A career of hard work, serendipity and seized opportunities

‘UND changed my life,’ says Lyn Burton, founder and executive director of Affordable Housing Connections in St. Paul, Minn.

Lyn Burton (left) with Nohemy Garcia Vda Figueroa. Burton’s family hosted Figueroa’s son as an Amity Exchange teacher in 1996. Ever since her own exchange-student experience in Colombia in 1969, Burton has followed developments in the South American country and nurtured life-long friendships with Colombians. Photo courtesy of Lyn Burton.

A letter shifted the trajectory of Lyn Burton’s life.

Today, in the latest chapter of a prolific career in the housing industry, Burton is the president and executive director of Affordable Housing Connections in St. Paul, Minn., which she founded in the late ’80s.

In the mid-1960s, however, she was a student at another college in North Dakota.

“In the middle of my freshman year of undergrad school, I wrote a letter ripped out of my spiral notebook, on lined paper, and sent it to Bernard O’Kelly, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Dakota,” Burton said. “‘Dear Dean O’Kelly, I think I’m dying here,’ that is how it started.”

This was not Burton’s first interaction with UND. In 1965, while still a 16-year old in high school, she attended summer courses in English, philosophy and history at the University. Her English professor, John Hancock, took her final paper to O’Kelly.

“I heard these stories much later, but he had said, ‘We need to keep an eye on this one. She is young but has promise,’” Burton said.

Returning to high school in Grafton, N.D., for her senior year, she edited the school newspaper, taught her peers history lessons, mentored an exchange student from Costa Rica and devoured books loaned from UND’s Chester Fritz Library. She had hoped to attend UND, but lacked the scholarships she’d need.

Burton was born in Fargo but lived in Moorhead, Minn., Carrington and Jamestown, spending most of her childhood summers on her grandparents’ farm outside of Enderlin, N.D. Her mother was a single parent, making ends meet without much education. Burton had to help around the household.

When O’Kelly received her letter – a plea for help, really – he wrote back on paper crowned with UND’s letterhead. He also sent her a round-trip bus ticket to Grand Forks. When Burton arrived in town, O’Kelly met her at the station and hosted her in his home with his wife, Marcia. They talked and played Scrabble. At the time, she did not immediately recognize that the trip was an extended admissions interview.

By the end of her visit, Burton had earned a spot in UND’s Honors Program and a funding package that combined scholarships and a work-study position.

“UND changed my life,” Burton said.

A supportive environment

Majoring in English and History, Burton quickly got involved in initiatives that would transform the institution, including the creation of the combined Faculty-Student Senate, in addition to participating in the women’s and anti-war movements. Burton also excelled in the classroom, surrounded as she was by teachers who fostered her intellectual growth.

“They saw something in me that I really didn’t see at the time,” she said. “They even found a way to support my internship with the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1968. And again, they somehow found money to support me as an exchange student through the Experiment in International Living; and that was done through a community scholarship funded by women’s clubs in Grand Forks.”

As an exchange student, Burton lived in Medellin, Colombia, where she was first exposed to the notion of “the other” – which, she said, was not a typical feeling for a white kid from America. Colombia, which at the time was embroiled in a prolonged conflict between the government and various guerrilla groups, changed her outlook on life.

“Going to Colombia,” she said, “and meeting real young people who were putting their lives on the line every day to advocate for a different kind of a governmental system, one that really involved power sharing with people –it helped me name my privilege, living in the United States. No matter how little money I had, the opportunity I had to have a roof over my head, to have the support of teachers, to have access to friends, to live safely; it was just an amazing insight.”

Years later, long after that experience, Burton set up a scholarship at UND to support students in the College of Arts & Sciences who wish to study abroad.

Burton with her extended family in Bogota, Colombia in 2019, sharing with them photos and clippings from her exchange experience 50 years earlier. Photo courtesy of Lyn Burton.

A serendipitous career

Life brims with serendipity, including chance encounters that offer unexpected opportunities, some of which lay dormant until we are ready to seize them. Such was the case for Burton on a snowy night in the fall of 1969, when a blizzard confined her in a Grand Forks bar with two recruiters from the Department of Housing and Urban Development who were visiting campus.

“It turns out, they considered our staying up and drinking all night an interview, much like Bernard O’Kelly and Marcia decided that playing Scrabble all night was an interview,” Burton said.

She, however, had no plans to work for the Nixon administration. Upon graduating from UND, Burton became a cub reporter for The Forum newspaper in Fargo. But her fate was elsewhere, it turned out. A year after they’d met her in Grand Forks, the HUD recruiters tracked her down to offer her a spot on the Department’s 1970 intern class in Chicago. Burton had 24 hours to accept or decline.

She was unsure what to do. So, together with several friends at The Forum, she decided to flip a coin. Heads, she’d go to Chicago; tails, she’d stay at the paper.

Heads.

Burton joined six other interns in Chicago.

At the time, HUD was transitioning to a decentralized model as part of the administration’s plan to shift federal funding to state and local governments. Upon the completion of the internship, Burton moved to Minnesota, where, for a decade, she oversaw HUD’s Community and Economic Development Program. In her 30s, Burton was already managing $200 million a year.

“I created all sorts of wonderful, lifelong friendship, collaborative and collegial relationships with folks in state and local government,” she said.

Burton left HUD for a job in the private sector, in commercial real estate finance. At that time, she went back to school, or rather talked her way into a management program at the University of Minnesota.

“I went right from 10th-grade math to pretty sophisticated housing finance,” she said. “So, I talked my way into the Business College because I didn’t meet the admission prerequisites, given that I was this liberal arts undergraduate from UND with an Honors degree. So, I cut a deal with the Dean at the time, and said, ‘I’m an adult, I’m not asking you for financial aid. If I can’t pass the class, (knowing that I will), you’re not out anything if you admit me. And, when I graduate, I’ll give you money.’ And, he bought it. It was kind of amazing.”

Needless to say, Burton earned a graduate degree. She also has delivered on her pledge, donating annually to the U of M women’s athletic program.

At work, she opened new offices to finance affordable apartments in states from Arizona to Michigan. In her community, she sat on different boards, including those of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, the St. Paul Port Authority and the finance committee at her son’s school. Burton was the first woman to hold many of her positions.

A pivot

In the 1980s, however, Burton’s career in real estate finance seemed to crumble, along with the savings-and-loan industry. She tried to buy out the bank-owned mortgage brokerage she worked for; that failed, and she was out of work. But Burton quickly put together two plans for the future.

Plan A: Start a nonprofit to help local authorities implement new government housing programs. Plan B: Launch a home cleaning company.

Plan A it was, and Burton did not need her fallback. Instead, her organization has grown into Affordable Housing Connections, which helps local governments, housing developers, and property management companies throughout Minnesota meet the compliance guidelines of HUD and the IRS.

This fall, Burton partnered with Hamline University in St. Paul to offer a pioneering Leadership in Affordable Housing Certificate graduate course. “So, this Liberal Arts undergrad is now going to be a graduate school instructor on the business side,” Burton said. “Our target market is really students from communities that are not now represented in leadership in our industry.”

The certificate is an extension of Burton’s desire to give back and mentor others. “I’m a talent scout,” she said. “When I see talent in young people, it’s like a magnet. And I want to know them, I want to hear what their dreams and aspirations are about. I want to help them get what they want out of their life.”

In other words, Burton has become like the teachers who helped her at UND.