The Mary Harvin Center has risen from the ashes.
The much-anticipated affordable housing development and senior center was under construction when it was burned to the ground last April during the Baltimore riots. The fire occurred when protestors took to the streets following the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody.
The building, which was 45% complete and on its way to becoming a new home for some of the city’s neediest seniors, was a total loss. The sight of the center engulfed in flames in the late evening hours became one of the lasting images of the riots.
Instead of lamenting the loss, however, The Woda Group, the Center’s developer and owner, doubled down on the project.
“By 11 o’clock the next morning, we convened a meeting in Baltimore and quickly made an announcement that we were committed to getting it built,” says David Cooper Jr., co-principal.
He and other project partners happened to be in town for a meeting on the development. From a hotel room, Cooper watched the fire on television. When a news station reported the general area of the blaze, he knew it was close to Mary Harvin. When an aerial view was shown, he recognized several neighborhood landmarks and realized the fire was really close, and soon he saw that Mary Harvin was the epicenter of the devastation.
The next morning, the team was anxious to see the damages. The scene couldn’t have been much worse: After eight years of planning and hard work, there was little left of the building.
Instead of getting together for their scheduled meeting, the partners immediately started preparing a reconstruction plan. “We got everybody on board,” Cooper says. “We were able to push it along quickly. We received tremendous cooperation from everybody involved at the city, the state, investor, lender, everybody.”
The Mary Harvin Center welcomed its first residents in January. Remarkably, the project was only about a month behind the original schedule and now stands as a symbol of hope for the neighborhood, a step in helping the community heal.
“The rebuilding of the Mary Harvin Center is yet another sign of the belief by so many residents, organizations, and businesses that Baltimore will be defined not by the unrest but by how we came together as a community to rebuild and recover,” says Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Woda partnered with the Southern Baptist Church on the 61-unit development, which will also provide community space that will house job training and educational programs.
“The Center is a catalyst for change,” says Pastor Donté Hickman, the church leader. “It provides a neighborhood of disinvestment with hope.”
Shortly after the fire, Hickman heard from Kevin Bell, the Woda senior vice president who worked on the project for years. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re not leaving. We’re more determined than ever,’ ” says Hickman.
The fast completion is attributed to several key steps, beginning with a quick and decisive commitment to rebuild. Woda also made sure to devote company resources to stay on top of the effort. “We had weekly calls,” says Cooper. “Sometimes we would have as many as 40 people on these calls, from all the different groups involved in the project, to keep everyone moving in the same direction.”
The team also learned valuable lessons about deal documents. “We will never just take a builder’s risk policy, look at the amount that’s on the face of it, and stick it in a drawer,” Cooper says. “It’s definitely the case that the devil is in the details of what’s covered. Fortunately, we had an excellent builder’s risk policy in place, and it covered pretty much everything.”
The $14.9 million project was financed largely with low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) awarded by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and syndicated by Hudson Housing Capital. Capital One was the investor, providing $12.2 million in LIHTC equity to the project.
For everyone involved, the project became something more than a business deal. “The Woda Group is a passionate supporter of both affordable housing and the future of the Baltimore community, and they have done a tremendous job working to rebuild the Center as quickly as possible,” says Laura Bailey, managing vice president, community finance, at Capital One. “I think what this means to East Baltimore is twofold: high-quality, affordable living for seniors but also proof of our faith in the community’s ability to overcome and thrive.”
From adversity to success
Mary Harvin is far from being the only project for Woda.
Headquartered in Westerville, Ohio, the company is a veteran affordable housing firm. It ranks No. 7 on this year’s AHF 50 list of top developers, after starting 14 new projects with 552 affordable housing units last year. The company is also No. 38 on the owners list, with 8,348 units.
The firm was started by Jeffrey Woda, an Ohio native with home building in his blood. His father, grandfather, and uncle all built houses, so Woda grew up around the family’s construction business. After working for the accounting firm Ernst & Whinney, he decided to enter the development arena in 1990.
Cooper served as Woda’s lawyer in the early years as the fledgling company first developed single-family homes and then multifamily housing. In 1992, the company, which started in Wheeling, W.Va., received its first housing tax credit allocation for a small, 24-unit development in the state, a property the firm still owns today.
“We started with that one project and added to it each year,” says Woda. A pivotal moment for the company came when Cooper left his law firm to join Woda as a co-owner and company principal.
Another significant moment came during the economic recession in 2008. The firm had roughly two dozen LIHTC deals in the works that were threatened as the capital markets began to melt. Even though the projects had earned housing tax credit allocations, there was still a long way to go before shovels could be placed in the ground. Architects, engineers, and others needed to be paid before the deals were ready for construction.
At the time, loans to carry predevelopment costs were hard to find, so Woda and Cooper made the tough decision to invest their personal assets to keep those deals alive.
The gambit paid off, as the firm was eventually able to build every project. It was helped by the Tax Credit Assistance Program and the Tax Credit Exchange Program, which Congress established to assist affordable housing projects during the recession, and by investors who stood by the company to purchase the LIHTCs.
“We were able to take every deal that we had been allocated credits on to fruition,” Woda says. Not only that; the company started picking up deals in multiple states from other developers who weren’t in as strong a position. This helped launch the company to where it is today as it builds affordable housing in a dozen states.
A few years later, the company would face adversity in Baltimore. In addition to building the Mary Harvin project, Woda has completed Penn Square II, a complex that brings another 61 affordable homes to the city.
“The Woda Group has repeatedly demonstrated a commitment to breathe new life into areas of our city [that] are rich in historical significance and critical to revitalization,” says Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who is seeking to attract 10,000 new families to the city. “With each of its recent projects, Woda delivers on its exemplary commitment to progressive urban development. Time and again, Woda has developed quality, affordable housing that we can all be proud of, even in some of our most challenging areas.”
The team needed to rebuild Mary Harvin quickly to help Baltimore erase the memory of the city on fire.
“Kevin Bell said, ‘At least in this one place, at this one time, we’re able to help a community that has little to hold on to,’ ” says Woda. “We’re going to give them something wonderful to hold on to. The Center will be by far the highest-quality housing in the neighborhood. We weren’t going to let it die the way it looked that evening.”