Jeanne Peterson is one of the people most identified with the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program. A presence since the housing credit began, she put LIHTCs into action in Michigan and California, but her reach extends far beyond the borders of two states.
Peterson is the industry’s “true north,” a steady force pointing the way. “From the time I went to law school, I always wanted to do something that would help people and work in a field that was important,” she says. “Housing, in my personal opinion, should be a right and not a privilege. Affordable housing was something that was important.”
Peterson’s first housing job was as a staff attorney at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), the start of a 23-year career in public service. Her tenure at the agency coincided with the birth of the LIHTC program in 1986.
She became central to a small, hardcore group of housing finance agency leaders that huddled in conference rooms and basements in West Virginia and Washington, D.C., to work out the The Prototype
complexities and nuances of the program. “We were trying to figure out what it all meant and how we were going to implement it in our various states,” she says. Ever since, Peterson has been one of the program’s leading authorities.
Once the LIHTC was launched, she set the standard for administering the program. She also helped guide the program nationally by serving on numerous task forces and committees that established recommended practices and shaped policies.
Peterson, who has a love of good
policy, was hooked by the challenge of
creating programs that would change
people’s lives. In Michigan, she was involved
in establishing a financing program
for group homes in residential
areas that would serve six or fewer residents,
most of whom were developmentally
disabled. It was a time when the
state was moving people out of some of
its hospitals, and the need for new housing
was increasing rapidly. She served
at MSHDA for 18 years, becoming director
of legal affairs, before being lured
by California, the state with the largest
LIHTC program in the nation.
Changing course in California
Phil Angelides was elected state treasurer in 1998, and he launched a nationwide search for the best person to run the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee (CTCAC), an agency that he would oversee. No stranger to affordable housing, he had worked at the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development early in his career and was known as a thoughtful policymaker.
“As I looked across the country, one name kept coming up: Jeanne Peterson,” he says. Angelides convinced Peterson to move to California, a state with diverse regional markets and housing constituencies.
She began by meeting with groups around the state to get a feel for their differing—often competing—needs and how the housing credit program should work in California.
It was a huge learning experience for Peterson, and she navigated the rough waters smoothly, listening to differing points of view and building consensus.
“She has a good ear,” Angelides says.
“People have their own interests, and she has a great ability to listen to them whether it is a large for-profit or a community nonprofit.”
When she came to California, the state was allocating LIHTCs through a lottery.
It was a random system that made it impossible for developers to assess whether their projects would receive tax credits.
Rather than continuing to throw applications into a hat and blindly selecting winners, Peterson overhauled the system to make it a competitive process.
Developments would vie for points, and the highest-scoring projects would receive housing credits.
It was a much more difficult system to administer, but it would ensure that the best housing developments would be built or rehabilitated. The competition for credits has long been fierce, with demand for LIHTCs outpacing the supply by as much as four to one. Angelides says he was always struck by the allocation hearings, where there would inevitably be a number of disappointed developers who failed to receive housing credits. “At the end of those meetings, there would be a big round of applause for Jeanne,” he says. “Whether one got an allocation or didn’t, they felt it was fair and they were treated fairly.”
Peterson continually searched for ways to better the program and the affordable housing being built. Whether it was improving underwriting requirements or adding incentives for sustainability, she never stopped bettering the program. “She was passionate about cutting new ground,” Angelides says.
After about six years at CTCAC, Peterson joined accounting and advisory firm Reznick Group, now CohnReznick.
A director at the company, she works on a number of fronts, including assisting developers in putting together LIHTC applications and consulting with other clients.
In addition, Peterson, who works at the firm’s Sacramento, Calif., office, remains involved in several housing policy issues.
“She has wonderful knowledge, but it blends with care,” says David Reznick, co-founder of Reznick Group. “It’s an interesting blend. It’s care for the tenant, which is very, very important, but she also cares for the developer and wants to make sure the transaction will be successful for all. That’s special and unique.
She has a good business mind and applies
it to the mission of providing affordable
Teaching others in the industry
Peterson’s sphere of influence is massive when you consider all the people in the affordable housing industry whom she has come in contact with over the years. Housing finance agency officials and other influential stakeholders have likely been in the room when Peterson has taught a course on “Tax Credits 101” or been part of an advanced discussion about deal structuring. She remains a key speaker at numerous industry conferences and events. In fact, she had once been a teacher in a different context.
Before beginning her career, Peterson studied African history and lived in West Africa, teaching at the University of Sierra Leone.
She has three children and is married to architect J.R. Flanigan. Peterson is on the board of directors of the California Housing Consortium and the editorial advisory board of AHF.
“I’m happy to have been able to work in this field,” she says. “The need for affordable housing is ever present.”