A Heart Needs a Home

Categories: COMMUNITY CARE: Placemaking: Housing, Transportation & Economic Support, COMMUNITY CARE: Preventing Homelessness, Donors, Philanthropy, Donor Story,

Claudia Barnett remembers the first place she truly felt at home. In truth, her address was in the small town of Leonia, New Jersey. But her heart was at home in New York. Specifically, her grandparents’ Sacandaga summerhouse in the Adirondacks. What she loved most about it was the sense of connection.

That feeling of stability and the comfort of connectivity have shaped her aspirations since those youthful summers. As an adult, Barnett devotes her efforts to helping others realize the joys of a secure home. Before that, though, coming of age in the 1960s, a complex world beckoned her curiosity and sharpened her sense of social justice.

Across the Universe

As a teenager, she spent a lot of time in New York City with friends, listening to The Beatles and developing a worldly perspective.

At 16, her mother sent her to Paris for the summer to study at The Sorbonne. “She wanted my sisters and me to be ‘citizens of the world.’ She was a traditional housewife, but these were transformative years,” Barnett said. “She wanted more for us.”

Inspired by her love of travel, history, and culture, Barnett enrolled at American University in Washington, D.C., to study International Service. On a post-graduation visit to Italy, she met a U.S. diplomat who captivated her. Within months they married, and enjoyed years of adventure overseas.

Eventually, they settled back in Washington, D.C. and had a child, Alex. She began working with real-estate agents as a freelance writer. One of the agents told her she’d make a great realtor. That’s when Barnett started her career in home sales.

A Roof of One’s Own

She was quickly connected with a developer who worked with historic properties, sparking her interest in preserving historic properties as well as new construction in historic districts, eventually forming her own business, Preservation Development Company. Her business acumen, historical knowledge, and curiosity propelled her career, as new opportunities emerged for her and her organization.

In 1991, as the country endured a crippling recession, Barnett came close to losing everything, facing economic ruin when the banks collapsed. At the same time, her husband left her, further crumbling her foundation.

Her expertise in real estate collided with her interest in social justice in the early 1990s, when she became aware of groups protesting a large homeless shelter that was to be built in a wealthy district near a local children’s recreation center.

Barnett aligned herself with advocates of people experiencing homelessness, stunned that so many people were living in the streets in the exclusive neighborhood. She got to know the mostly women who had fallen on hard times and began to realize how thin the line was between prosperity and poverty. She co-founded the Community Council for the Homeless and Friendship Place D.C., ultimately creating a separate housing organization, Community Housing Trust (CHT). With a $1,000 grant and Seller financing, CHT purchased its first home just before Christmas 1994.

‘He’s My Ringo’

Barnett’s advocacy continued through the mid-90s, when the economy strengthened, but prices remained low, enabling the purchase of properties that became permanent housing to homeless mentally ill adults in the upscale neighborhood.

“We met “nimbyism” head on and succeeded in bringing our homeless neighbors home,” she said.

She also began dating again. Jack Barnett was Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. Their common interests catalyzed instant connection. The two had been on a few dates before he invited her to a party where he was playing drums.

“I said to myself, ‘yep, he’s my Ringo.’”

The couple moved to Sarasota, purchasing a 1926 Historic Landmark built by friends of John and Mabel Ringling, which they restored. Both philanthropists, Jack’s focus is arts, and hers remains affordable housing and social justice.

“The Community Foundation is the gold standard,” she said, noting that the expertise of the Community Foundation team can help her realize her vision.

Beyond her philanthropic investments, including All Faith Food Bank, Barnett donates her talents in supporting affordable and special needs housing. She is a Fair Housing advocate and board member at Second Heart Homes, a nonprofit providing housing and support.

She recalled the story of a woman whose husband’s death drained her income. After being evicted, the woman lived at The Salvation Army for two years before taking up residency in Second Heart Home’s first women’s home.

“As soon as she was settled, she got a job,” she said. “All she needed was a safe place.”

Barnett’s work comes at a time when, in Sarasota County, 30 percent of households are rent-burdened, and an additional 544 people are documented as homeless.

“Sarasota needs to build more affordable housing, not just for homeless people,” she said. “Workforce housing is necessary, too. It’s important for the health of this community to create affordable options.”