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Ralph Perrey, Executive Director, Tennessee Housing Development Agency

9 min read

Ralph M. Perrey has served as the executive director of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA) since November 2012.

Prior to joining THDA, Perrey spent 12 years at Fannie Mae—the final two years as a senior business developer in the Multifamily Affordable Channel—and 14 years working for former Tennessee politician Ralph Lundquist, who represented Tennessee’s 7th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 1995 and served two terms as the 47th Governor of Tennessee from 1995 to 2003.

Perrey is the current chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Council of State Housing Agencies (NCSHA), a member of the Board of Governors of the National Housing Conference and a member of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati’s Affordable Housing Advisory Council.

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Perrey to discuss his priorities at NCSHA, his accomplishments as head of THDA and his long-term plans for the agency.

Tax Credit Advisor: The first half of your professional career was spent in politics. What attracted you to affordable housing?   

Ralph Perrey: When Fannie Mae hired me to lead its Tennessee Partnership Office, I am quite sure that had more to do with my political skill and knowledge of the state, but I was attracted to working for a company in what we called “The American Dream” business – helping people become homeowners. That’s something that eluded my parents, who were immigrants. The mission resonated with me. As I traveled the state and met people working in affordable housing, whether in an inner-city neighborhood of Memphis or in an old Appalachian coal camp, I took a lot of satisfaction in being able to help that work.

TCA: Congratulations on becoming chairman of NCSHA’s Board of Directors. What are your priorities for 2023?

RP: My priorities are the same as those enumerated by NCSHA. On a personal level, I have a particular interest in the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act (AHCIA), which enjoys considerable bipartisan support. I’m encouraged about the possibility of getting that approved this year. It’s important to us in Tennessee and as an association. I support the work of NCSHA Executive Director Stockton Williams and the professional staff, who do a great job of ensuring that state Housing Finance Agencies (HFAs) are engaged in Washington and are part of important housing policy discussions. I have found that even among people who work on housing all the time, they’re sometimes unclear about what it is that HFAs do, so any time we can raise our profile and make sure that we’re involved in important policy program decisions, I certainly want to be helpful to the staff advancing that.

TCA: You’ve been the executive director of THDA for a decade now. What achievement(s) are you most proud of?

RP: I’m proud of the team that we built here at THDA. What we have done over the course of the decade is reorient our business model, so that we have more than one way to finance mortgages for first-time homebuyers of that moderate-, middle-income range. We brought loan servicing in-house, which was important from a number of standpoints, but mainly it keeps us in closer touch with our borrowers after they become homeowners.

It’s a lot easier to work with them and keep them on track, or get them back on track if some life event has caused them to miss a payment or two. The flexibility to originate mortgages in more than one way and be less dependent on the issue of mortgage revenue bonds has also enabled us to devote far more resources to affordable rental housing development through our bonds and tax credit programs. All of that, adds up to financial strength and stability for the agency and more ability to meet our mission of expanding, affordable housing opportunities in our state.

TCA: What programs or lessons that you’ve learned from your NCSHA colleagues would you like to adopt in Tennessee?

RP: I’ve borrowed a number of good ideas from my friends. Virginia has a program that inspired me to look at our regional approach and have people based across the state to better engage with our partners. That’s worked out really well. We’re always looking at and comparing notes on mortgage products and how different states approach that. Rhode Island has some really neat ideas that we’re taking a look at. Some of my colleagues have been looking at ways to use all of the additional Weatherization Assistance Program funding and make that available for owners of multifamily properties, which would aid with preservation efforts down the road.

TCA: Is there anything from Tennessee that you’d like to see more broadly adopted among your peers?

RP: All of our agencies are just a little bit different in the way that we’re structured, and the housing challenges that we face can vary considerably from state to state. I’m happy to have people take a look at what we’re doing, and if they find something that would be useful in their state, I’m happy about that. But I wouldn’t presume to tell people, ‘This is the way you have to do it.’

TCA: You and your staff played an integral role in Senator Marsha Blackburn’s recent signing-on as the lead Senate Republican co-sponsor for the AHCIA. What advice do you have for our readers to build political support for affordable housing?

RP: Stay in touch with people and talk to them about the things you care about and the pieces of legislation of interest. We have an easy job. We focus on one set of issues around housing. Elected officials are dealing with a couple of hundred different things. We can’t assume that if we’ve told them about a bill one time that it’s going to resonate. Everybody has heard of Budweiser and Coca-Cola, but they still advertise every day. We need to be telling our story just as consistently. The success we’ve had getting the Tennessee delegation to support the AHCIA was not a one-and-done thing. We’ve been talking with all of them and their staff on a regular basis for some period of time, answering their questions, providing updated information and refreshing their memory. Over time, that pays off. Sometimes the climate has to be right as well. Housing is always an issue and concern, but a lot of times we’re sort of a background issue, while Congress and our governors deal with things that are more pressing and immediate. But now, I think, elected officials across the country are hearing more in their communities that housing is an issue, that the need to build more housing is an issue, and that gives us an opening to remind people that, ‘well, there’s this piece of legislation that we think would be very helpful.’ That, I think, has helped us solidify support from elected officials.

TCA: Rising costs have made the already difficult goal of addressing the affordable housing shortage even harder. How are Tennessee and NCSHA responding to make sure deals are getting across the finish line?

RP: NCSHA has been helpful with Treasury and getting them to extend certain federal deadlines during the COVID period, which I think was helpful. A number of states have found ways to provide additional support and subsidy for affordable housing. In Tennessee, we have provided as much flexibility as we possibly can letting people adjust the size and scope of their developments. We’ve been very generous in providing tax credit exchanges, and then increasing the amount of tax credits we’ve been able to put into some of these deals. We’ve provided similar flexibility on the bond side. But there is a limit to what we can do with these resources. I think in the last year or two, most developers have tried to build in the fact that costs continue to rise. But for just about everyone we gave tax credits to in 2019 and 2020, we provided exchanges. We provided additional tax credits. Our general feeling here in Tennessee is that these are competitive programs, and if we’ve made the decision to support your development with bonds, tax credits, and such, we’re going to do everything that we reasonably can to help you adjust to some of these cost increases and other hardships, like supply chain delays, to keep that project on track. I think we’ve largely succeeded, and the development community has been appreciative.

TCA: Are there any noteworthy changes to your Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP) application process coming in 2023-2024?

RP: I don’t anticipate that we’ll make significant changes. I think we will largely keep this year’s QAP intact but do some editing to make the document more readable. QAPs can be ponderous, so we think that will help. Otherwise, I don’t anticipate major changes from the approach we’ve taken.

TCA: What are your long-term plans for THDA?

RP: We’re coming up on our 50th anniversary. I want to ensure that we remain good stewards of the resources entrusted to us and that we make good decisions so that this agency remains financially strong and able to serve the Tennesseans we were created to serve long into the future. We have done this by reorienting our mortgage program so that we have more than one way to finance mortgages, more ability to be in the market regardless of what’s going on in the outside economy, and that we have strong earnings to be able to provide things, like down payment assistance and grants, to nonprofits that build housing. Long-term, I want us to be strong and financially stable and enjoy the confidence of the state’s elected political leadership, regardless of who’s in there, so that we can continue to serve and help Tennesseans achieve affordable housing from one end of the state to the other.

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.