleased to leave behind.