Isay Gulley joined Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc. in 1980, became assistant director in 1983, and director by 1990. On June 15, Isay Gulley was presented the key to the city of Clearwater as a retirement surprise.
BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer
Clearwater Neighborhood Services was founded in 1979 as a member of the congressionally chartered nonprofit NeighborWorks America. The national organization has 250 nonprofit organizations involved in community development throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.
Gulley was hired in 1979 and started in outreach, letting homeowners in South Greenwood know about financial support available for home repairs and upgrades to code. In 1983 she became assistant director.
Gulley’s vision meant that it wasn’t enough for CNHS to just give out money for repairs. In 1983, she heard that the City of Clearwater supported an effort in St. Pete to help Black businesses. When that project shut down and Clearwater was left with the funding but no Black business project, Gulley told her board: “This sounds like something we should do.”
“We’re talking about neighborhood revitalization,” said Gulley. “The reason why people that know me call me a visionary is because you can’t trick people by using an umbrella word and then don’t create ‘good legs’ that help you to achieve that goal. Neighborhood revitalization is more than building a new house. You got to look at the commercial corridors within those neighborhoods.”
With no one on staff to handle loans, Gulley was trained to process the business loans. She processed all the business loans from 1983 until she hired someone to do the job when she became director in 1990.
“They were small loans; the maximum was $20,000, but a $20,000 loan back then was a good amount for somebody that was trying to start up.”
Eventually, the organization became an SBA microlender, processing loans up to $35,000. The program lasted until 2005, when the city decided to go another way with its commercial lending.
“[My work] has been such a fulfillment for me. Because after having lost our home from a scare tactic when I was young, I wanted to make sure that I kept open opportunities for those that were left behind. So, that’s why I’ve been an advocate, not only for Blacks, because in every neighborhood, you got left behind of all races.”
Gulley knew that whatever their lack of knowledge, it was often easy for those who would ordinarily be left behind to be blocked out of programs and products that could help them, and it became part of her mission to make sure everyone was able to access the services CNHS offered.
Former board member Sally Ruby noted that Gulley was on duty 24-7.
“Isay Gulley is the guardian angel of the area’s underserved communities. She is such an extraordinary person, working in concert with local agencies that can make concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary people,” offered Ruby.
“Whether it is one person who is in crisis or a systematic issue, Isay is there to serve as a rational, caring, and calming influence. She has uncanny abilities to address sensitive issues on a broad scale while never forgetting to bring aid to individuals who are enduring challenging times.”
Muhammad Abdur-Rahim has known Gulley since 1986 and was on the CNHS board at the time she became the organization’s director. When CNHS decided to move into the North Greenwood area, Abdur-Rahim became chair of that expansion committee. Under Gulley’s direction, said Abdur-Rahim, “We got the community involved and rallied around the fact of needing to actually have housing built, brand new, in the North Greenwood area.”
Abdur-Rahim called Gulley’s leadership outstanding. “Isay actually expanded Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Service into various areas outside North Greenwood. And that took an exceptional leadership style. Especially when she actually brokered the deal with Bank of America to remodel North Greenwood Apartments.”
The transformation of the housing project into an upscale apartment development revived the face of the neighborhood. Abdur-Rahim said the renovation relieved some of the area’s blight, raised property values, and offered the area “a little bit brighter sense of belonging for the residents.”
He noted that an essential part of the initiative was ensuring that the community was engaged in the process. “Isay was all about making sure that the residents within the area get the proper training.”
Community members were encouraged to participate in the various NeighborWorks America training, emphasizing community engagement, responsibility to neighbors, and community empowerment.
Out of training like these, said Abdur-Rahim, the North Greenwood Association was born, going on to become “very powerful in its own right,” he noted.
By 1991, as director, Gulley and CNHS broke ground on their first new house through a partnership with the City of Clearwater to provide infill housing. According to Gulley, their new construction of affordable housing projects is getting ready to break ground on house number 257.
Tatishka Thomas was the first person in Clearwater to receive Warrick Dunn’s Homes for the Holidays project in a home purchased through CNSH. For Thomas, it was a life-changing experience to become a homeowner.
“[Gulley] was a great person to work with. She made the experience pleasant and easy.” Today, Thomas is new in the real estate business and credits Gulley’s work as a “pioneer in North Greenwood” for inspiring her to consider real estate and community impact.
Gulley’s concern for community needs outside of housing led to the Hearts in the Village volunteer organization. Michelle Holmes, Gulley’s oldest daughter, helped start the organization.
“Hearts in the Village came about as an extension of Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services, as a support to the community to reach needy families that may need food, clothing, any assistance that we could offer,” Holmes explained.
The organization began in 2015 with a homeless feeding program and has provided school and backpack giveaways, working along with other partners, including the Clearwater Police Department and United Way.
“She is a mentor,” Holmes noted. “She has natural leadership abilities because it comes from a sincere place within her heart, and she’s always trying to better anyone’s life she comes in contact with. She wants to leave them either feeling better about themselves or with more resources that they can look into.”
All who know Gulley’s impact are excited about her future endeavors and look forward to learning what her next steps will be. While a run for city council has come up, Gulley said that now, after so many years at CNHS, her family is her main priority.
To reach J.A. Jones, email firstname.lastname@example.org