Amy Anthony is president and executive director of Preservation of Affordable Housing, Inc., (POAH) a Boston-based nonprofit organization that rescues and restores some of the nation's most "at risk" rental housing properties.
From 1983 to 1990, she served as secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Communities and Development, a cabinet-level state agency devoted to producing affordable housing and promoting municipal, community, and economic development. Anthony has also played an active role in developing national housing policy, including serving on the National Housing Task Force.
Q: Tell us about your first job in affordable housing.
A: I started as the director of research at HAP, Inc., in Springfield, Mass., and after nine months became its executive director. In Washington, Congress was working on a major overhaul of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), including creating programs to entice private developers to construct or renovate low-income housing. HAP had been formed to test the voucher concept, and launched a demonstration of how a voucher system could work. We were designing the program as we went, with the heady sense, widely shared, that government, the private sector and nonprofit community organizations could collaborate in innovative ways to rebuild broken communities.
Q: What led you to get into the field?
A: Prior to HAP, I had worked on housing topics in the research setting and soon came to understand that the only route to wisdom on the policy front was working directly in the field. Since then, I've discovered the fun of making a workable deal—identifying new resources, stitching the financing together, listening to residents, building a team focused on a common goal, and crossing the finish line with a closing.
Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: Two things—the breakthroughs in housing policy which Massachusetts achieved when I was housing secretary, and the creation of POAH. As part of the state cabinet in Massachusetts, we substantially increased the state's investment in housing, designed programs which continue to produce mixed income communities to this day, and developed a great team of people, many of whom have grown to be leaders in the field. At POAH, I'm particularly proud of building an organization that achieves significant mission goals with a business sensibility and sustainable bottom line.
Q: What is POAH working on?
A: POAH is focused on three very complex transactions in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Florida. In Chicago and in New Bedford, Mass., we're working on projects to preserve the affordable housing resource while redeveloping the physical structures themselves. These are both projects that, if they were public housing developments, would have been considered for HOPE VI funding. We see these two projects as demonstrations of innovative approaches for the most distressed FHA [Federal Housing Administration] properties, which will be a major challenge for the next administration. The Florida acquisition is a portfolio purchase with over 1,200 units, which we're buying from a nonprofit under the umbrella of a bankruptcy proceeding. The court might easily have forced the transformation of the property to maximize the payout to the creditors. Instead, we're demonstrating how agile, creative organizations like ours can play a key role in preserving the homes of low-income families, many of whom have few other options available.
Q: What is the biggest challenge confronting the organization?
A: Quite simply, managing growth. POAH was founded in 2001 to preserve 900 affordable homes in Missouri. We ended 2007 owning almost 5,000 homes in eight states and Washington, D.C. Last year, Affordable Housing Finance named POAH the largest nonprofit (and fourth largest overall) acquirer of affordable housing in the country. As a still-young organization, managing growth at that scale in a way which allows us to identify the "right" transactions for our mission and our portfolio while also retaining the nimble, entrepreneurial spirit which has been our unique calling card is a continuing challenge.
Q: What's a recent move that POAH made that others can learn from?
A: Over the last two years, we've really focused on energy efficiency in our rehab planning and budgeting. It cuts costs and benefits our properties and our community. We started small—low-energy lighting, low-flow showers and toilets, Energy Star appliances, things like that. More recently, we've focused on some bigger ticket items—heating and hot water systems, windows and rooftop recirculators for heating as well as ventilation. We are also exploring renewables at several properties. We've installed co-generation heating equipment in several buildings, a photovoltaic electricity system on the roof of another, and a test tower to measure wind power at a third. Working with our peers in SAHF [Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future], we've supported efforts to link energy production and consumption to federal multi-family housing programs. POAH and SAHF have made a proposal to Congress, which would set standards applicable to preservation, pay for (and authorize) data collection to broaden the knowledge pool about energy costs and energy improvements, and provide for investment in equipment, demand and peak-load management, "smart" metering and other savings methods.
Q: You have enormous expertise in housing policy. What policy would you love to see get adopted or changed nationally?
A: Preservation, of course. More specifically, policy which respects the value of affordable rental housing and sees preservation of the existing "expiring-use" housing stock as a federal priority. Congress should expect HUD to protect this essential, taxpayer-built asset, and push HUD to return to a proactive role in deals and partnerships that complements the increasingly important role of the states.
Q: If you unexpectedly had the afternoon off, where would we find you?
A: Arguing about politics with a bipartisan group of friends on the golf course.
Q: What is your favorite item in your office?
A: My award as "best crossing guard" in the fifth grade. I was posted at an intersection with absolutely no traffic. It reminds me that recognition in and of itself is meaningless and doesn't necessarily go to those who do the heavy lifting. While I was state housing secretary, I received hundreds of plaques and awards, but I was always most profoundly reminded of the meaning of our work when I had the chance to talk with a resident, a family, or a senior who now had a safe and decent home, sometimes for the first time ever.
Q: If you were hosting a dinner party and could invite anyone, who would be on the guest list?
A: A lively crowd able to drift from playful banter to thoughtful debate and back to laugh-out-loud wit, with topical interests that can range from the Red Sox to <em>The Wire</em> to the best recipe for stuffing the Thanksgiving turkey. Jon Stewart, for example, strikes me as an obvious first choice.
Q: What's next for Amy Anthony and POAH?
A: In house, we're focused on nurturing several thorny but exciting developments while simultaneously maturing the organization. We have a great bench of talent, and I hope that, as people become familiar with them, POAH's identity will be increasingly associated with our work and our team, and less with me individually. In addition, as we enter a period of transition in Washington, POAH will be paying careful attention to how and when housing issues are raised and to continuing conversations with our SAHF colleagues, Congressman Frank and his Senate counterparts on a comprehensive preservation bill.