Today in our interview series we'll be talking to attorney and NMA senior trainer Rhonda Brown, who currently teaches the NMA Hearing Officer Workshop and was also part of the team that developed the workshop. She has previously written for the NMA blog about how to be an effective hearing officer.
In addition to handling both HCV and public housing hearings for PHAs in western Washington State, Ms. Brown is also a full-time administrative review judge for a state agency, where she's been hearing appeals and writing decisions for over 20 years.
Tell us about your work experience.
I started early! I've held employment of one kind or another for 46 years. Okay, let's skip ahead to my post-undergraduate life. I started a career as a social worker, performing intake of abuse and neglect referrals at a child protective agency, then a few years later, I worked on a locked ward at a psychiatric hospital for adolescents. When I moved to a new state, I took on my first job in advocacy, and my first job in the housing industry, as manager of a housing assistance program for people with disabilities.
It was in this capacity that I was asked by HUD to offer comments on the draft regulations for implementing the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities by federally funded entities. Responding to the request introduced me to community organizing, public speaking, and regulatory analysis. Being involved in this undertaking also alerted me to the fact that I needed stronger credentials to work effectively in advocacy, which led me to the idea, then the reality, of law school!
After law school, I joined a law practice, concentrating in administrative law (social security appeals, special education advocacy), landlord-tenant law, and family law. Wanting more control over my time, I joined public service, working for the state on an equal employment opportunity/affirmative action project, then as a contracts lawyer, and finally as a review judge, where I've been for 22 years, hearing and deciding unemployment insurance appeals.
About 10 years ago, I opened my own consulting firm, which provides technical expertise and training in the public and private sectors on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Seven years ago, I was asked to be a hearing officer, and I perform those duties as an independent contractor through my consulting company.
How did you get your start in the industry?
The housing assistance program for people with disabilities was my introduction. Because of that work, I began participating on housing-related boards and committees. I was also called upon to serve on government committees to represent the "disability perspective." I continue that participation now. It was due to my association with other folks from the housing industry that I was asked to be a hearing officer.
How did you get your start at Nan McKay and Associates?
I took an NMA training course about a year and a half ago and was asked to join as a trainer for the Hearing Officer Workshop.
What’s one topic you’re most passionate about in the affordable housing industry?
Helping to advocate for and promote affordable, accessible housing.
What's your favorite part about your job?
Hah! Which one? For my job with NMA, it is meeting and working with all the dedicated, caring, knowledgeable people both at NMA and in my workshops, who are doing the work that helps people meet a basic human need — housing!
Describe your typical work day.
Reviewing and writing unemployment insurance cases for the majority of the weekdays. I use vacation to attend housing hearings and NMA workshops. Then, evenings and weekends reading housing hearing files, writing up housing hearing decisions... and miscellaneous business tasks, as they come up.
Tell us about a successful project that you had a part in.
I managed and performed the development, training, and facilitation of an ADA compliance project for a county government. Despite looming cuts of federal dollars due to the county's noncompliance, the county commissioners were hostile to changing the status quo. I met with the commissioners to describe the project and to get their support for a resolution which would set the tone for the managers of the 21 departments required to participate.
In a half an hour, I had to explain the technical aspects of the ADA, the county's role, what we were doing, and why. I wanted to emphasize the similarities between the county's mission and the ADA's mission, the achievements that they had already accomplished, the benefits of a well-considered plan, and the fact that the process was a matter of justice.
I was able to establish rapport and a foundation for trust, and the commissioners completed the resolution. Over the next two years, I worked with the department managers and as a team, we evaluated all the county departments, set up strategies for change, began implementation, and devised protocols for future compliance. A successful project.
When she isn't working, NMA senior trainer Rhonda Brown enjoys reading, writing, travel, opera, movies, cooking, dining out, swimming, and Scrabble. She has been affiliated with many different organizations over the years, including the Washington State Bar's Access to Justice Committee, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services Disability Advisory Committee, and the Pierce County Citizens Advisory Board for the Community Development Block Grant Program. Ms. Brown is currently a board member for the Fair Housing Center of Washington, where she has served for 18 years.