Team spotlight: Helen Leung on working in her hometown and supporting the Nico model

Author: Filippo
Date: November 17, 2020
Helen is an independent director serving on the board of Nico Echo Park, Benefit Corp.

Nico’s Team Spotlights are a way for the community to get to know the people behind Nico a bit better. This interview explores Helen’s background, thoughts about Nico Echo Park, and personal connections to the neighborhood.

Hello, Helen! Please, introduce yourself: what are you currently working on?

Hi! I’m Helen Leung and I am an independent director serving on the board of Nico Echo Park, Benefit Corp. I’m excited to share Nico’s approach as a community development strategy that inspired new ways of thinking of wealth building and collective ownership. 

On a more personal note, with the pandemic, my weekly salsa dancing is not an option. So these days, I’m working on becoming a better alpine lake trout angler!

Tell us about your origin story. Share a brief background of yourself and your work experience.

I’m proud to say I’m a Los Angeles native, raised in the Frogtown neighborhood by a working class, first generation Chinese family. Growing up in an immigrant community helped me deeply identify with the rich diversity that makes Los Angeles so unique. With mentorship from local leaders, I became the first person in my family to go to college. After nearly a decade on the East Coast, I’m honored to be back in my hometown investing the privilege of my education and work experience back into neighborhoods like the one where I grew up.

As it concerns my career, working at national level made me realize I knew I wanted to be grass-roots and create change at a local level. I have extensive policy and community-based experience having worked for former LA City Council President and current Mayor Eric Garcetti. Among my national policy and program experience are my work as Program Associate at Living Cities, my fellowship at the Office of Sustainable Housing & Communities at the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, and my internship at the Office of Political Affairs at the White House under President Obama’s administration.

What excites you most about the Nico model and the problem that Nico solves?

What I appreciate about the Nico model is that it is complex and addresses several problems. Although alternatives to wealth building beyond homeownership is always of interest to me as a person saddled with student debt, I must say that I am most excited about the current portfolio of buildings – which are all rent-stabilized. The implications are that the residents living in the building at the time Nico purchased the properties are not going to be kicked out. Unlike many multi-family properties being purchased in LA that are going through Ellis Act evictions, Nico does not employ cash for key strategies. Long term renters, many of whom are lower-income and paying below market rents, will have a landlord that balances social outcomes with financial outcomes.

What issues do you care most about in your personal life?

What keeps me in Los Angeles is family and community. I feel so lucky that my parents still live in the home I grew up in, and in the neighborhood in which I have the honor of working in. The community that raised me reflects the social-economic and cultural diversity that makes Los Angeles so special. However, it saddens me to say that diversity is being threatened by our systems of oppression, and working class communities of color are the most vulnerable, yet the heart of our community vibrancy. To the extent I can, I want to contribute in making our society more inclusive and just.

Covid-19 has been hard on most folks in different ways. What are you most optimistic about over the next year or two? What is the light at the end of this 2020 tunnel?

I’m hoping that the social injustice, which was made so evident during this period, will inspire a collective demand to restructure our society. I wish that together we can make strides that are unapologetically anti-racist and towards a path of social justice.