Linda Smith: East-side affordable housing ‘warrior’

Her nonprofit offers homebuyer classes, home repair, demolition, and has built more than 130 affordable housing units

Linda Smith was having a forgettable day right up until it became memorable.

Appropriately enough, the executive director of U-SNAP-BAC can’t recall why things had been so vexing. The many facets of her job on the east side of Detroit include dealing with housing in a post-bubble world and cobbling together funding for a nonprofit in a post-bankruptcy city, so the potential for frustration is always there.

So is the potential for satisfaction, of course — an abused woman finds a home, a homeowner gets a roof, a would-be homeowner gets steered away from a cheap house with a $10,000 tax bill.

Or, in this case, the phone rings and Smith finds out she is a Detroit News Michiganian of the Year. And wait, it gets better: she’s won the Angelo Henderson Community Commitment Award.

“I was at a low point,” concedes Smith, 62. “You deposit so much into the community and the work, and sometimes you think, ‘I should be somewhere on a beach.’ ”

But there’s still so much to do, and so much promise. That job site off Mack Avenue and Ashland that’ll turn into 30 townhomes and a community center? It’s a Northeast Guidance Center project, but she’s involved. The building on Kercheval with housing for 30 women and children, plus a Head Start center? U-SNAP-BAC.

The Detroit News' Michiganians of the Year

Smith is the second chief of U-SNAP-BAC, whose name stands for United Streets Networking and Planning; Building A Community. Its multi-pronged mission has included homebuyer classes, home repair, demolition, and the construction of more than 130 units of affordable housing.

“She’s an absolute warrior,” says Maggie DeSantis, founder of the Eastside Community Network. “She refuses to give up.”

“She is whatever’s necessary,” says Jeanine Hatcher, executive director of GenesisHOPE. “She is for the most part a low-key leader, but when she needs to, she can fire ’em up.”

“I’m who I am,” Smith says — and who she was raised to be.

The second of six children, she grew up in the Jeffries Projects. Engaged on the night of her senior prom, she was widowed by 30; her husband, she says, was shot to death by a mentally ill relative.

Her original plan was to become an accountant, “because numbers don’t lie and I didn’t particularly like talking to people.” Instead she wound up in the nonprofit world, where numbers are fluid and her personality drives the mission.

“Some days I ask, ‘Why me?’ ” she says.

Then the phone rings, and she knows.

Neal Rubin

Linda Smith

Age: 62

Occupation: Executive director, U-SNAP-BAC

Education: Associate’s degree, Wayne County Community College

Family: Widow. Adult daughter Cherise Caldwell, and adult son George IV; three grandchildren

Why honored: For helping rehabilitate and redevelop portions of Detroit’s east side by creating affordable housing, jobs and educated homeowners

Read about the other Michiganians of the Year