Debra King, CEO and longtime director of the affordable housing nonprofit CASA, died Saturday after a two-year struggle with blood cancer.
She was a champion of the disenfranchised and dedicated her life to helping those facing a housing crisis throughout the Triangle.
"“After working side by side with Debra for 17 years, I can’t remember a single day that Debra didn’t outdo all of us in her determination to end homelessness for as many people as we could," said Mary Jean Seyda, acting CEO of CASA. "She had the vision and the passion to see what was possible. Under her leadership, we grew to nearly 500 apartments in the Triangle – and about 300 of those are in Wake County. Debra was so proud of what we had done, and she steadfastly believed that we could do more.”
When she was named a Tar Heel of the Week by the News and Observer in 2015, King said CASA is most successful when the people it helps are no longer defined by the problems they face. Most of the people who are assisted by CASA had previously faced some type of homelessness and were veterans, disabled or facing mental health issues.
“The greatest gift we can give people is the chance to be who they are without those labels,” King said in 2015. “Housing is so critical to who we are. If you lack that, how can you be OK?”
Under King's leadership the nonprofit grew from just two employees and managing 15 apartments to managing nearly 500 apartments in Wake, Durham and Orange counties, 27 staff members and an operating budget of $4 million. Tenants pay about 30 percent of their income to live in CASA apartments and also receive in-home health care and other services.
King would lead with her heart and head, said Gregg Warren, president of affordable housing provider DHIC., adding that CASA is a strong organization that will be able to continue its good work.
"She was not afraid to take on difficult projects," he said. "And she had that kind of unbending, unyielding resolve to see them through."
King had a knack for serving others with compassion and understanding, said Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane.
"As CEO of CASA, she helped people see that it is important to take care of a whole person, and that those who need housing frequently need other types of assistance as well," McFarlane said. "Talking with her, you would often hear the connectivity between housing and transportation, veterans services and a variety of other needs. Debra’s thoughtfulness on how these things intertwined is something that really stood out to me.”
Wake County Commissioner John Burns called King a warrior for people "left behind by society, a voice for the voiceless and a true hero in our community."
Born in Duplin County, King had just turned 59 and was the first person in her family to earn a college degree. She is survived by her life partner Sherry Keen and their sons Noah and Grayson Keen. A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. April 23 at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, at 1801 Hillsborough St., Raleigh.