Talking Heads; James Rubin, New York State Homes and Community Renewal

9 min read

James Rubin has one of the most interesting public sector jobs in the country. Since May 2015, Rubin has served as Commissioner of New York State Homes and Community Renewal, the top leadership position for the state’s many housing and community development agencies.

His responsibilities include funding affordable housing development and community revitalization activities for one of the most diverse states in the country. It’s a job that requires political adroitness and a strong financial background, which is why Rubin has excelled thus far. The 49-year old Rubin comes from a family devoted to public service. His father, Robert Rubin, was Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Like his father, Rubin earned a law degree and worked in financial services. After a dozen years on Wall Street, he left his Senior Partnership with BC Partners, a global private equity fund. Within five months, Hurricane Sandy had devastated the eastern seaboard and the Obama Administration needed somebody to help lead the cleanup effort. Rubin was appointed New York Director of the President’s Hurricane Sandy Recovery and Rebuilding

Task Force and a Senior Advisor to then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.

His successes caught the eye of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who asked Rubin to head up the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) where he served as the Executive Director, overseeing and creating programs to disburse $4.4 billion in disaster recovery funds. When a vacancy for state housing commissioner opened up in 2015, Cuomo once again turned to Rubin. Rubin sat down with Tax Credit Advisor to talk about his achievements and future objectives running one of the oldest and largest housing finance agencies in the country.

Tax Credit Advisor: Where did you grow up? What aspirations did you have as a child? Where did you go to college? What was your major?

James Rubin: I grew up in New York City, graduated from Harvard with a degree in History and attended Yale Law School. I worked at a law firm before joining the Clinton Reelection Campaign in 1995. I ended up at the Federal Communications Commission for a few years before coming back to New York to get into investment banking and then moved over to private equity from 2001 to 2012. I’ve had the privilege of working for Governor Cuomo for three-and-a-half years now, since August 2013. I’ve always been interested in government and politics and come from a family devoted to public service. My first job out of college was working on Capitol Hill for a year, so being in and out of public service has been a consistent pattern for me.

TCA: You spent more than a decade in financial services, working for private equity firms. Following Hurricane Sandy, you changed careers and helped manage federal and state disaster relief efforts in the affected states. How did this transition occur? How has this career path influenced the way you approach your job as housing commissioner?

Rubin: I left private equity in mid-2012, and spent six months as a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, working with Bruce Katz who runs the Metropolitan Policy Program and has, for several decades, been a leading thinker on urban issues and local government. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York and the East Coast. President Obama asked Shaun Donovan, who was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development at the time, to head up a federal task force on the Sandy recovery. Shaun knew I was at Brookings doing local government work and asked me if I could help set up and manage the task force. Through that job, I got to know New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who in August 2013 asked me to run the state’s Hurricane Sandy recovery programs, which were coordinated through the state’s housing agency. After a few years, when a vacancy opened, I was asked by the governor to take over the state’s affordable housing programs. In retrospect, my career path makes sense, but at the time, coming from private equity, I don’t think disaster relief was a place I thought I would end up. But there was a bridge, the job at Brookings, which knitted everything together.  I tell people who ask me for career advice to be open to new experiences. Involve yourself in different things, even if they don’t make sense, because you never know what might happen.

TCA: What are your priorities for 2017?  

Rubin: In 2015, Governor Cuomo announced an unprecedented five-year housing plan that includes the new construction, preservation and ownership of 100,000 affordable housing units. The funds secured in the budget to implement the housing plan haven’t been fully released yet. We have a Memorandum of Understanding that has to be signed with the legislature, but I expect that will happen soon and we can ramp up our activity. In addition to the development goals, we have other strategic initiatives, for example, addressing the “zombie” home crisis which calls for expediting the rehabilitation, repair and improvement of foreclosed and abandoned properties, combatting homelessness and addressing ongoing storm recovery efforts.

TCA: What challenges do you face as housing commissioner working in such a large and diverse state as New York? How have you been able to overcome these obstacles?

Rubin: HCR offers a full slate of solutions to fit every corner of the state, whether we’re working in New York City, smaller upstate cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, or rural communities with limited resources. As an agency, we are constantly challenged to accomplish more with less. This puts pressure on the backs of the people who work at our agency, but I think that is why they are among the most creative and flexible government professionals you’re ever going to find. They’ve done a great job. We have had record-setting development years at HCR the past two years and this year we’ll probably have our third. We are operating at the top of our game under extremely difficult conditions.

TCA: The demand for multifamily housing bonds far outweighs the supply. What strategies are you adopting to better manage the bond cap?

Rubin: We recycle our multi-family volume cap to stretch the state’s resources to fund as many projects as possible. We strategically manage refunding opportunities in our single-family programs to stretch the volume cap for that program as well.  In addition, a couple of years ago we used tax exempt bonds to finance construction costs for 80/20 deals, but now limit their use only to the affordable portions of the building, which helps preserve the volume cap. We are also purposeful when evaluating the types of projects we work on and push developers to control costs. We have a range of state housing policy goals to meet the diverse needs of the state, including balancing geographic differences.

TCA: What are your reactions to some of the turmoil in the credit and bond markets due to the spectre of real tax reform?

Rubin: The past couple of weeks have been interesting. We are lucky that Marian Zucker, who handles our finance activities, is an experienced professional in all areas of municipal finance and rode out the 2008 crisis here at the agency. We are fully capable of handling whatever comes our way. We have seen two things that you alluded to: one is tax credit pricing, which has seen some weakening with the prospect of tax reform, and the other is interest rate movements. At the moment, we can only deal with the transactions in our pipeline. We’ve worked closely with all of our financing partners – syndicators, banks, investors and developers – to close these deals by year-end to ensure that financing is in place. We’ve been successful thus far and we’re pleased that the banks and syndicators have held pretty firm on the pricing they offered before the presidential election. There is no point in talking post-January because there is no way to know what will happen. Luckily, in New York we have strong developers who can weather little storms. If we have a prolonged decline in tax credit pricing, then we’ll have to figure out what to do about that. As far as interest rates go, we had to raise our rates a little because our own borrowing costs increased. We’re still competitive, but it’s something we had to do to maintain fiscal discipline.

TCA: Your office has been a strong supporter of the RAD program. What successes have you had and what lessons have you learned? There has been some discussion about creating a first in the nation subsidy program to make RAD deals in upstate NY work. What can you tell us about that?

Rubin: This was a big priority coming into 2016 and we executed on it pretty quickly. RAD is the most important innovation for public housing since the Clinton Administration. It’s extraordinarily creative and a helpful tool for public housing agencies to attain financial solvency and sustainability. We are pleased that New York State has so many PHAs that qualify for RAD applications. Our first project was in the City of Hornell, involving 147 public housing units. We have several more deals in our pipeline that will help sustain momentum. Public housing has suffered from massive disinvestment for many decades, not just in New York City or New York State, but across the entire country. We do a lot of affordable housing construction, but we are committed to making sure that we don’t forget about the housing that’s already in place. So RAD, and our Public Housing Preservation Program which provides “bridge” funding for RAD projects, is among our highest priorities. We’ve also used the RAD II program to preserve the state’s portfolio of Mitchell-Lama housing.

TCA: Earlier, you alluded to the $2 billion for affordable housing in the NY State Budget that was funded, but which remains unspent. Do you see an agreement being signed? If so, how will you utilize these funds?

Rubin: We are very much looking forward to an agreement being signed. We think the governor and the legislature are aligned in their housing goals. The programs are in place. We aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel. We have a tremendous pipeline and need for that money to meet our housing goals. Hopefully, we’ll have those funds by the time you read this article.

TCA: What would you like your legacy to be as New York State Housing Commissioner?

Rubin: Without question, the single biggest legacy I can leave would be to secure the MOU and implement Governor Cuomo’s ambitious $2 billion housing program that will develop 100,000 new homes and address the affordable housing crisis in the state.

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.