Against the backdrop of a national housing crisis, Erika Poethig, MPP’96, is working seven days a week to help Americans keep their homes – a prospect she never imagined when she was a student at the University of Chicago Harris Public Policy.

Poethig joined the Biden Administration on day one as a member of the White House Domestic Policy Council and Special Assistant to the President for Housing and Urban Policy.

Joe Biden was inaugurated as president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2021, and Erika Poethig joined the administration on day one.

Taking charge in the midst of the pandemic, she and her colleagues were determined to move swiftly. Already there has been a surge of action to help renters, landlords, and mortgage holders: Emergency rental assistance was launched and an eviction moratorium extended. The White House issued an extraordinary commitment to redress the history of discrimination in housing practices. And the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was created and signed into law with a number of measures to address housing, homelessness, and racial equity.

As advisor, director, or coordinator, Poethig’s fingerprints are on all of those initiatives.

So busy are her days that Friday spills into Saturday and Saturday spills into Sunday. The work is urgent, and that’s why she signed up.

“I feel the weight of millions of Americans whose housing hangs in the balance, people who are incredibly vulnerable in this period of time,’’ said Poethig.

After a year neck-deep in problems brought on by the pandemic, Poethig brought deep and specific experience to the White House role.

In the very early days of the pandemic, Poethig anticipated serious disruption in housing. As Chief Innovation Officer and Vice President at the Urban Institute, she convened the Renters Crisis Working Group to focus immediate attention. Ongoing since last March, 60 to 70 members show up for a weekly call to consider research and on-the-ground practices.

“This helped early to clarify, hone, and sharpen the policy options,’’ Poethig said. “It prepared me well for understanding all of the dimensions associated with the renters, and also the landlords and the financial institutions that lend to the landlords.’’

First anecdotally and then confirmed by data, a racial equity component emerged.

Approximately half of the rental housing in the U.S. are small properties – single-family houses, two-flats, four-unit buildings. Often a homeowner occupies one floor of a two-flat and rents out the other. It’s been a pathway to building wealth, especially for many people of color, Poethig said.

Analyzing data provided by Avail, a Chicago-based company that works with small landlords, it became clear that the renters affected by the pandemic – low- to moderate-income people who lost employment – were disproportionately people of color and disproportionately living in small rental properties. And the landlords facing the greatest challenges with accumulation of back rent were also disproportionately people of color.

“Whether you look at it from the standpoint of the renter or the landlord,’’ Poethig said, “the pain, financial instability, and long-term consequences to wealth building are primarily occurring in communities of color.’’

Poethig credits her parents and Hyde Park upbringing with her sense of mission, and she attributes her evidence-based approach to policy to her education at Harris Public Policy.

Pre-pandemic family outing: Erika Poethig with her husband Ray Sendejas, in the UChicago shirt; their sons Sam and Benjamin; her father, the Rev. Richard Poethig; older brother Scott Poethig; sister-in-law Maja Bucan; and nephew Luke.

Poethig had been intent on pursuing a graduate degree in public policy, but was torn between two schools.

Harris Public Policy offered a return to Chicago and the rational actor theory, “very much at the other end of the spectrum of how I think about policy.’’ She chose Harris.

“I thought, you have to be steeped in the Friedman theories of economics in order also to challenge some of those theories and their application to policy.

“I was attracted in part by the rigor of the school and the rigor of an education that, frankly, challenged my own way of thinking.’’

Over the years she’s compared her own education to that of colleagues. Poethig finds that Harris always wins.

“I definitely got the rigor. I’m not going to say it was easy; in fact, it was actually really hard. But it certainly prepared me well.’’

Poethig’s husband, Ray Sendejas, MPP’98, is also a Harris graduate. They did not overlap but it was the Harris Mentor Program that brought them together.

Her mentor was Liz Hollander, the first woman to serve as Chicago Planning Commissioner. As inaugural executive director of DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center, Hollander offered Poethig an internship. Sendejas also was an intern there. Poethig and Sendejas met at the Palmer House Hotel on Feb. 15, 1995, at an event launching the Center. 

“It was a conversation between Father Egan and Studs Terkel. You can’t get more Chicago than that,’’ Poethig said. Knowing that her husband is within earshot, she adds in good humor, “Of course, he does not remember this.’’

Married in 1999, Erika Poethig and Ray Sendejas held their wedding reception at Ida Noyes Hall at the University of Chicago.

Like many American families these days, theirs is a Zoom life, working from their Arlington, Va., home while Benjamin, 8, and Sam, 18, study nearby.

They have developed their pandemic patterns. Erika and Ray try to take a walk each day to make up for steps lost. Erika knits, progressing from baby blankets to a sweater she’s making now for her Transition Team deputy.

Each night the four of them come together to play Mario Kart for 20 minutes or so.

“Sam points out that Joe Biden also likes Mario Kart, and so I need to up my game in case there’s ever an occasion where I might be playing against the President.’’

Erika Poethig with her Harris roommate and dear friend Katherine Wolfe, who passed away a few years ago. Katherine helped Erika and her family move into their new home in Arlington, Va., when Erika joined the Obama-Biden Administration in 2009.

Poethig considers herself a Chicagoan. She is especially loyal to Lakeview Presbyterian Church. “We’ve missed it tremendously the last 11 years, but the pandemic has allowed me to tune in every Sunday.’’

But working virtually has its drawbacks.

“You’re taking over the largest organization in the world and you’re starting virtually. It’s really tough,’’ said Poethig who’s been setting up 30-minute chats to learn about people’s backgrounds and personal lives.

“As unsatisfying as that might be, it’s foundational. I’m one who believes – like the President – that it’s important to have a personal relationship with someone so that you can navigate when you get to those difficult junctures.’’

Poethig interacts regularly with dozens of people. As White House lead for housing and urban policies and programs related to economic mobility, she works across agencies including HUD, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Treasury Department.

Poethig’s work on housing and urban issues intersects with every policy sector.

“So much is related to economic insecurity, the racial divide, and the structural racism that creates some of that uncertainty and divide,’’ Poethig said. “It is very much a holistic approach, working hand in glove. I collaborate daily, hourly even, with colleagues at the National Economic Policy Council.’’

Poethig was at HUD during the Obama Administration, grappling with a national housing crisis then, too. The mortgage and home ownership crisis was just taking hold when she moved from Chicago to Washington 11 years ago.

During the Obama Administration, she was the leading architect of research, modeling, and experimentation that led to the White House Council for Strong Cities, Strong Communities, applauded in urban policy circles as an innovative approach in considering how local and federal governments together tackle issues arising from dramatic economic and demographic change. Her partner in that project was Derek Douglas, then a member of the Domestic Policy Council and now Vice President for Civic Engagement and External Affairs at the University of Chicago.

Erika Poethig and her mother, the Rev. Dr. Eunice Poethig, at Harris Follies in 1996. Erika created the Follies, sang “Blue Moon’’ as her mother accompanied her on piano.

Poethig’s parents, her greatest inspiration, were Presbyterian ministers committed to mission and service. She was born in the Philippines as they finished 15 years working there for the Presbyterian Church. Her father worked on housing policy, organizing squatters into unions to claim land rights. 

“My parents imbued everything with meaning,’’ she said.

Their influence combined with the experience of growing up in Hyde Park and attending neighborhood public schools during the 1970s and ‘80s, fully exposed to economic and racial segregation and the implications of structural racism, pushed her to pursue a profession of purpose.

She recalls once interviewing for a job with a consulting firm. She asked the interviewer how the company defined success. The answer was profit.

“I knew I just couldn’t put that suit of clothing on for myself. Mission is really important to me.’’

Advising the President puts Poethig at the top of her game in the policy world. For Poethig, though, it’s not about that and it’s not about politics.

“It is about serving the President and being aligned to the President’s agenda and caring deeply about the policies he decides to pursue.

“And it is also about serving my fellow citizens and serving my country in this time of crisis.’’