Fox built in the toughest of
NEW YORK CITY
The legacy of Clara Fox is standing tall all around this
city. In 1969, Fox founded Settlement Housing Fund, one of
the city’s first and most innovative private
nonprofit housing developers. Under Fox’s
leadership, Settlement Housing created about 5,000
Declining property values and rising violence made those
years a difficult time to build. For example, colleagues
remember one group of men with baseball bats that
repeatedly pulled up to Settlement Housing projects in a
school bus, demanding work.
Fox met that challenge and others, both as a developer
and later as a housing advocate, with a mix of wit,
charisma, and, when necessary, what colleagues remember as
her “creative anger.”
“No one wanted to take her on,”
remembered Carol Lamberg, who succeeded Fox as director of
Settlement Housing. Fox died in 2007.
With Fox at the helm, Settlement Housing developed
innovative new housing, setting an example that many strive
to follow today.
Settlement Housing created one of the first
supportive-housing developments. Its Capitol Hall
development provides permanent housing and intensive
services to formerly homeless people, a third of whom
suffer from serious mental disabilities.
Settlement Housing also provided counseling and
technical assistance to help former renters become
homeowners and managers after their buildings converted to
middle-income cooperative housing through the Mitchell-Lama
“Clara originated the idea of combining low-
and moderate-income housing with social programs,”
said Conrad Egan, president and CEO of the National Housing
Settlement Housing also experimented with communities in
which tenants earning different incomes could live together
to the benefit of their buildings decades before
“mixed-income development” became
buzzwords for developers. According to colleagues, Fox
believed mixed-income housing would allow community leaders
to live in the developments, which would benefit from their
In 1976, Settlement Housing Fund used a mixed-income
development plan to rescue a huge property from bankruptcy.
Manhattan Plaza had just been finished a few blocks from
Times Square, but with the neighborhood becoming
increasingly grimy as abandoned theaters filled with adult
movie houses, the percentage of vacant apartments at
Manhattan Plaza had risen into the double digits.
Settlement Housing rented 10 percent of Manhattan
Plaza’s nearly 1,700 apartments at market rates.
The rest received rental subsidy from Sec. 8 vouchers, with
70 percent reserved for tenants earning up to 80 percent of
the area median income (AMI) and 20 percent set aside for
those earning up to 110 percent of AMI.
In 1983, Fox was named an honorary member of
Actors’ Equity, the professional actors’
and stage managers’ union, because of her work on
the plan. Fox herself later lived at one of the market-rate
apartments at Manhattan Plaza.
Fox also believed in strict management at affordable
housing developments. Unlike many affordable housing
managers at the time, she was willing to evict tenants who
failed to pay their rent.
She was a tough businesswoman. She believed that when
for-profit developers earned proceeds from syndicating the
tax benefits of projects developed under Department of
Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs like Sec. 236
or Sec. 8, they should share the proceeds with their
In the 1970s, Settlement Housing partnered with the
Related Cos. to develop the Terrific Tenements, an
affordable housing property on Manhattan’s West
Side. Related agreed to share $186,000 in syndication
proceeds. Settlement Housing used the money to finance a
new development of affordable cooperative apartments and
train the new residents for homeownership.
At the time, it was unusual for a nonprofit like
Settlement Housing to win a share of the profits from a
development. Housing officials seemed to assume that
nonprofit developers were volunteers with little financial
acumen or use for money, said Lamberg, who took over the
executive director job in 1983. Other housing advocates
feared corruption from associating too closely with
mainstream financial institutions and investors.
“Some of the nonprofits thought we were dealing
with the enemy,” she said.
Today, nonprofits regularly partner with large
for-profit developers. State officials encourage nonprofits
to demand a share of the developer’s fees, and
tend to look skeptically on nonprofits that do not.
Settlement Housing’s other innovations have
also taken root. Mixed-income housing is now commonplace at
hundreds of high-profile HOPE VI redevelopments of
distressed public housing properties. Also,
supportive-housing developments that include both permanent
housing and services have become a major part of the
national effort to end chronic homelessness in 10
A life of service
Born in the Bronx in 1917, Fox worked for several years
as the director of a private nursery school. In 1965, she
became the first coordinator of New York City’s
Head Start pre-kindergarten education program. Head Start
has helped millions of kids from low-income families with
its education and child-care programs.
Running Head Start brought Fox into contact with some of
New York’s poorest families. “That
started her looking around the neighborhoods,”
said Lamberg. Disgusted with the roach-infested,
overcrowded, and often-overpriced apartments she saw, Fox
founded Settlement Housing in 1969. She was already in her
In 1983, Fox became cochair of the New York Housing
Conference, a regional affiliate of NHC. Among other
activities, the group lobbies the government on housing
policy. “She had little patience with leaders who
did not work hard enough to achieve effective housing
programs,” remembered NHC’s Egan.
Fox held that position until late last year, and in the
fall was busy planning and organizing an annual housing
awards luncheon in New York.
“She was generous with her time and mentored
her successors,” said Egan. “Without
question, Clara was always the brightest bulb in the
Fox died of kidney failure Nov. 9 in New York City. She
is survived by her daughter, Roberta Fox, of Manhattan, and
a sister, Florence Blank, of the Bronx.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE will induct five deserving
individuals into its Affordable Housing Hall of Fame in
November. These inductees will be honored at a luncheon at
the conclusion of AHF Live: The 2008 Tax Credit Developers'
Summit Nov. 5-7 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. We will
feature profiles of the inductees over the coming
- June: Conrad Egan, president and CEO of the
National Housing Conference
- July: The late Clara Fox, founder of the Settlement
- September: U.S. Rep. Barney Frank
- October: Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard
University's Joint Center for Housing Studies
- November: Carla Hills, former secretary of the
Department of Housing and Urban Development
AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE created its Affordable
Housing Hall of Fame in 2006 recognize outstanding
achievement in the industry. Past inductees have included
leaders instrumental in the establishment of the low-income
housing tax credit program and the Community Reinvestment