Breaking Ground

Shaun Donovan, CEO and President, Enterprise Community Partners

11 min read

In a three-decade career, Shaun Donovan has had a profound impact on shaping the public policy debate over addressing America’s affordable housing crisis.

Shaun Donovan

He served two stints at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, first as deputy assistant secretary for multifamily housing during the Clinton administration and then as HUD Secretary during President Barack Obama’s first term. Before coming to Washington, DC, Donovan was commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development from 2004 to 2009.

As HUD secretary, Donovan led the fight against the nation’s unprecedented foreclosure crisis, advanced landmark fair housing protections, and led the strategy that dramatically reduced homelessness around the country, including cutting in half the number of veterans sleeping on our streets and in shelters.

In September 2023, he took over as president and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, one of the oldest and largest nonprofit organizations devoted to affordable housing and community development.

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Donovan to discuss his new role at Enterprise and his legacy.

Tax Credit Advisor: You took over as Enterprise CEO and president six months ago. What goals have you set for yourself and the company in your first year?

Shaun Donovan: Enterprise is committed to making a good home possible for the millions of Americans without one – with racial equity, resilience and upward mobility at the center of all we do. That goal, based on the guiding principles of our founders Jim and Patty Rouse, will remain central to my vision for Enterprise. As we move into Enterprise’s fifth decade, we face an unprecedented crisis. As I’ve traveled around the country, I’ve never seen the affordability challenges more acute and more widespread than they are today. During COVID, rents increased at the highest levels since we started keeping track. And affordability problems aren’t just confined to big cities or coastal hotspots – but also rural America, Tribal regions, small towns and cities across the country. That means we can’t solve this problem alone. We’re going to have to broaden and deepen our coalitions, bring in unlikely allies, learn from what’s working and what’s not, and reverse the skyrocketing rents that are putting a damper on not just the future of American families but on our entire economy. At Enterprise, we will expand our policy work at the state, local and national levels. We will advocate for strengthening and expanding the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. We will work to resolve the growing pressure that insurance and other rising costs are putting on owner-operators and, in turn, impacting the entire affordable housing marketplace. Most critically, we will work to ensure that people in this country have a resilient, healthy and affordable place to call home and opportunities for upward mobility. Enterprise is among the best-positioned organizations to do that moving forward.

TCA: You’ve overseen two of the largest housing organizations in the country, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation & Development and HUD. What lessons did you learn at those jobs that have helped guide you in your current position?

SD: There is no doubt that I’ve been preparing for this moment my entire career, from my days working in the South Bronx, leading New York City’s housing agency, heading up HUD and then serving as the director of the Office of Management and Budget. In all those roles, I learned that, as President Obama often says, a crisis is a terrible thing, but it’s also a terrible thing to waste. When I joined the Bloomberg administration in New York City, my hometown was crying out for new solutions to an old but growing problem: how to house millions of New Yorkers and ensure cities, like New York, would continue to be centers of economic growth and opportunity.

Similarly, when I joined the Obama administration, a mortgage crisis had left our economy and our families in serious pain. In all those moments, we knew we had to act – but do so in concert with the communities we were dedicated to serving. When we slashed national homelessness by half when I was at HUD, it didn’t happen overnight – and it required bipartisan partnership, local buy-in and serious resources to get it done. At Enterprise, we sit at the intersection of private and public, government and community, finance and advocacy. We are among the largest housing organizations in the country, and we understand local needs and can transform them into national solutions. Enterprise’s historic moment is now.

TCA: You recently contributed an op-ed to one of the most widely read publications on Capitol Hill, The Hill newspaper, that highlighted how homelessness has reached record levels in America. Given the current dysfunction in Congress, what outcome(s) do you hope to achieve?

SD: My family likes to joke that I am an unswerving—some might say incurable—optimist. There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical that this Congress, particularly during an election year and swimming in so many crises, can get anything done on homelessness or housing more generally. And yet, there’s been real progress. Bipartisan accord on strengthening the LIHTC. Three major pieces of legislation—the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS and Science Act—that, if leveraged the right way, could yield and preserve more affordable homes nationally. We’ve been working both behind the scenes and out front on making sure that the infusion of resources benefits the affordable housing sector. On homelessness specifically, while Congress might be slow-moving, we’re seeing success in turning the tide on the local level in places like Chattanooga, TN and Washington state. In Houston, for instance, the city has reduced homelessness by two-thirds by galvanizing the support of 100 local nonprofits and focusing like a laser on providing rapid rehousing for people with the highest needs. Of course, we know we can do more. During COVID, renter support and other investments kept families stable and kept property owners afloat amid some of the most difficult economic times in our country. A crisis sparked action, and all the data show one clear conclusion: that those actions had a real impact. Now our calling is to ensure that kind of action is sustained over the long term.

TCA: What role do you see Enterprise Community Partners playing in these efforts to end homelessness?

SD: Homelessness is among the most visible impacts of the failures of our housing system. Enterprise has long played a role at the local, state and federal levels to advance policies that affirm practices, like Housing First, and provide permanent supportive housing, particularly to people with high-acuity needs. We have also invested in communities across the country that support people who’ve experienced homelessness – nearly 20 percent of our Housing Credit investments have gone into permanent supportive housing. As homelessness reaches record numbers, Enterprise is prepared to support our partners and allies in doubling down on what we know works rather than attempting to sweep away the problem without providing long-term, permanent housing for all. More resources will be necessary to keep people housed and keep housing providers in business over the long term. We’re going to bat at every level to ensure that gets done.

TCA: By the time people read this, you’ll have given the keynote address at National Housing & Rehabilitation Association’s Annual Meeting. What will your message be to the affordable housing stakeholders sitting in the room?

SD: We know that the challenges facing our housing system are acute – more so than many of us have seen in our lifetimes. But we also know there’s a ton of opportunity on the horizon. The Inflation Reduction Act and the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund represent major opportunities to direct significant resources into affordable housing, and Enterprise is poised to help direct those resources and ensure they flow into deals that create and preserve affordable homes. I’ll also remind the audience that while it’s easy to focus on the Capitol Hill bickering, Enterprise and our allies are working nonstop to get the support we need from lawmakers – more HUD funding, and a stronger LIHTC platform. These aren’t going to happen overnight, but at this moment, we have a real opportunity to change the calculus for affordability. Finally, I’ll tell folks we must bring the full scope of our industry to ensure deals keep getting made and that we bring more housing online. For our part, Enterprise is a powerhouse syndicator but our real estate equity and partnership with Bellwether, not to mention our experience owning, operating and developing across the mid-Atlantic, means that we have a range of services to bring to bear to make more homes possible nationwide. It’s what we’ve been doing for 40 years and what we’ll keep doing in the decades to come.

TCA: What new initiatives are you planning for 2024? Are there areas that Enterprise is not currently involved in that you’d like to see explored over the next six to 12 months?

SD: Part of what makes Enterprise great is our ability to incubate great ideas, especially at the local level. We know there aren’t monolithic answers to all our housing problems, and Enterprise doesn’t have a monopoly on solutions. So, we seek out the folks on the ground who are making big changes and trying new things; our job is to springboard those solutions and bring them to scale. One example is our Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge, powered by Wells Fargo. We’re now in the second round of this $40 million initiative that provides grants to organizations making big changes in their communities and working to scale innovative models. From building new software to remove bias in mortgage underwriting, to modular construction solutions, to exterior prefab panels that promise to revolutionize affordable housing energy retrofits, we’re proud of our track record in seeding and scaling innovation. We’re excited to keep up our work supporting the changemakers who are making affordable housing a reality.

TCA: One of Enterprise’s more impactful initiatives has been Equitable Path Forward, a five-year program begun in 2020 that has provided developers of color with access to capital and technical assistance. Do you anticipate EPF being renewed in 2025? Do you envision opportunities for expanding the types of services under EPF?

SD: I’m not ready to break news just yet, but when we embarked on Equitable Path Forward, our vision wasn’t just over the next five years – it was to change the game for BIPOC developers and fill the capital gap in housing created by decades of systemic racism. To date, we’ve raised $400 million for our EPF Growth Fund, closing or approving some $250 million of that fund for more than 70 housing developers of color to help them grow operations, boost balance sheets and attract more than $2.3 billion in additional capital as they work to create affordable homes in their communities. We’ve also extended advisory and peer-to-peer support, deployed grants and lines of credit, and used our Standby Guarantee Fund to back up the books of smaller developers to help them secure financing. And we’ll welcome the second round of participants in our Real Estate Analyst Training program in July of 2024 – a two-year, full-time paid rotational program for up-and-coming leaders and recent business school graduates. In a few weeks, our team will head down to New Orleans to celebrate the opening of Grove Place. The community will consist of 32 homes in the city’s historic Hollygrove neighborhood, a community devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Now, a brother/sister developer duo whom we supported through Equitable Path Forward is transforming a once-neglected corner of their hometown into a vibrant community. That’s the power and vision of Equitable Path Forward.

TCA: Looking back over the past 20 years, what career achievement are you most proud of?

SD: It’s hard to point to any one victory because right now there is so much to do. And every victory that I’ve notched—from achieving more inclusionary communities in New York City, to helping guide our economy through the mortgage crisis, to ending veteran homelessness in more than 100 communities, to developing new programs and investing in affordable housing nationally—has always required great partnerships. Enterprise is built on a stable foundation of working in partnership with communities across the country. I know together we have many more victories to come.

To listen to Shaun Donovan’s keynote speech from the 2024 NH&RA Annual Meeting visit NH&RA’s On-Demand Learning Center.

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.