Love Among the Ashes

4 min read

WODA saves destroyed Baltimore housing

“I’ve been in the affordable housing business for more than 30 years and always thought this was a close-knit community, but what happened in less than 24 hours was amazing,” says David Cooper, of the WODA Group, a nationally recognized company that specializes in affordable housing and has offices in five states.

Cooper, a principal of the company who shares day-to-day operating responsibility with Jeffrey Woda, was wrong. It took only a few hours.

The hours:
3:30 pm, Monday, April 27: Cooper, who has flown in from Ohio, checks into Baltimore hotel; he is scheduled to meet at the Mary Harvin Center construction site the next morning to receive a million-dollar draw from Capital One.

Planning and financing the Mary Harvin project, a community affordable senior housing facility owned by an affiliate of The WODA Group and located next to the Southern Baptist Church, had taken more than half-a-decade. The church spent several years assembling and rezoning the land and then sold it to The WODA Group. Financing was complicated and included low income housing tax credits, conventional debt, HOME funds from the City of Baltimore, and Rental Housing Funds from Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

On Cooper’s laptop computer was a spreadsheet showing that WODA’s contractor, Harkins, had in place from ACE a top-of-the-line builder’s risk insurance policy. It covered all the things that never happen.

9:38 pm: Cooper is watching television coverage of disturbances on Baltimore streets and suddenly realizes, “Hey, that’s our building burning down.”

11:00 pm: The formal evening telecast confirmed the huge flames are the Mary Harvin Center. Cooper saw flooding and fires in at least two rooms. Never before has a project disappeared.

12:30 am, Tuesday, April 28: Several hours of telephone conversations, text messages, and emails confirm the decision: WODA will rebuild the building, and will begin immediately, as soon as the city clears away the burned rubble. Among those who call is the Mayor of Baltimore, who says, “The city will do whatever necessary to make this building happen.” Kevin Bell and Zebulin Culver of The WODA Group worked with Cooper to put together a recovery plan that they could begin to implement the next day.

“You can’t be a developer without knowing how to get things done,” Cooper says. “We were not going to let the fire stop us, but it turned out to be easy because everyone was calling to ask how they could help.”

Typical examples: Linda Parham ACE Insurance called to say, “We’re going to get this done for you very quickly,” and Capital One proceeded with the million-dollar draw so subcontractors could be paid for the—burned down—work they had already done.

9:50 am: Meetings—involving as many as 12 people—are underway in the offices of project architect Marks Thomas; by the end of the day, reconstruction plans and schedules are worked out. All finances have been adjusted to the new reality.

Every person who had played a role in the project’s closing now participates in person or by phone and pledges to move forward quickly to rebuild. Laura Bailey, who heads Capital One’s Community Investment Group, reaches out to say that the Bank would do what it had to in order to get the project back on track. Despite other problems, the City says it will demolish and remove an adjacent building that had been severely damaged by the fire so that reconstruction of Mary Harvin could proceed quickly. The building is gone within a week.

Crisis management experts advise that decision-makers act quickly and decisively to prevent conjecture and rumors from public perceptions. Cooper and Woda did not consult such experts. They acted quickly and decisively out of instinct, belief and commitment to Baltimore. The result: No misleading rumors. And reconstruction is on schedule.