Isay Gulley was 7 years old when two men stood on the porch of her farmhouse and gave her mother a warning.
Her father had recently moved away, and the Black family was not welcome to stay in this part of Shorter, Alabama, where the Ku Klux Klan was rampant. They had until the next day to get out or the men threatened to burn the house down.
Gulley, her sister and mother found a cottage a few miles away, where the girls chopped cotton for $2 a day to help pay the rent. While other children started school that August, Gulley and her sister waited until October, so they could finish the harvest.
”That’s why homeownership was always the goal for me, because ours was taken away from us,” said Gulley, 74. “That’s why, in my role here, it’s a mission and a purpose.”
With her passion for giving others a sense of security, Gulley estimates she’s helped more than 10,000 people through homeownership education, rehabilitation assistance and new construction. That’s after 41 years with Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services, 31 as CEO. As she retires next week, the nonprofit that began in 1979 and expanded to three counties is preparing to broaden its impact across Tampa Bay.
By August, the organization will rebrand as Tampa Bay Neighborhood Housing Services to better reflect its role throughout Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, said Joyce Aldridge, who will serve as interim CEO until the board of directors names Gulley’s successor.
No area has benefited more from Gulley’s work than Clearwater’s North Greenwood neighborhood. It’s where she moved at age 13 to live with her father after her mother died from a stroke.
Gulley grew up there in the 1960s, when North Greenwood was a hub of Black entrepreneurship and community. As some residents and businesses left, drugs infiltrated the neighborhood. Blight replaced the hub of shops, markets and a theater.
Gulley made it a mission to fight back in the 1990s with the power of homeownership. Of the 256 houses built by Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services, 85 percent have been in North Greenwood. Those tidy single-family homes have replaced junkyards, boarded-up structures and drug houses.
Activist Muhammad Abdur-Rahim said Gulley’s decision to focus on North Greenwood helped mobilize longtime residents to reclaim the neighborhood.
“If I could use one word to describe her it would be legendary,” Abdur-Rahim said.
Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services launched as an affiliate of NeighborWorks America, a congressionally chartered nonprofit focused on affordable housing. It began with a priority on the South Greenwood neighborhood’s rapidly declining housing stock.
After graduating from Pinellas High, a segregation-era school for Black students, Gulley worked in social services and administration. She later joined the Coast Guard Reserves, where she’d serve for 22 years.
When she took a job at the nonprofit as an outreach officer in 1980, she said it felt like a calling, given her start in life.
“I was concerned about changing lives in the community,” Gulley said.
Gulley worked her way up to assistant director and then CEO in 1990, where she expanded the group’s services into Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
Frank Cassara was a branch manager at SunTrust Bank in the early 2000s when he worked with his first client from Gulley’s organization: a mother who needed financing to rebuild her home to accommodate two children in wheelchairs.
On the day of the ribbon-cutting, Cassara saw the impact that a home with wider hallways and ramps had on one family. As the mother embraced Cassara, he looked over at Gulley standing in the front lawn. “Count me in,” he told her.
Twenty years later, now a commercial banker with Centennial Bank, Cassara serves as treasurer on Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services’ board of directors and teaches first-time homebuyer classes to clients of the nonprofit.
“It has made me a better person,” Cassara said of his work with Gulley. “The ability to give back and be a part of something that’s growing and thriving, it’s become the best part of my personality.”
As the organization saw success in home building and housing education, Gulley agonized over the then-Greenwood Apartments, what she called “a cancer” in the middle of their efforts. The 225 units relied on plumbing from the 1950s. Appliances were rusted. The complex had become a haven for drugs and crime.
Gulley recruited Bank of America to help acquire the property in 2001. With seven partners, including Clearwater and Pinellas County, the group completed a $16 million makeover in 2003. The rebuilt and renamed Palmetto Park Apartments featured 179 two- and three-bedroom units with modern appliances, clean landscaping and a sense of pride.
Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter credits the transformation as the catalyst for moving violent crime out of North Greenwood. While neighborhood leaders are still battling an element of drugs and poverty, violent crime there is now no higher than any other neighborhood in the city, according to Slaughter.
Gulley, he said, is “a visionary in the sense where she’d cut past hostility and really get to the root of the problem.”
Her work got the attention of then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, who appointed her to three statewide housing and economic boards in the 1990s. Residents have worked to honor her over the years as well.
She saw that a bar on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue had become a nuisance, so her organization bought it in 2003 and converted it into a business center. Today, it is home to Pinellas County Head Start, which bears the name Isay M. Gulley Center.
Her reach went beyond housing.
When the United Way Suncoast was looking to do outreach in North Greenwood in 2011, Gulley proposed that a police substation on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue be used for youth services. Since then, the United Way has helped more than 300 students through after-school mentoring and dual enrollment classes, according to senior manager Paula Kay.
“She’s a connector,” Kay said, “that’s what she does.”
In 2016, Slaughter asked Gulley to travel to Washington, D.C., to speak at a police conference on building trust in communities. It came in the wake of nationwide scrutiny of law enforcement following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the same year Slaughter became chief.
“As I was trying to navigate community conversations, I trusted her counsel,” Slaughter said. “A lot of leaders will say, ‘We need to talk more and have conversations.’ But she made those conversations happen and focused on making things better.”
Throughout her career, she became a confidant for other community leaders, like Mayor Frank Hibbard, who sought her input when he first ran for office in 2001.
Last week, Hibbard presented Gulley with a key to the city in a surprise retirement ceremony at the Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services office on Garden Avenue. It’s an honor reserved for people “with longevity, with a track record of giving throughout their entire career,” Hibbard said.
“There was never anything political that really came into it. It was what are we going to get accomplished together,” he said. “She’s one of those people that when she calls and wants to talk, you really listen.”
Looking back on her career, Gulley points to one feat she hasn’t accomplished. People over the years always bugged her to run for City Council, especially in a town where so many elected officials have been white men from the business world.
But while CEO of a nonprofit that often received grants or housing loans from the city, she thought local politics would be a conflict of interest. Not any more. She’s considering a run in March, when two council seats will be up for grabs.
“It’s not mission impossible; now I’m a free agent,” Gulley said of running for City Council. “It’s always been a goal of mine,” she said.
In retirement, Gulley is not likely to stop community outreach, just like a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2018 didn’t keep her from the office for more than three weeks. Now cancer-free, she’s focused on spending time with her husband of 55 years, Donald, their four children, 12 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
“Life is a book of chapters,” Gulley said. “This is a chapter that is coming to an end as far as CEO, but it doesn’t end me being involved in the community.”