If you hold a Certified Occupancy Specialist (COS) designation you might wonder where it all began. Even if you have never wondered, it is still an interesting story.

Back in the early days of federally assisted rental housing the rules were not nearly as complicated as they are now. For example, determining tenant eligibility and household rent was essentially done on one sheet of paper that required entering just a few lines of information. That all changed in the 1970s and early 1980s when Congress made sweeping revisions to the laws governing how federally assisted housing was to be administered. Those changes ultimately led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to issue several directives to the owners and managers of HUD-assisted housing, including what every “COSer” knows as the bible of HUD occupancy, the HUD Handbook 4350.3.

By 1981, NCHM’s then Director of Training, MaryAnn Russ, could see what was coming. She made the case to the then NCHM leadership that the new rules were so complex, that every manager in America would need to be trained or else chaos would ensue. Ms. Russ set out to develop the detailed instruction that would be needed to help the industry prepare for the coming complexities. When new executive leadership took over NCHM in 1981, Ms. Russ had to make the case all over again. She found an ally in the newly elected Chairman of NCHM’s Board of Directors, Mr. John J. Burke, Jr., a Milwaukee real estate developer and owner/agent of several HUD-assisted properties. It only took Mr. Burke one look at the mountain of new HUD regulations to see that Ms. Russ was on the right track and he gave her the green light to keep working on the training. After several months of hard work Ms. Russ completed the development of NCHM’s “4350.3 Occupancy Workshop,” which would later become known as “Certified Occupancy Specialist”. (Credit also goes to many HUD staffers led by Mr. Conrad Egan who were extraordinarily helpful and supportive during the process).

While the training program was ready there were two major obstacles in the way of getting it out to the field. The first was that, at the time, NCHM didn’t have the extensive mailing list or name recognition necessary to make owners/agents aware of the need for, and availability of, the training. Mr. Burke solved that problem by negotiating a partnership with a well-regarded national property management professional organization (the name of which will go unmentioned for a reason that will become understandable in a moment.) Under the arrangement, this unnamed organization would handle the marketing of the new program and NCHM would provide the training materials, training design, and trainers.

The second hurdle to overcome was the fact that the training was not considered by HUD to be a “project eligible expense.” This meant management agents would have to pay out of their own pockets for training of on-site management personnel, something it was felt many agents would be loath to do. Mr. Burke resolved that issue by convincing HUD leadership to issue a nationwide letter to Owners/Agents declaring that the training was an eligible project-level expense for all “front-line” personnel.

With these two obstacles behind it, NCHM and its partner announced the first training in late 1981 and the response was remarkable. Over 1,000 managers were trained in the first year, a feat unheard of in the property management industry at the time. It was Ms. Russ and Mr. Burke’s belief that there would be demand for the training on an on-going basis, particularly as new professionals came into the industry and as rules changed over time. Quite to Mr. Burke’s astonishment, NCHM’s partner didn’t see it that way. As the unnamed organization’s chief executive officer put it at the time: “John, you trained every manager in America. This is a one and done deal.” Today we know how wrong the gentleman was. The changes that have emerged from Congress and HUD over the years have been nearly relentless, starting most notably with the 1993 Housing Urban-Rural Recovery Act, which changed the definitions of income, the statutory deductions and the methods of rent collection, and continuing today.

As a result, over the span of four decades more than 100,000 housing professionals have attended what is now known as the Certified Occupancy Specialist (COS) course. The training program and associated certification are now the gold standard in the affordable housing industry. Even the COVID-19 pandemic could not deter property managers from seeking out the most successful training in the history of affordable housing, with more than 200 attending the on-line version of the class each month.

And it wasn’t just COS. COS spawned COS-P (for Public Housing), COS Advanced, Certified Voucher Specialist (for the Housing Choice Voucher program), and eventually, its younger sibling, Tax Credit Specialist (for the Section 42 Low Income Housing Tax Credit program). All together nearly 10,000 students a year now attend NCHM classes. And we owe much of that success to the vision of Ms. Russ and the tenacity of Mr. Burke.

On April 21, 2022, NCHM will celebrate its 50th birthday. As we look to the next half century it is important that we look back at the lessons learned from the first 50 years. Ms. Russ and Mr. Burke taught us that high quality training together with high standards for certification can empower a generation of housing professionals with the skills needed to administer America’s affordable housing programs fairly and effectively. It is a lesson that we at NCHM do our best to apply every day. And it is a lesson that is at the heart of why COS has been the gold standard for fifty years.

Footnote: Ms. Russ went on to an illustrious career in affordable housing serving in a variety of capacities, including most notably as the CEO and President of the Dallas Housing Authority and as HUD’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Public and Assisted Housing Operations. She continues to share her expertise as a consultant and advisor to others in the affordable housing industry.

Mr. Burke had an equally distinguished business career and served as Chairman of the Board of NCHM from 1981 until his passing on January 25, 2019.

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