Joe Hagan Sees Both the Big Picture and the Tiniest Detail

9 min read

“I grew up in a family of ten in the Kennedy era. My dad, who was in construction, always said to me, ‘You need to do something good for society.’”

As much as anything, that ethos was the impetus for the tremendous leadership, innovative ideas and accomplishments Joseph Sullivan Hagan has brought to affordable housing across the country over a 40-year career. Universally known as Joe (“People are much more relaxed talking to someone named Joe.”), he recently retired as president and CEO of Chicago-headquartered National Equity Funding (NEF) after 19 years and moved back Columbus in his native Ohio. NEF is a major nonprofit syndicator of Low Income Housing Tax Credits, affiliated with the community development financial institution LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation), founded in 1979 by the Ford Foundation and a bank, several insurance companies and commercial corporation.

“A significant form of our profits are upstream to LISC in the form of grants,” Joe explains. “Over my 19 years, we’ve returned $100 million. At the same time, we’ve built up our balance sheet to continue R&D and make sure our employees do well. We started our preservation program in 2015 and it’s now over a billion dollars.”

Gaylene Domer, NEF’s vice president for facilities management, who has been with the organization for 31 years and has reported to 16 executives during that time, calls Joe, “The best boss I ever had. It’s been a great 19 years with him. You know, Joe is a big sailor, and Larry Dale, our former chairman, said he brought the same skills to NEF: He knows how to ‘sail the boat.’ He knows where he wants to go but is always prepared for the wind not blowing the way you want.”

Empathy With the Residents
A native of Youngstown, OH, Joe attended Liberty High School and Ohio University, concentrating on urban geography, political science and economics. “I should have taken more business classes,” he comments. After college, he found his passion in construction, and “naturally moved toward LIHTC. I had a real empathy with the residents,” he says. “It’s what I grew up with.”

NEF has played an integral role in creating affordable housing options, revitalizing communities and strengthening local economies. Since he joined in 2000, Joe has raised more than $14.1 billion in equity investments in 178 investment funds, resulting in 2,000 development partnerships and 220,000 affordable housing opportunities for low-income families and individuals across the country. He now holds the title of NEF president emeritus.

“Joe Hagan and his colleagues at the Ohio Housing Finance Agency saw the early potential of the LIHTC to raise capital for affordable housing,” says Peter Bell, CEO of NH&RA. “He and a small handful of Housing Finance Agency executives proactively collaborated with private sector developers to educate institutional investors on the potential of the program. He was a fixture at early forums hosted by NH&RA as the affordable housing community developed financing models, program rules and best practices for what would become the most important affordable housing development tool in the U.S.”

NH&RA President and Executive Director Thom Amdur notes, “Hagan’s career has spanned the public, private and nonprofit sectors, where he has helped transform numerous organizations into leaders in the affordable housing industry. Hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans have benefited from Joe’s leadership and creativity in affordable housing finance.”

That creativity and innovation have been hallmarks of Joe’s career. Or, as he puts it, “That’s what I’m good at: making it up as I go along!”

Luring Institutional Investors
His first foray into the affordable field took place in 1979, when he took a job as executive director of Near North Housing, a neighborhood nonprofit working on home ownership in Columbus. “When I ran Near North Housing, we got $2 million to invest in 52 buildings,” he recalls. “I thought at first that $2 million was a lot of money, until I saw how far it went. I said to myself, ‘How do we get more capital to produce more units? How can we take LIHTC to another level?’ So, then I said, ‘Let’s just make this program work better than it was even intended to.’”

Joe then moved on to become executive director of the Pickaway Metropolitan Housing Authority in 1981, and a few years later took over as director of multifamily finance at the Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA). He launched OHFA’s LIHTC efforts following passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, proving to be an early innovator and advocate at a time when it was unsure if this new program would actually produce new housing. He and his team saw the potential to help developers raise significant capital for affordable housing if they could convince institutional investors to purchase these new credits. Hagan took advantage of an obscure passage in OHFA’s authorizing legislation that allowed the agency to tap into Ohio’s “unclaimed funds,” and he used those resources to provide bridge financing that attracted two institutional investors to Ohio’s first LIHTC development in Cleveland.

After stints heading up the newly created Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing (OCCH) and Bank One Community Development Corporation (later acquired by JP Morgan Chase), Joe came to NEF at a time when the company was struggling to adjust to changing market dynamics. Under his leadership, the organization has consistently ranked among the top three equity producers annually with a focus on mission-driven investments with long-term developers and investment partners.

“When he came on, NEF was a hot mess,” Gaylene says. “We had very smart people in tune with the mission, but we were struggling. I remember, we went to a meeting with senior staff in Houston. One woman asked, ‘So, Mr. Hagan, just what are you going to do to fix this place?’

“He leaned over the table on his elbows and said, ‘I don’t have a clue. But I can tell you this: We’re all going to do it together!’ He’s open to all ideas. And he listens. And he built a great team. You walk into our offices now and you just feel the energy.” She has tremendous praise for the ways he has accepted her ideas for transforming the workplace and improving staff efficiency and moral, including open offices (“He sat at a workstation out with everyone else.”) and working from home. “He said to some of the skeptical managers, ‘What do I care where they get their work done? In college, did your professors tell you where to study? I want people to be there with their families and go to the kids’ soccer games.’ And since then, our revenue has gone up and up.”

Joe is known for his combination of big picture perspective and meticulous attention to detail. “One of our accomplishments at NEF was how we transformed the back office. It has to perform consistently for us to keep and satisfy our investors. Data systems, asset management – all the things that most people find boring, it’s all part of what I love.”

“When he goes out on a site visit, he loves talking to the residents,” Gaylene says. “And he’s like the Pied Piper with the kids. He’s usually wearing his tool belt and his hard hat, helping the maintenance staff make repairs. You don’t see many CEOs doing this.”

“I love to get my hands dirty and get to work,” says Joe.

“In a meeting, if someone is just talking figures or how to cut costs,” Gaylene says,  “He’ll say, ‘You’re missing the point. We’re here to provide something safe and affordable for people.’”

“We have a fantastic staff that is encouraged by the board to innovate,” Joe declares. “We took LIHTC and have been able to do some spectacular things with it. As an example, Debbie Burkhart [NEF national vice president of supportive housing] went to the Veterans Administration to try to do something about veterans’ homelessness. She had to come up with a plan to put tax credit deals on VA sites and explain 99-year leases to them. And we got it accomplished. There are a lot of stories like this at NEF. I think the staff sees our passion and constantly asks, ‘How can we do it better?’”

In addition to his affiliation with NH&RA, Joe also served as the president of the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition and has been honored by numerous organizations, including Fannie Mae, the Affordable Housing Investors Council and Affordable Housing Finance magazine. He and his wife Kate have been married 39 years and have two grown daughters and four grandchildren.

Joe is proud that “Our turnover rate is phenomenally low.” And despite the fact that, “I love every aspect of this business,” he says, “I’m excited about Matt Reilein taking over as NEF president and CEO. I have always said that the most important role any board of directors plays is succession planning and finding the new leader.  Reilein has experience in the Opportunity Zone team for Cresset Partners, was managing director and head of Impact Investing at O’Brien-Staley Partners and managing director of community development banking with JP Morgan Chase. Previously, he served on the executive committee of the New Markets Tax Credit Coalition and has been frequently involved with the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI) at the U.S. Department of the Treasury on market dynamics.

The day after completing his move to Columbus, Joe told Tax Credit Advisor, “Ninety days into retirement, I’m busier than when I had a job! I still have the passion to try to bring down the cost of each housing unit and keep each one affordable for even longer than the [normal] 15 to 30 years.” Then, after reflecting a moment, he said with assurance, “I know I’ll find something to do.”