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Alumna uses legal background to secure housing for those in need

October 19, 2016 | Alumni

Early in her law career, Samantha Shuler ’95 realized she liked engaging in big-picture thinking more than handling detail-oriented tasks. That she preferred negotiating to arguing.

The current CEO of the Community Housing Network (CHN) in Columbus made those discoveries while working as a lawyer specializing in zoning at her father’s law firm, Shuler, Plank, Morgan & Brahm. Shuler, who has a business degree from Miami University, said she was drawn to zoning because it focused on compromise. “I liked collaboration and negotiation rather than conflict,” she said. “I also liked the community meetings and the interactions with the public that came with the work. In zoning, it’s all about what you can do to make all the stakeholders happy because you recognize that you are going to have a long-term relationship with them.”

At the firm, she represented CHN, a nonprofit organization that develops, owns, and manages housing for people who have mental illness or are recovering from addiction and have experienced homelessness. The work was often contentious because neighborhood residents were concerned about who would be moving into their neighborhoods. Shuler liked the cases because CHN did such a good job of managing its properties that critics regularly became allies. “Once the properties opened, the people who were so opposed had the chance to see how they operate and who they helped, they would become CHN’s biggest champions,” she said.

She recalled a city that sued the organization to stop a development. After the lawsuit was settled and CHN rehabbed the property it had purchased, the community came to embrace and support its new neighbors. “That mayor became our best reference,” she said. “I would always tell people to call him with any questions about CHN.”

When a director at CHN retired, the former CEO asked Shuler to join the company full-time to handle development and asset management. Although a lawyer had never previously held the role, the CEO saw advantages to hiring one, Shuler said. “The funding for this type of housing was becoming more technical and having a legal background was very helpful,” she said. “The organization wasn’t very big so it saw the opportunity to have in-house counsel services without creating a new position.”

Shuler, who became CEO in 2015, said her legal training has been hugely helpful in her work. “It’s a very reliable framework for problem solving. It helps me sort relevant facts from irrelevant ones very quickly,” she said. “It helps me make a quality decision faster than someone that doesn’t have that framework. It also helps me assess risk much more quickly.”

The role offers plenty of opportunity to engage in big-picture thinking and long-term planning for the 100-employee organization that owns and operates 1,200 apartment units and manages rent subsidies for another 600. An important part of the job is thinking about what the future of housing will look like for CHN clients and preparing her staff and the public to handle it. She enjoys the challenge of planning for the future and making sure decisions align with CHN’s mission.

“I figured out I’m not great at the details of building the machine that creates the widgets,” she said. “I’m better at thinking about what kind of widgets do we need to make and sharing that vision with the people who will build it.”

Shuler, who spends her free time trying new recipes, going to the gym, and hanging out with her family, also appreciates that her job allows her to make a difference in her community. “It’s very fulfilling for me to be able to say to people ‘I know you’ve got this barrier that’s preventing you from living the life you want, here’s an opportunity to remove it,’” said Shuler, who has a 10-year-old son. “It’s a better world when we all have an opportunity to live an enriched life.”