Jeff Sattler

Police sirens wail in the background and can be heard over the phone line. “Wait a minute, my ride is here,” jokes Jeff Sattler, new executive director of the newly formed Southeastern Connecticut Housing Alliance, or SECHA. Armed with a sense of humor and an earnest will to help modify perceptions of fair and affordable housing, Sattler is striving to make great changes in the southeastern part of the state.

SECHA is a result of the Blue Ribbon Housing Initiatives Partnership, a nonprofit group working to create affordable housing in the area.

Sattler graduated from high school in 1971 and gave himself a “free education” in the years that followed, trying his hand at several different jobs ranging from managing a car wash to leading a community organization to improve the area in which he lived. “I just wasn’t that interested in school,” Sattler admitted. “I went to work and took a variety of jobs.”

At 30, Sattler entered the world of real estate under the prompting of a friend in the field. “I was introduced to brokering, and got my real estate license in Maryland. I did some leasing and sales and eventually owned my own Century 21 franchise,” he said.

Sattler worked with another industry professional in the franchise and soon discovered that he worked better alone. “I had a partner,” he said, “[but] we philosophically veered away from each other.” Sattler leaves his explanation at that.

Soon after, Sattler left the franchise and found himself what he calls a “regular sales division position.” He bought a property at an auction and was able to sell it for twice what he had paid. “My wife said, ‘Why don’t you keep doing that?'” said Sattler. So he did.

Sattler lived in Baltimore for three decades and was a developer for over four years. “I bought, fixed up and sold 22 properties for a profit,” he said. That work gave him some insight into what the housing market was like and how it deeply affected people from all walks of life.

‘A Whirlwind’

In 1998, after spending six years as a stay-at-home dad, Sattler went back to work for a small nonprofit group in Baltimore and was the lone employee. He served as director of the Waverley Community Housing Program, now defunct, for three years. In 2001, Sattler helped put together the Neighborhoods of Greater Lauraville, or NOGLI.

“There were 20 to 25 similar organizations in the city that were doing community development and improvement,” he noted. “All the organizations were working with neighborhoods that had fallen on hard times. I don’t know why they all waited until [the community] hit rock bottom. It was all deny and neglect.

“For years my neighborhood had been a very stable one. It became possibly the most diverse community in Baltimore; it was half and half, Caucasian and African-American. It was heading down a slippery slope and I wanted to do something about it [then], rather than wait until it [got] worse. Everyone thought it was a great idea, but no one would give us any money.”

The battle against those who thought Sattler would fail was tough. But against all odds, Sattler managed to raise the funds he needed and, he said, “accomplish tons.”

“I was told I couldn’t accomplish [getting NOGLI running] because I wouldn’t be able to get funding for a middle-income neighborhood,” he said. “I got us funded. As far as fund-raising goes, I say: If you are not being turned down by 10 people a day, you’re not trying hard enough.

“I was working eight days a week and 72 hours a day! Toward the end it started getting to me. I was burnt out.”

Sattler began searching for work outside of Baltimore and came across an ad posted on an online career Web site looking for a candidate to run SECHA. “I looked nationwide for a job melding what I wanted to do in a place that I wanted to do it in,” Sattler said. He did a phone interview with the board of directors and was asked to come to Connecticut for a face-to-face meeting. Sattler said he came up, met the board members, and 45 minutes later they asked him if he wanted the job.

Sattler relocated to Norwich on June 16, moving into an apartment he hadn’t seen yet. He started work the following Monday. “It was what you would call ‘a whirlwind,'” he noted.

SECHA’s mission statement, according to the organization’s Web site, is “to facilitate affordable and workforce housing opportunities in southeastern Connecticut through the leveraging of resources and to educate, collaborate, coordinate, encourage, direct, initiate and finance the creation of a diversified affordable housing stock in the region to meet ever-changing demands.”

Sattler said, “A lot of people don’t think affordable housing affects them, but it does. Teachers, firefighters, health providers [and] police – if these kinds of folks can’t afford to live in their own town, it affects everyone.”

SECHA consists of the executive director and the 10-member board. “When building an organization like this, it is easier to do it by myself; I prefer to be working alone. I get direction from the board,” said Sattler..

SECHA is partly funded by the state; it received $75,000 this year and is slated for another $50,000 next year and $25,000 in 2008. The organization also has received a Pfizer Inc. grant and donations from The Mohegan Tribe and Dime Bank.

“Dime Bank has been phenomenal,” noted Sattler. “[It] not only donated money, but the president of the bank is our president of the board. They supplied office space and supplies, we are paying no rent.

“It’s great, [seeing] these big shots taking the time to be a part of something they feel is important.”