KEOSHA BURNS: An Extrovert in Quarantine

Keosha Burns is a total extrovert. She loves the big city. Even her dog is a big city kind of guy. They found their happy place in the heart of New York City.

That is, until the pandemic hit. Now, New York City is locked down tight. So, they are taking a break down south.

On March 14, Burns and her French Bulldog, Winston Charles IV, headed to Charlottesville, Virginia, to find a little breathing room, away from the pandemic.  We reached her on April 9, on her cell, out in the garden, working remotely.

Keosha Burns, center, speaking at #NEXTDC19, November 2019, Washington DC.

Like most of us she’s been living life under quarantine, far from New York, in a strange state (geographically speaking), missing the buzz of the big city.

When they are home, Winston, a 3-year old, 31-pound Frenchie, loves his walks in Marcus Garvey Park (where he’s something of a celebrity.) On good days (say, two/three months ago), they would stroll down 125th Street near their place, past the Whole Foods, on the way to the park.

Home is an apartment with a sun-drenched terrace, in a quiet, residential neighborhood near the Apollo Theater in Harlem. On typical days, they would welcome the early

morning sun out there on the terrace. She would keep the door open and he would position himself to catch the rays. (Nice division of labor.)

But for now, Keosha and Winston are staying in Charlottesville with a friend, waiting out the worst of the pandemic.  For a big city girl (and her trusted companion), life is far from normal right now—but welcome to this very strange, global moment we’re having.

Keosha Burns has been vice president of public relations for Chase Home Lending for more than three years. She’s made a name for herself as a highly visible media figure putting the spotlight on inroads in home buying being made by millennials, minorities and single women, especially.

She’s a gifted media strategist with an empowering story.  And she’s been out there telling it—at least she was, until the story lines shifted out from under her.

Her primary message had been: If you are young and single, with a good job and the ability to save, you really don’t have to wait to buy a home. You certainly don’t have to be someone’s wife or mother, first. Just go for it. “Practice the payment,” she would counsel, to help the uncertain prove to themselves they could handle a mortgage payment.

The message was resonating until COVID-19 crashed the party. In a televised interview for a financial program, Burns cited National Association of Realtors data that showed in 2019, single women made up 17 percent of home purchases versus just 9 percent by single men.

But now, since housing market conditions have changed, the messaging must change as well.

Massive waves of furloughs and layoffs will hit younger workers the hardest, putting home buying on hold for many.  So now it’s time to counsel existing owners on ways to keep their homes, if incomes have been compromised. And it’s time to help future buyers preserve their credit, for when the sun comes back out on the housing market.

Fortunately (an odd word for the present), Burns has experience with this kind of moment. She cut her teeth in crisis communications at Fannie Mae just as the fallout from the last big mortgage meltdown started wreaking havoc.

A four-year stint at Fannie Mae, during the era of HOPE NOW exposed her to the troubling logistics of trying to prevent massive delinquencies and foreclosures.  Burns says she “spent 3 ½ years on the road” in the trenches with the HOPE NOW team organizing homeowner events to save thousands of homes from foreclosure.

Now she’s seeing it happen all over again. “This feels very familiar to me,” she says.

But before we get to that, let’s go back and meet a young Keosha Burns. Let’s see what shaped her thinking before she knew anything about loan modifications, or down payments–or really, even, adulting.

Growing up

Burns calls herself a city girl.  She’s lived in and around quite a few cities (Austin, Dallas, Washington, DC)—ultimately gravitating to the Granddaddy of them all—Manhattan.

But that’s not the coast she’s from originally. She was actually born in Southern California, in Oxnard, about an hour north of Los Angeles.

Her family moved to Austin, Texas when she was little, and she spent most of her time growing up in that uniquely artsy mecca. “Keep Austin Weird” is the city’s motto for a reason. The place is internationally known for its thriving music scene and a world-class indie culture vibe.

Burns says she went to more concerts before the age of 18 than most people do in a lifetime. She listens to “everything,” and appreciates all kinds of music. “It’s a huge part of my personality.”

But Austin has changed from its early indie roots, she says. And that’s probably nowhere more evident than at the huge annual musical happening known as South by Southwest (SXSW). (It’s gone completely virtual this year, another casualty of COVID.)

“Today, Austin has less of an organic feel,” she says.

Burns left Austin to attend college in the Dallas area, at the University of Texas at Arlington, where she majored in communications and public relations.

But, Burns “fell in love with DC” during her sophomore year in college. She ultimately moved to Washington two weeks after graduating.

What is it about cities for her? “I love the big city vibe. I’m not interested in living in the burbs. I like the fast walking/fast talking life,” she says.

Her first job out of college was with the Financial Services Roundtable (FSR), a well-respected advocacy shop for large financial institutions led by high-powered and well-connected Washington insiders. When she came on board, former Texas Congressman Steve Bartlett headed up the FSR. He was also a former mayor of Dallas.

Burns joined FSR and stayed for three years, just as the financial crisis was starting to hit like a tidal wave. Crisis communications “quickly became a specialty,” she says.

Influences

Who helped her gain entry to such powerful places in Washington? Who was instrumental in her career?

“I’ve been surrounded by smart, determined and giving women my entire life,” she says.

Keosha Burns, speaking at #NEXTWINTER20.

During her last few years in college, she worked for a political consultant who got her that very first job in D.C. And she also remains close to her first boss at FSR, whose house she is staying at in Charlottesville.

But mentors and influences come in many shapes and forms. And the nation’s capital, certainly, has its own unique brand of them. Many doors have been opened there for people who know people.

If you like newsmakers and name brands, there’s plenty to pick from in DC. But for the most part, they’re political figures—not quite as buzzy as Hollywood celebrities.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about Michelle and Barack Obama—who basically transcend the category.

Burns got to watch both these superstars when they first arrived in Washington in January 2009. And if you are a young, professional, black woman, it doesn’t get much better than Michelle Obama. But let’s hear Burns tell about it.

It was the day before Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Burns had volunteered to help at a children’s concert that was part of the inauguration ceremonies. At the rehearsal, she turned around and saw Michelle Obama coming down the hallway. “She was tall, gorgeous and personable.” She greeted everyone just like she was a normal person. That blew Burns away. This woman who was about to become First Lady of the United States was just casually saying hi to everyone.

Burns also got to see Michelle Obama in action two other times on special tours. Burns says seeing a black woman on stage, who is so widely admired and accomplished in her own right, is “so powerful.”

And seeing her at that early stage in her own career, “it was huge,” she says.

“I absolutely love Michelle Obama, she’s one of my favorite humans on the planet,” she says, in case there is any doubt.

But what else in her career is she proud of? What helped her find a meaningful career path?

“The work I did at Fannie Mae during the financial crisis,” is among the career achievements of which she remains most proud. She was part of the Making Home Affordable team in the very early days trying to help countless people save their homes.

“The stakes were really high” for thousands of regular people. She remembers seeing lines down the block at homeowner events with people desperate to talk to a foreclosure avoidance counselor. Her team ended up saving many homes from foreclosure.

She also gives a shout out to industry veteran Faith Schwartz, then executive director of HOPE NOW and now president of Housing Finance Strategies. Burns says Schwartz was a great teacher during those early years when HOPE NOW was writing a new rule book to ward off massive waves of foreclosure, as the crisis was sweeping the country.

Burns says, “I learned so much from her.”

There’s no doubt that HOPE NOW was a ground-breaking alliance. It was created in August 2007 and brought together federal government departments, government-sponsored enterprises, and private industry to deliver loan modifications and foreclosure-avoidance solutions on a massive scale.

But in terms of influences on her career, Burns says, it’s not just people. It’s also the companies you work for that can influence you.

She says, “I’m proud of the career I’ve built. And I’m proud to work in big organizations that still focus on the human side of homeownership. They may be large companies, but they still maintain a large share of empathy for people.”

A unique approach

Pre-COVID, Burns’ focus had been on creating new media strategies to encourage young people to buy homes. One of her specialties was finding and working with the messengers young people actually listen to.

She has worked with people like Drew and Jonathan Scott (aka the Property Brothers from the HGTV show). She’s done quite a few media events with them and their production company. The twins are “really cool” and “fun.” Burns says they are actually as nice in person as they seem on the show.

She also produced a video series for Chase with social media influencers talking about homebuying. She called the series Adulting: Home Edition. So far, featured guests have been: Jade Kindle (@LIPSTICKNCURLS), Krista Robertson (COVERINGBASES.COM) and Anitra Pearson (@NITRAAB)

She told us: “I love that project.”

But she had “to fight pretty hard to get [the series] made,” she says. It features individuals with sizeable online audiences, but whose content is more about style and design than finance. They weren’t what many would consider typical trusted industry advisors, she explains.

To get a green light, she had to convince higher-ups, who were not typical consumers of social influencer content. Success came about two years ago, when she got the go-ahead. The video series had “10 million views in the first few months.” It was “very successful,” she says.

Burns has some other ideas for changes she would like to see in homeowner-related television shows (say, on HGTV, perhaps).

She’d like to see fewer shows aimed at the end-stage, glam-design-part of shopping for a house. Typically, most shows follow the host and would-be buyers through lovely neighborhoods, with mature trees and big yards. They go house-to-house, comparing hardwood floors, plotting walls to tear down, drooling over massive marble kitchen islands, picturing their shoe collection in cavernous walk-in closets and debating ranch versus Cape Cod.

None of it, she notes, focuses on the hard stuff, like how you’re going to buy the house in the first place.

She would like at least a few shows that feature “a realistic set of buyers.” That talks them through real loan programs, down payment amounts and ways they can qualify. (In fact, that’s the show she’d like to do for HGTV.)

Day to day

But how has the crisis changed what she does day-to-day?

Her time is still mostly spent on the phone with reporters. But the virus-triggered shift in story lines has her walking reporters through the vast complexity of the mortgage business and the secondary market.

She says, the first few weeks were “wild.”

And Burns is hearing from a whole different crew of reporters.

It’s not the usual real estate/banking/housing beat reporters. Now it’s more general assignment reporters who know next to nothing about the mortgage market. They know even less about distressed servicing, forbearance and the secondary mortgage market. (What is the Federal Housing Finance Agency, anyway?)

It takes a lot of verbal hand-holding to help these reporters get a grip on a intricate subject.

But better to talk to a reporter than nobody at all. (Remember she’s an extrovert.) This quarantine stuff has been hard. “Not being around people is tough for me.”

She’s come up with a few coping strategies. Quarantine life has meant listening to a lot of music. (She has Instagram-posts by James Blake, an English musician, playing on repeat.) And she’s mixing in a little bit of mid-day meditation to keep things chill.

Burns also loves TV. We know because we asked if she was tired of binge-watching shows on Netflix. “I love TV. I don’t ever get sick of it. TV has always been my go-to,” she says.

She watches everything from serious documentaries about World War Two to the mindlessly addictive shows on Bravo (think Real Housewives and Top Chef). And she’s really happy that “Our Queen Oprah has come back on the air with Oprah Talks on Apple TV.” (I have to second that. I just watched an Oprah’s Master Class video interview on YouTube with James Taylor and it was awesome.)

This extroverted side of her maybe explains why homeownership is such a good fit for her. Buying a home is all about helping people achieve a milestone. And, as she says, “A big passion of mine is helping people.”

She notes, “As a PR person, you have to be a subject matter expert.” She adds, “I have to give myself credit, I do a good job in talking about this in relatable terms.”

Helping reporters get the word out about how to get mortgage relief is priceless right now. It can mean saving a home for a family in the real world. Being able to put that “in relatable terms,” is huge.

She says, for her, it comes down to: “I have to turn on that side of my brain again,”

Luckily, the switch is right there ready to flip.

But how about we get back to something lighter? Where’s Winston when you need him?

Winston’s fan base

As much as Winston is family, the rest of Burns’ family lives on the other side of the country. She has been thinking about the significant distance between them.

Keosha and her French Bulldog, Winston Charles IV, loving life in Harlem, New York

And even though she talks to her mom and cousins every day, it’s not quite the same, she says.

Could she see herself ever leaving New York and moving somewhere on the West Coast? What about Winston’s fan base—could she come between him and his peeps?

Well, not if it’s up to him.

It’s true that Winston is not a native New Yorker–but he comes close. Burns got him as a small puppy three days before she received a random call about a job opening in New York. She obviously took the job.

Now, “he’s absolutely a New Yorker.” She says, “He knows everyone in the neighborhood.” And, no surprise, “He’s very, very popular with the neighbors.”

Burns says he’s “definitely a big boy.” At 31 pounds, “he’s solid and muscular,” but “not fat, yet,” she says.

Part of his weekday routine is going with his dog walker over to Marcus Garvey Park. Burns says all the kids and babysitters who are regulars at the park’s playground know his weekday dog walker better than her—and they all love Winston.

When Burns took him to the park one Saturday afternoon, she heard someone yelling “Winston!” The person didn’t recognize Burns because she wasn’t Winston’s usual daytime walker. It was then she realized her dog was a celebrity at Marcus Garvey, and she was merely a stand-in in his entourage.

She’s been surprised by how good he is with little kids. She worried, at first, because he is so heavy and strong. But he is really careful about not jumping up.

Then she figured out why. “He hangs with a bunch of pre-school kids during the week when he goes to the park with his walker.” They are his peeps.

Burns concluded, “He has an entire life I know nothing about.”

But that’s part of being a celebrity in New York City (perhaps she should start reading Page Six).

And good luck getting him out of Manhattan for anything but a brief sojourn in Virginia. His homies will be really happy to see him when he gets back. Maybe he’ll get his own show on Bravo.

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