TOM BLEDSOE is president of the Housing Partnership Network, an award-winning alliance of some of the nation’s top nonprofit development organizations. The Boston-based group was selected last year for the third consecutive year as a winner of the Fast Company/Monitor Group Social Capitalist Awards. The program recognizes social entrepreneurs who are combining creativity with business solutions to address social problems ranging from homelessness to poor healthcare. The network’s affiliated companies provide predevelopment and acquisition loans, permanent mortgage financing, venture capital, and insurance that help its members produce and sustain more affordable homes.
Q How did you get into the affordable housing business?
A I first became involved with affordable housing as a Vista volunteer organizing public housing residents in Boston upon graduation from college in 1978. As director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services in the mid ’80s, I played a lead role in planning and zoning issues that often dealt with affordable housing. However, my first real immersion in affordable housing came in 1988 when I was appointed deputy secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Communities and Development, the state’s leading housing agency. Under the leadership of Gov. Dukakis and Secretary Amy Anthony, the state was a national leader in promoting innovative financing and housing partnerships, so this was a fabulous opportunity and a tremendous learning experience. Since then, my career has focused on the nonprofit sector, starting first as the director of the Boston Housing Partnership and now as the founding executive of the Housing Partnership Network.
Q Describe the membership of the Housing Partnership Network.
A The Housing Partnership Network is a business alliance of 92 of the most accomplished affordable housing developers, owners, and lenders in the United States. It was formed in 1990 by leading practitioners of a new breed of nonprofit housing enterprise that combines the strong public purpose and accountability of a traditional nonprofit with the business sophistication of the private sector. Entrepreneurial, innovative, and thoroughly grounded in their markets, Network members have a proven track record of leadership and achievement. Rather than focusing exclusively at the neighborhood level, these organizations—which are often characterized as housing partnerships—operate at a larger scale in a broad range of communities. Nonprofits such as BRIDGE Housing, CommonBond Communities, and The Reinvestment Fund have developed national reputations and the housing partnerships as a whole have emerged as a distinct sector of the industry. The Urban Institute recently completed and published the first in-depth analysis of the mission, business approach and performance of our members. The study of 67 nonprofit developers and lenders concluded the groups were highly productive compared to their nonprofit and for profit counterparts, and cited their ability to forge partnerships with the public, private and nonprofits sectors as well as their entrepreneurial approach as key attributes to their success.
Q What’s been the biggest issue for network members in 2007?
A Given the diversity of our membership— including lenders, developers, and counseling organizations—there is a range of issues they face. For the organizations that provide mortgage lending and counseling, the subprime foreclosure crisis is certainly at the top of the list. The developer/owners in the network continue to experience significant growth in their development businesses as public, private, and philanthropic partners focus their investments on high-performing organizations. This underscores the need for greater attention to asset management and organizational sustainability. The larger lenders in our network are also experiencing substantial growth and are pursuing strategies to secure off-balance- sheet capital that allows them to provide longer-term loans to their customers.
Q What issues do you expect to surface for nonprofit developers in 2008?
A We expect the issues around foreclosure, asset management, and off-balance- sheet lending to continue to be a priority in 2008. The other major challenge we anticipate is the effect of a potential nationwide softening in real estate markets on the affordable housing industry. Although there have been regional downturns in the past— such as we had in Texas and California a number of years ago—the country has not experienced an across-the-board decline or softening in values for many years. We don’t have a crystal ball to predict this will occur, but there are plenty of warning signs.
Q What is the biggest misunderstanding about nonprofits?
A The common misperception about nonprofits is that they don’t need to generate a surplus or operate as a private enterprise. As one of our board members likes to say, nonprofit is a tax status not a business model. A related view is that nonprofits can’t operate at scale, which of course requires sound management, capitalization, and earned income. The Housing Partnership Network and our high-performing members are demonstrating that nonprofits, which utilize a social enterprise model, can be highly innovative and entrepreneurial and achieve large-scale impact. Our success in forming cooperatively owned insurance and finance conduits that can efficiently access secondary market capital is helping change the perception about the traditional nonprofit role.
Q What’s the best move that the partnership has made in the last 12 months?
A We have significantly strengthened our senior management team to carry out our ambitious agenda around capital markets finance, peer exchange, and policy development. Three highly regarded leaders from the industry have joined our staff. Mary Tingerthal, formerly senior vice president for the Community Reinvestment Fund, became president of the Network’s Capital Markets Companies in September. Chuck Wehrwein, formerly senior vice president of Mercy Housing, joined our staff in April as president of the Housing Partnership Exchange, and now heads up our policy initiatives, peer exchange, and non-finance enterprises. Doug Winn, a principal at Wilary Winn – a consulting firm with extensive experience in securitization and mortgage finance – serves as the interim chief financial officer and will help us build the necessary finance infrastructure. These leaders, combined with our existing, highly capable staff, give the Network an exceptionally strong management team.
Q What are your plans for 2008?
A We are planning to launch two new finance companies in 2008. A charter school conduit will purchase and securitize facilities loans made by a group of the leading Community Development Financial Institutions in the nation. The network received a $15 million grant for credit enhancement for the conduit this year from the U.S. Department of Education, which was the largest grant in their history. A single-family mortgage company will provide permanent financing to our singlefamily lenders. The company will pioneer an attractively priced loan product with flexible underwriting terms to credit-impaired borrowers that receive housing counseling from our member organizations.
Q Who’s your hero and why?
A The agrarian populists of the late 19th century who forged an economic, cultural, and political movement that was based on the farmers’ alliances. The strength of the populists was their democratic reliance on the group rather than the exceptional individual, and the underlying economic model of the farmer’s exchanges. Though we operate in a very different time and context, I believe the Housing Partnership Network shares many of the core values and strategies of the farmers’ alliances.
Q Besides the usual work papers, what’s on your desk?
A Pictures of my wife and four daughters, who range from 1st grade to a senior in college; a bottomless cup of coffee; and a PDA which keeps me connected at all times to our members and partners around the country. Underneath the desk are my bike cleats, which I use to commute to work via a 10-mile path that runs from my home in Newton to downtown Boston along the Charles River.
Q What’s the best business advice that you have received?
A Jay Sarles, my former board chairman at the Boston Housing Partnership who was then vice chair of Fleet Financial Group, gave me the most prescient career advice. He suggested my future lay in the nascent national association that BHP was helping facilitate. Bob Whittlesey, a visionary leader in our industry, had spearheaded the formation of the association and I was then serving as voluntary president. But the group had no staff and minimal funding. Jay’s encouragement helped me take the leap and become the first full time staff and president of the organization, which has since become the Housing Partnership Network.
Q What is the last book that you read?
AThe Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. This stimulating book argues and provides vivid examples of how groups often make better decisions than individual experts. His analysis resonates with our own experience operating a peer membership network.
Q If you unexpectedly had the day off work, where would we find you?
A Gardening in my yard, riding the trails, or, if weather permits, downhill skiing in Vermont.