BOSTON—ON THE LAST DAY OF AUGUST, federal housing leaders gathered in Chicago to award Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) and the city one of the nation's first Choice Neighborhoods grants.
The $30.5 million award will go toward replacing the troubled 504-unit Grove Parc Plaza housing complex and revitalizing the broader Woodlawn neighborhood.
Receiving the grant—one of only five presented—is the latest milestone for Amy Anthony, president and founder of POAH, a unique Boston-based nonprofit that specializes in rescuing troubled housing developments, many at risk of losing their affordability.
“Through the Choice Neighborhoods grant, we expect to initiate a major revitalization of the Grove Parc/Woodlawn area rooted in the creation of a mix of housing affordable to households at all income levels, both on the original housing site and in the surrounding community,” she says.
Anthony, who has taken on some of the nation's toughest deals as a developer and introduced cutting-edge policies as Massachusetts' housing secretary, leads this year's group of inductees into the Affordable Housing Hall of Fame.
AHEAD OF HER TIME
Before POAH, Anthony served as Massachusetts' top housing official for eight years, beginning in 1983 when Gov. Michael Dukakis appointed her to lead the Executive Office of Communities and Development.
Anthony had led HAP, Inc., a small nonprofit that was formed to test the housing voucher concept in the 1970s in Springfield, Mass. She started her career as the organization's policy director but about nine months later became its executive director.
Although the state post often went to prominent mayors and local government representatives, Dukakis picked Anthony for her housing background.
“She had all the qualities you need to get things done in the public sector,” says Dukakis, who became aware of Anthony when she worked on his gubernatorial campaign. “She's smart, good at building coalitions, and unusually good at working with local communities."
During this time, the state was flying high with unemployment at a stunningly low 2.4 percent, he says, still proud of the large number of jobs created during his watch. But that also meant there was a severe housing shortage, especially on the affordable side.
“The price of housing was going up dramatically, so it was very, very important that we do an exemplary job and provide as much housing as we could,” says Dukakis.
Under Anthony's direction, Massachusetts implemented several innovative programs that produced more than 25,000 homes and have served as models for other states.
At the time, building affordable seniors housing was popular while developing family housing was considered more diffi- cult. When the state was awarding financing to local communities to develop housing, Anthony and her team insisted that towns couldn't just build seniors housing, they also had to provide family housing.
She also helped to launch the Massachusetts Housing Partnership and urged communities around the state to set up local partnerships. These groups engaged business and civic leaders to work on local housing initiatives. About 150 local partnerships were eventually established to advocate for the siting of affordable housing and generate a groundswell of support for projects.
“We went all around the state and encouraged people to participate,” Anthony says. “It made a real impact on getting the local knowledge and local advocacy up around housing issues."
It was a way that affordable housing supporters could overcome the powerful zoning and regulatory authority held by some towns in Massachusetts.
Anthony also worked to defend Massachusetts' longtime “anti-snob” zoning law that allows the state to override local rejections of affordable housing proposals. It can be a divisive law that pits local leaders against state officials.
Amazingly, nearly every community wanted to build affordable housing in the end. “Amy made the case to them," Dukakis says.
As housing secretary, Anthony assembled a strong team of leaders. Many of them continue to make their mark in affordable housing, including Thomas Bledsoe, who is now president and CEO of the Housing Partnership Network and Joe Flatley, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corp.
“In many ways, Amy was 25 years ahead of her time. The innovations that she pursued as secretary resonate today,” says Bledsoe, who served as deputy secretary.
Anthony and her team were leaders on several fronts, including establishing mixed-finance programs that used public dollars to leverage private funds to develop rental and homeownership housing.
Mixed-income housing also advanced during this time. It was not without controversy that Anthony helped establish the State Housing Assistance for Rental Production (SHARP) program that provided financing to produce rental housing and the Homeownership Opportunity Program to produce ownership housing— in both cases designed to serve residents at different economic levels, says Flatley, who was assistant secretary.
This was at a time when mixed-income housing was still a new concept. The idea behind this model is that it creates more diverse communities and avoids concentrating poor families in one development or neighborhood. SHARP, which was active for about seven years and administered by the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, helped create about 9,400 units across the state, many of which remain affordable today.
“She has always had the courage of her convictions,” says Patrick Clancy, president and CEO of The Community Builders (TCB), one of the largest and most accomplished nonprofit affordable housing developers in the nation.
He was working on the organization's award-winning Tent City development in Boston when Anthony was state housing secretary. When members of Congress proposed major tax reforms that would kill the way affordable housing was being financed in the early 1980s, TCB had to pull back a roughly $10 million equity offering that it had on the streets.
Clancy recalls calling Anthony and telling her that if he didn't order steel for the 270-unit project in the next two weeks, there would be delays in construction and major cost increases. “She didn't say no to more state aid, which led me to proceed," Clancy says.
He purchased the steel, and the state provided an additional commitment of fi- nancing. TCB followed up with an equity offering several months later to complete the financing, repay most of the additional funding, and avoid a multimillion dollar cost increase.
“It took a willingness to manage risk effectively that you need in this business," he says.
Anthony continues to take on challenging projects at POAH.
After serving as secretary, Anthony soon launched her own consulting firm, Housing Investments, Inc.
Her company worked with the National Equity Fund, Inc. (NEF), in acquiring an affordable housing portfolio for the group's NEF Properties. It was soon decided that NEF Properties should become independent, and Anthony helped spin off the new entity, POAH, in 2001.
The organization assumed a special role in the industry with its mission to preserve affordable housing properties.
Under Anthony's leadership, POAH has grown to boast a portfolio of approximately 7,000 units in 10 states.
The complexity of the work suits her personality. Anthony likes the intellectual puzzle of figuring out how to acquire, finance, and reposition developments. She also admits that long, drawn-out zoning battles that often come with building new developments would test her patience.
Most important, preservation provides an important service. “Losing housing is just as bad as not building new,” she says.
Born in Cuba, where her father was stationed in the Navy, Anthony grew up in Maryland. She has a son, Sam.
In her office, she keeps an award that she won in the fifth grade for being the best crossing guard. The irony is she was posted on a street with no traffic. It's a reminder that awards themselves are not what's important. It's the mission that motivates Anthony.
That includes revitalizing Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood, where POAH plans to transform a troubled property into a new healthier mixed-income, mixed-use development. The initiative calls for linking the housing improvements to new education and economic development opportunities.
It's a big and complicated deal that needs someone like Anthony.