Carole MacPhee started her career as an emergency response volunteer helping house needy people in 1972 after the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Agnes in her hometown of Wilkes Barre, Pa.
She quickly found that her penchant for hard work and solving problems - something that came with the turf as one of eight children in a coal mining family - fit well in the often tough, complex public housing field.
Now, after stops in West Virginia and Pittsburgh followed by two decades helping lead the Columbia Housing Corp., a nonprofit housing agency for low-income families, MacPhee, 65, is passing the baton.
"I got involved as a volunteer, and I really enjoyed it," she said about the long hours she put in after Agnes, while also caring for her two children. "Give me a project. I'll go do it and figure it all out."
MacPhee is stepping down Aug. 1 as executive director. Her successor is Grace A. Morris, 45, a former federal housing official who has served as a member of the CHC board for five years.
Columbia Housing was founded as a faith-based organization designed to fulfill founder James W. Rouse's pledge to provide housing for all races and incomes in his new town. MacPhee inherited that goal and has worked mostly behind the scenes to make it work.
"These units are basic units. But they are steppingstones to other things," she said.
That is a process she has tried to encourage, though providing affordable housing for low- and middle-income people is one of the most difficult challenges facing Howard County.
"We're the lowest rent in Howard County. It was designed to be that way," MacPhee said about the 487 rental units Columbia Housing Corp. owns and manages. That includes 300 units built in 1969 on five sites in Wilde Lake and Harper's Choice villages.
Rents range from $516 for a one-bedroom unit to $875 for four-bedroom townhouses, and MacPhee said the annual income for the average family of four is $23,400.
But despite sharply higher home prices, she is trying to get some residents into their own homes, sometimes using county programs.
In addition, Columbia Housing is planning to build an 80-unit apartment complex for low-income senior citizens on a 6-acre site in Ellicott City.
Others agree that the unpretentious woman is the kind who gets things done, and with a minimum of drama.
"I think from the get-go, she is a person who takes challenging situations and makes them into a positive," said Anne Towne, a friend of MacPhee's who is executive director of the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for human services nonprofit groups in Howard County.
"There are some people who thrive because they are creative in disasters," Towne said. "She has the ability to rise to the occasion."
William A. Ross, a member of the county's Housing Commission and a longtime affordable-housing advocate, has a similar view.
"Her personality and her knowledge make her effective," he said. "I think she's engaging. She has the kind of personality that people feel comfortable reacting and responding to."
Said Kevin J. Kelehan, an attorney who represented Columbia Housing through a successful four-year legal fight over ownership of the core 300 rental units: "She's tireless ... [and] always had her eye on the good of the organization."
For MacPhee, the challenges have not all been professional. She recalled the four years her son, Mike, struggled to overcome benign brain tumors that required four surgeries. MacPhee spent a year taking care of him before the family moved to Maryland, where her husband, Gordon, had grown up.
Once here, she spent a year working in private property management but grew weary of the travel that was required. She answered an ad for a development officer at Columbia Housing, even though she had no experience with development, she recalled, laughing.
She started as a property manager at $24,000 a year, and is leaving as executive director of a $23 million-a-year operation for which she is paid $90,000.
Columbia, she found, was a different kind of place.
"I just love the people in Columbia ... the whole environment of Columbia," she said. "There are so many opportunities here."
MacPhee said that her goal has been to help people move toward home ownership, while expanding services and keeping the 40-year-old homes in good shape.
"We require that people maintain what they have," she said. "As a whole, people value what they have here."
And although current housing philosophy favors sprinkling lower-priced homes among market-rate units, MacPhee said the concept of clusters of reduced-rent units still works.
"There are many, many success stories," she said. "It's very satisfying."
MacPhee said she also is proud of having helped establish an after-school educational program with Howard County schools that now serves 175 children in six locations around the county.