Fox built in the toughest of markets
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 affordable apartments.
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 program.
“Clara originated the idea of combining low- and moderate-income housing with social programs,” said Conrad Egan, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference (NHC).
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 influence.
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 nonprofit partners.
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 years.
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 50s.
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 room.”
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 issues.
- June: Conrad Egan, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference
- July: The late Clara Fox, founder of the Settlement Housing Fund
- 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 Act.