Renaissance Groups: Celebrating 30 Years of Community-Centered Innovation

By Elizabeth Landry

Sandy Paben has always been drawn to work that helps improve the condition of people in high-needs communities, although that work has taken different shapes and forms over the years. When she came to Syracuse to attend LeMoyne College in the late 1970s, she participated in a program called Projects in the Community, which involved doing volunteer work in Syracuse’s inner-city neighborhoods. Paben eventually went on to teach at Lincoln Middle School, then served as Vice Principal and Prinicpal at several schools in Upstate New York, becoming involved in teacher and staff training focusing on technology in the classroom. In 1994, Paben created Renaissance Groups, an endeavor that allowed her to delve deeper into her true passion of helping people in high-needs communities.

“You’re going to find me in tougher neighborhoods and places where people need a lot of help. Looking back, I’ve realized I was always attracted to working in high-needs communities, but if you had asked me at the time when I started Renaissance Groups, I probably couldn’t have articulated that. This work really has such a huge social worker bent. It’s all about helping people become self-sufficient and independent and helping the world become a better place, even if it doesn’t seem like it has anything to do with that on the surface,” Paben explained.

Since those early days when Paben was finding her true calling and cultivating the company, Renaissance Groups has evolved and grown into the successful change-making force it is today, under her leadership as CEO. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Renaissance Groups is a NYS Certified Woman Owned Enterprise with offices in Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, Albany, New York City and Stockton, California.

The company operates projects in all corners of the country, specializing in three main areas: compliance services, public housing services and educational services. In the construction compliance arena, Renaissance Groups assists clients with tracking minority and women labor utilization, minority and women business enterprise utilization and Section 3 utilization. The company’s public housing clients receive support relating to Section 3 compliance, family self-sufficiency and other ROSS (Resident Opportunity and Self Sufficiency) service coordination, in addition to many other programmatic needs. Stemming from Paben’s roots in teacher and staff training,

 Renaissance Group’s services in the educational realm involve 1:1 computer programs, curriculum and other resources that directly benefit both teachers and students alike.

Elevating Communities Through Affordable Housing

Although Paben began her journey with Renaissance Groups in the education and staff training fields, she has come to be incredibly passionate about the company’s work in affordable housing. By focusing on community development through compliance and oversight of projects that are building affordable housing and improving neighborhoods, Renaissance Groups is able to make a tangible, positive impact in high-needs communities. The company partners with housing authorities, developers, and contractors in many locations in order to carry out compliance management, working to track spending and labor requirements that come along with funding sources. Affordable housing projects over the past three decades have been completed in Florida, up the East Coast to Boston, throughout New York State and even in California.

For Paben, the drive behind this work is the immediate human impact these projects have within the community. “Affordable housing is my absolute passion because it helps folks who are usually incredibly rent burdened. We encounter folks who are one step away from being homeless. The opportunity to be able to work on projects that I know are going to give people safe, comfortable housing – it really is my passion,” Paben said.

When Renaissance Groups takes on a new affordable housing project, the local community is bolstered in many ways. It’s not only the local residents in need of affordable housing that are positively impacted, but also the local contractors who come from a diverse background, many of whom are women or minorities, that receive new opportunities that expand their professional horizons. Additionally, the local laborers who work on the construction site are often paid a prevailing wage that directly benefits their financial well-being.

Recalling moments when she has experienced the direct results of Renaissance Groups’ affordable housing projects, Paben further illustrated the human impact of the company’s work. “I can remember, 25 years ago a single mom who was able to move out of an extremely unfit, deplorable apartment into a beautiful, brand-new apartment, and it still makes me cry to talk about it. This work also allows us to help people of color and women to get opportunities to bid on these jobs, and it’s absolutely life-changing for them. Recently at a conference, I ran into a former client who we helped to start a janitorial business and is getting real jobs now. He said to me, ‘This would never have happened if it weren’t for you. You actually spend time with us,’ and that’s such a big deal for me. I’ve been so blessed that I’m able to make a difference in people’s lives,” stated Paben.

Opportunities to Advance Through Green Jobs

One of the most exciting and innovative projects underway at Renaissance Groups is the recent opening of a Green Economy Lab in Stockton, California in conjunction with the Housing Authority County of San Joaquin. Utilizing a 20,000-square-foot building purchased by the Housing Authority County of San Joaquin, Renaissance Groups is offering a 5-tier training program to help people get access to knowledge and skills needed to attain green economy jobs.

Paben explained the purpose of the training facility as well as the benefits to those who participate in the program. “It’s a place where folks who don’t have an invitation to the party can get involved,” she said. “Right now, we have a 5-tier program to get access to training. For example, if someone doesn’t have a high school diploma, we’ll help them get one. We offer a customer service class. We have an EV charging station installation and maintenance class. We have an EV car mechanic boot camp in which we offer an associate’s degree needed to become an EV car mechanic. Our goal is to get these folks ahead of the curve in this industry and it’s very exciting to get them trained on how to install an EV charging station, for example, because that’s really in its infancy right now.”

Going hand-in-hand with the innovation of the Green Economy Lab, Paben highlighted that the Renaissance Groups team regularly asks for feedback from high-needs communities to find out what they need in order to take advantage of the new opportunities at their doorstep. As part of a 2019 Jobs Plus grant for the Housing Authority in the County of San Joaquin, residents identified three needs they needed help with: transportation, training, and childcare. The grant wrapped up in August of 2023 and through the support offered to the residents that addressed their needs, the average income went up 44%.

Paben explained that this feedback from the community is what kick-started a new wave of strategy to help communities participate in cutting-edge technology and become more self-sufficient. “We started to tackle these needs one-by-one. The training piece is what led to the Green Economy Lab. We’re also really focusing on the transportation piece. By the end of next year, every single public housing site in the area will have a car share service. Even though it’s based in public housing, anyone in the community can rent a car for $4 an hour or $35 for 24 hours. This service, in addition to a van carpool we’re considering, is a huge benefit to the community because the public transportation system isn’t practical for these folks. How are you supposed to get a job if you don’t have reliable transportation? I would say these projects are what really make us innovative, because we’re helping them get what they need so they’re in a position to be at the cutting edge of technology coming down the pike,” Paben emphasized.

Keeping an Open Mind in an Ever-Changing Future

With 30 years of experience under her belt, Paben has learned that a good business plan includes the understanding that new innovations and compliance requirements can change things quickly. “Even though it’s uncommon in the world of business, I’ve never really had a master plan for Renaissance Groups,” said Paben. “In the compliance world, things can change really quickly. In terms of what the future looks and sounds like, I’m following my instincts in terms of what’s coming next. If you had told me five years ago that we’d be opening up a Green Economy Lab, I would have thought you were crazy.”

One plan Paben does have for the future is to hopefully take what the company has learned through its projects in California and implement similar projects in high-needs communities throughout Upstate New York. “I’m a Syracuse girl at heart. If I can figure out a way to bring some of this back to Syracuse and collaborate with people who are forward thinking, that would be monumental,” she said.

No matter what the future holds for Renaissance Groups, however, Paben is committed to remaining true to the goal of helping the people who are at the heart of every project. According to Paben, the way to continue doing just that is by keeping an open mind and being flexible when new challenges and opportunities arise.

“I want people to stop for a minute and think about what’s possible,” Paben said. “There are so many ways to change the world. We just have to think outside the box and be innovative, and really think about how we can use the infrastructure funding that’s out there to change people’s lives. If it’s important, you figure out a way.”