Case Study

Cathedrals, Miracles and the Spirit of Frederick Douglass

7 min read

Thirty Years on the Affordable Housing Beat

It was while visiting a low-income high rise in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood 20 years ago that I got the thought that some affordable housing towers are secular cathedrals.

It wasn’t the design of the building, which was as workmanlike as they come. But right behind it I saw the soaring spires of the Brooklyn Bridge and I made the connection to the metaphor. And when I visited the unit of one of the elderly residents of the tower, I definitely made the connection to a sacred space. It was the function of the building, not the form, that made it similar to a cathedral. The woman’s apartment was filled with a warmth that had little to do with the HVAC unit.

 As the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association marks its 50th anniversary, I am reaching my 30th year in the field, after my then-boss at National Mortgage News started up an affordable housing newsletter in the wake of the energy ginned up by the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992. As I look back near the end of a long career, I can remember some wonderful things.

That newsletter, the Community Investment Reporter, lasted less than two years but permanently whetted my appetite for affordable housing on both the homeownership and rental sides. Since then, I have written about affordable housing for many publications, including National Mortgage News, where I was editor for many years and, in recent years, for Tax Credit Advisor, profiling dozens of case studies about the enormous number of ways the tax credit can be used to assemble affordable housing.

Another, less lofty, metaphor than a cathedral has since occurred to me when thinking about affordable housing finance. It is like a game of Twister. You put your tax credits down on the green with your left hand while your right foot goes to cover HOME funds on the yellow and your right hand reaches for construction-permanent financing on the yellow. And if you’re not skillful, the whole edifice can come crashing down.

The triumph of affordable housing is that very often, the twisting is successful. I have come to admire developers and builders who do this work not totally for the dollar (granted, they are for-profits and entitled to the fees generated by the work) but because they are animated by a passion to see people well housed.

Don’t Kill All the Lawyers
Shakespeare famously wrote, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Respectfully, I’m going to disagree with the Bard. I have seen a lot of creative lawyering in affordable housing, especially on the multifamily side. Splitting a project into separate legal entities to allow New Markets Tax Credit equity for retail on the first floor and Low Income Housing Tax Credit equity for apartments on the upper floors is a small example of legal genius.

And it can be scaled up. The amazing Sibley Building in Rochester, NY, (WinnDevelopment is the developer) for instance, was split up into ten different condominiums to accomplish its farsighted goals of retail, educational, low-income and workforce housing over a sprawling one million square feet of space. (It is partially built over a parcel of land once belonging to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, so that fact, in addition to complicated legal work, may account for the project’s good karma.)

Keeping with the sacred theme, I have seen things that might be regarded as miracles, or magic at the very least. Consider, for example, the Miriam Apartments in Chicago, a gut rehab done by Mercy Housing Lakeshore on a century-old property that was sorely in need of it. But the 66 formerly homeless women who lived there in Single Room Occupancy-type accommodations with shared kitchens and bathrooms returned to 66 studios, each with its own kitchenette and bathroom. David Copperfield is still trying to figure out how they did it.

Another type of developmental genius is going on in places like Envision Cayce in Nashville and Liberty Square in Miami. In Nashville, the stigma of big-unit public housing, scorned for its dismal towers and corralling people into low-rent districts, is being diffused. Seven hundred units of public housing are being democratically scattered among a new community of 2,500 units of public housing, affordable and workforce units, and the early finished phases are breathtaking.

In the year 2000, as the century and millennium changed, I made a survey of affordable housing around the country. In addition to the affordable cathedral described above, I saw many creative applications and passionate people. I also saw some of the most dreadful housing conditions in the country, on American Indian reservations and in the colonias that dot the United States’ border with Mexico.

The colonias were particularly wretched. Unscrupulous developers would sell lots to people (mainly U.S. citizens) who used all their money to acquire the land, and then were forced to build their own houses catch as catch can. Houses made using wooden pallets and tarpaper sat sketchily on streets with no roads or sewage, and with water dispensed from tankers. Deed-in-lieu financing, not mortgages, meant families could be evicted with as little as one missed payment. The lack of decent sanitation meant disease that should be relegated to the history books, like bubonic plague, could occur there.

Ingenious Thinking
But as always, there was ingenuity, too. I remember a place I visited in Georgia where some of the original motels in the country were built when automotive travel was new. These were sturdy buildings, more like cottages than what we would think of as motels these days. But an interstate bypassed their town and they fell into disuse until someone thought that with their sturdy bones and square-to-the-ground (no steps) architecture, they would be perfect for senior citizens. And they were.

And there was passion. I remember a loan officer for Norwest Mortgage (later Wells Fargo) who was trying to close a home loan on the Navajo Nation at Fort Defiance, AZ. There were multiple delays, and she told me she was so frustrated she was willing to go up to the site and dig the ditches herself if that would help get the pipes laid.

That house did get built, and I visited it, and it was a beauty. Imagine a hillside half a mile long with just one brand-new house, that was the scene (there was a building, a firehouse or something, at the bottom of the hill, and a cousin’s trailer in the distance). Among the family living there was a one-year-old baby. Her name was Courage. I thought that was pretty apropos. It takes a lot of courage to build the first new house on the side of a hill and get water and electricity up to it.

That house was definitely something new under the sun, though I hope it has been joined by a hillside of others by now. The grandfather of Courage told me that his cows would come up to the house and lick the windows. It was probably for the moisture, but my thought was those cows had never seen a house before and they wanted to know what it tasted like.

I’ll bet it tasted pretty good.

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.