Joe Wishcamper Cares About Everybody

8 min read

“I came of age during Vietnam and the Civil Rights struggle, thinking about how I could do something of social value,” Lyndel J. “Joe” Wishcamper told Tax Credit Advisor in 2015. “I am very lucky that I had the opportunity to go into affordable housing; that it draws on my skill sets. And when I hire people, I look for those same values: passion not only for the business, but for the work.”

Joe was born in Amarillo, TX, the eldest of three children, to parents who came from what he describes as, “A really hardscrabble setting,” of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and lived in Amarillo until he was ten. The family then moved to Wichita Falls and then Fort Worth, where he went to high school. His father worked for the telephone company and both parents stressed education. “My family wanted me to go to college, they wanted my sisters to go. I started working, throwing papers when I was 13 years old, and as far as I can remember I worked every summer from the time I was 13 doing construction, or something like construction,” he told an interviewer in 2009 for a Bowdoin College oral history project.

Joe could have gone into any number of professions after graduating from Yale University on a needs-based scholarship and Harvard Law School, but after a stint in a law firm, “I found I just wasn’t suited to it. I needed something more tangible to sink my teeth into.” He found it working in Boston for First Realty Company and then Peabody Construction Company, and that was where he disovered his passion. He moved to Maine when a development opportunity presented itself and started his own affordable housing organization in 1976. Future Maine Senator George Mitchell represented him as a lawyer on his first project. Joe collaborated with the creators of the Section 8 program in 1974, and then was closely associated with Mitchell and his staff as they worked on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit to replace accelerated depreciation after passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. “It was a reform that needed to happen,” Joe commented for the Bowdoin project.

A Name That Carries Weight
Over the more than four decades he has been in the business, Joe has been involved in the development of more than 15,000 affordable units in 25 states, as well as numerous charities and social action initiatives, while achieving the lasting affection and respect from virtually everyone he has encountered during that time. Over his career, Joe has worked in virtually every affordable housing program, over a number of real estate cycles. His companies are noted for their dedication to tenants and resident services.

“He is a real leader in our community and countless people come to our office to seek his advice,” says Maureen Valentine, executive assistant of The Wishcamper Companies. “He cares about everybody, and he really wants to know about everybody. A lot of Joe’s employees and colleagues have gone on to form their own companies, with his full encouragement. He is my employer, but also my friend. I just consider myself very fortunate to have fallen in with him. He wants to make people’s lives better, and I just love this man for it.”

“His name carries so much weight for how the work we do will get done, with vendors, state agencies, lenders and investors and our residents” declares Bryan Shumway, director of development for Wishrock, the company that invests in and develops affordable and workforce housing through leveraging tax credits and private capital with government backed debt, grants or other soft funding sources. “Joe is always going to do the right thing, in terms of partnerships, the properties and the residents. It’s one thing to work with someone who engenders these values, but it is very, very satisfying to me to hear other people acknowledge him for it.”

And this from Joe’s son Rick Wishcamper, currently the president of Wishrock: “He’s everything to me. I can’t think of anyone I love or respect more or strive to please, to live up to and make proud of me. He has set such a high standard in development, both for profit-and-loss, and for the benefit of every resident of our communities.”

Rick also echoes Maureen’s observation about Joe’s interest in others. He’s curious about everyone, and he treats everyone with the same dignity and respect, from maintenance workers to investment bankers.”

“Joe Wishcamper has dedicated his career to serving affordable housing residents,” NH&RA President and Executive Director Thom Amdur says. “He is also a dedicated advocate for the affordable housing cause, advocating for affordable housing and community development programs in the executive branch, U.S. Congress and state legislatures.”

Bryan Shumway, who happened to interview with Joe as a MIT senior in Boston on September 11, 2001, says, “I didn’t know anything about affordable housing. Joe introduced me to it. He taught me how to go looking for the resources to do the work, how to seek out constituents and stakeholders, how to build relationships and how to get the work done; everything to do with building collaborations to seek a common goal. And I’m still continuing to learn from him.”

“I’m very proud of all the people who’ve come through the doors of my company,” Joe says.

For Joe, the business and the mission have always been inextricable. “If you want to grow your company, your reputation for the work that you do is your best selling point. We’re focused on reputation as much as anyone, and that involves dealing with people fairly and treating them with respect.”

Joe has always been deeply involved in community activities and philanthropical endeavors. He served as chair of the board of trustees of the Maine State University System, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network and the Maine Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He was a board member of the Maine Medical Center, Cumberland County Civic Center and Loring Air Force Base Redevelopment Authority, as well as a number of nonprofit organizations. He and his family support a number of nonprofit organizations, principally in the fields of education, environment and social justice.

Carol’s Influence
“I think my dad got much of his sense of mission from my mom,” Rick believes. “She’s always been so spiritually generous. She was a social worker and organizational consultant. She grew up in a loving, tight and supportive family and she’s a person with a huge heart.”

“He’s absolutely right,” Joe concurs. “Carol has been committed to social justice through the 54 years that I’ve known her. She’s had a tremendous impact.”

“Carol is the ultimate caring, loving person,” Maureen states.

Rick adds, “I’m incredibly fortunate to have won the parent lottery.”

With Carol, Joe founded Springboard to Opportunities, a nonprofit in Jackson, MS, dedicated to helping residents in low-income housing properties with resources to help them advance in education, work and life. “We went down to Mississippi right after [Hurricane] Katrina,” Joe recalls. “We acquired derelict properties with about 1,500 to 2,000 units and used tax credits to repurpose them. For the first time in my career, I encountered a population almost 100 percent poor; incredibly low-income. We were offering resident services, but I got this idea that the resident services we were providing were only semi-effective. We weren’t giving services that potentially could improve their lives and possibly escape poverty.”

Out of that came a program that makes residents true partners and central to the direction of all undertakings. Springboard to Opportunities is built on the premise that affordable housing combined with strategic, resident-engaged services can provide a platform for low-income people to advance themselves in life, school and work. As the website proclaims, “We build pathways for adults, children and families to realize their dreams.”

“The human development is inspiring,” says Bryan.

It’s been hard work,” Joe admits, “But it’s having impact. “I wish we had the time and resources to do something like this everywhere.”

Joe’s perspective on life hasn’t changed much over the decades, even though he’s stepped down from day-to-day operations. “What drives me at this stage of my life is that it’s only worth living if you have a purpose. Otherwise, you just drift. I get up every morning with some kind of desire to do more. These days, it’s largely about helping my younger colleagues. I think we should always be trying to get better and have an even greater positive impact on our residents’ lives. I want to have that impact as long as I can.”

“He could be off fishing every day,” Bryan notes. “But he’s still active. And I think that’s because of the joy he gets from the business and the relationships.”

Perhaps the simplest and most accurate summation of Joe’s life, work and values comes from Maureen Valentine, who has observed him close-up for more than 20 years: “Joe is just one of the good guys.”