AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE • November/December 2011
Eileen Fitzgerald has taken over the reins of NeighborWorks America. She stepped into the top post last June after filling in as interim CEO since the beginning of the year. She served as the organization's COO since 2005.
A Queens, N.Y., native, Fitzgerald brings 25 years of nonprofit and government leadership to NeighborWorks, which helps create and preserve affordable housing around the country and delivers community-focused programs through a network of approximately 235 independent, community-based nonprofit organizations.
The network has more than 80,000 units of affordable rental housing under ownership and management.
She is married and has two children.
Q: What changes are you planning for NeighborWorks?
A: We're about to launch a new five-year strategic plan. In that, we renew our commitment to providing a range of housing opportunities for families across America, whether that be good, strong sustainable rental housing or sustainable homeownership opportunities. We feel it's critical for families to have those choices and opportunities. We also call out the critical role that a range of counseling plays in helping consumers be well educated and prepared for the decisions they have to make, whether that's preparing for homeownership or foreclosure intervention.
We feel we're having a great impact. Last year, we served more than 250,000 families alone and trained more than 14,000 individuals from 3,500 organizations and agencies through our training institute.
Q: How did you get started in affordable housing?
A: I began in the broader real estate industry back in the pre-1986 syndication days. I worked for a small syndicator in New York, doing analysis and helping put together private-placement memorandums on pre-1986 (accelerated depreciation) tax deals on multifamily housing, hotels, and diners. I then realized that for me personally it was important to have more of a public purpose and mission to the work I was doing. I then went to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and got a master's in public affairs. I went to work for the governor of Maryland and the secretary of Housing and Community Development in Maryland, which was my first affordable housing and community development job.
Q: What industry issue is keeping you up at night?
A: The economy is creating a lot of different challenges for our network organizations. The biggest is what's going to happen to subsidy in the next five years. As Congress and the administration deal with the budget deficit and the negotiations around the debt ceiling, what happens to a broad range of subsidies, whether that's Sec. 8, low-income housing tax credits, HOME, Community Development Block Grants, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sec. 502 program? All are at substantial risk. In addition, a lot of state and local programs are being cut. That's the biggest issue facing our field. How do we make sure we are still providing good housing opportunities, particularly for lower-income families?
Q: NeighborWorks provides a lot of training and technical support. What are affordable housing developers turning to you for?
A: We get demand across a range of our courses. We provide training in several different ways, face-to-face at our training institutes, which typically attract 1,500 to 2,000 people per institute. We also bring courses locally. We do e-learning. And, now we're piloting a faculty-led learning program that's online, but the faculty is involved in different ways. We've learned that it's important to have multiple modalities so we can serve as many people as possible, depending on how they learn and what their circumstances are. We do a lot on asset management. We think that's a critical area for future growth on the multifamily side. We have to figure out a way to continue to preserve properties and to think about all those properties as a portfolio.
Another area is community stabilization. We're seeing more REOs (real estate-owned properties) hitting communities. How are municipalities, nonprofits, and other partners preparing strategies to acquire those REOs and how do you think about scattered-site rentals. Equally important is how do you market your neighborhood and community to be competitive in making sure those properties are attracting new homeowners.
Q: Is the new faculty-driven pilot program similar to Webinars?
A: They're more like a university course. You would take it for several weeks, with assignments. There's peer interaction that can happen and interaction with the professors. One of the things that people love about our training institute is they get to interact with people from all around the country. We're going to try to replicate that.
Q: NeighborWorks has a huge role in helping communities deal with foreclosures. What will see with foreclosures next year?
A: There's a huge backlog of properties being held by the servicers for a variety of reasons. I think everyone expects that there will be more REOs coming out of the funnel than there has been recently. The average property is in foreclosure for 599 days. The number of foreclosures is still estimated to be really high. The jobs piece is obviously creating a lot of challenges. We're not focused on subprime loans. These are people who are having income problems because they were laid off or have substantially fewer hours. We're always supportive of new refinancing programs, new loan modification programs, things that help families try to stay in their homes. But, we do expect that the crisis is going to continue for quite some time as well as the need to have counselors out there to assist families in navigating the relationship with the servicer and avoiding mortgage rescue scams, which are way too prevalent out there. Counselors play a key role in both of those issues.
Q: When you look at what some of your members are doing on the multifamily development side, are you seeing any strategies that have you excited?
A: Everyone is more and more aware of sustainability and trying within the context of what they can finance to make their property as sustainable and energy-efficient as possible. We're all in this business to make sure families have good, quality homes at an affordable rent or an affordable price. Anything we can do that brings down that ultimate rent cost to the family is a good thing.
We're also continuing to see the integration of resident services. You have a community of people in a multifamily property. How do you best serve them and tie them in with other things in the community so they can build own their own personal assets? That's a key piece.
Q: Overall, how is NeighborWorks changing as an organization?
A: We continue to be focused on performance and impact. We believe we are a great investment for both the taxpayer and the private dollar. We leverage our appropriation $23 to $1. We're focused on how to support local-driven solutions but then share those and help them come to scale. Part of that will be to work with our network to make sure we're providing as flexible resources as possible, holding them accountable, pushing them toward thinking about impact, and then how do they share across the network.
Q: What's the last book you read?
A: “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese. The story set in Africa and centered in a medical clinic. It's about the choices people make and important values, what we care about in our work, and making a difference.
Q: Who's your hero and why?
A: A dear friend of mine who I met in the affordable housing and community development industry recently passed away. Laura McGrath worked for Enterprise Community Partners. She's my hero for a couple of different reasons. She had phenomenal people skills and an uncanny ability of bringing together people with different approaches and opinions and helping them find common ground. She taught me the difference between information and knowledge. I think that's something we all struggle with in the industry--how to best get knowledge to people. She cared every day about impact.