It's hard enough to develop affordable housing, but Lowell Barron II has the added challenge of building in small, rural communities, where financing can be even more elusive than other parts of the country.
The president of The Vantage Group, LLC, in Fyffe, Ala., Barron and his firm has developed, constructed, and manages more than 40 complexes in different towns in several states across the Southeast.
In addition, he is active in different industry associations, including serving on the board of the Council for Affordable and Rural Housing (CARH).
He provides his insight into the rural market, tells us why he builds affordable housing, and shares the best business advice that he has received.
Q: How did you get started in affordable housing?
A: Soon after graduating from college, I attended a CARH conference to find someone to buy three Farmers Home Administration Sec. 515 properties that my family owned. There I met my first business mentor, Tom Cooksey of Auburn, Ala., who convinced me that I could have a future in affordable housing. That was 1994.
Q: Why do you work in affordable housing?
A: Affordable housing is urgently needed around the country, especially in small, rural towns like the one in which I was raised, population 971. It is an opportunity to make a tangible difference in the lives of individuals and in communities. It demands a balance of talents that keeps me humble and growing as an individual and as a businessperson.
Q: Describe the housing market conditions in the rural areas where you work.
A: The low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) and HOME funds are the primary affordable housing new construction programs in most rural areas. By most accounts, the LIHTC program is still working in most major metropolitan markets. However, in rural markets it is not. There are a variety of reasons for this; chief among them is a limited number of investors resulting in imbalanced demand for the LIHTC.
Q: Tell us about a recent development built by your firm.
A: Most recently, The Vantage Group developed a 56-unit family LIHTC/HOME/Federal Home Loan Bank Affordable Housing Program complex for a nonprofit owner in a town with a population of 13,000, located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. We took an unsightly old chert pit on a ridge and transformed it into a beautiful housing development with panoramic views of the mountains that will take your breath away.
Q: What industry issue is keeping you up at night?
A: The fragmented voice of the industry “on the Hill” in Washington, D.C. The fact that our industry isn't speaking with one voice is diluting our message, keeping the LIHTC from achieving the broad-based political support it needs and softening congressional focus on some very important issues:
- There is NO supply/demand equilibrium in the many LIHTC markets of rural states and the rural areas of more metropolitan states and thus no buyer for the credits at any price.
- To help ensure future viability, we MUST broaden the LIHTC investor base. I fully support the National Consensus Letter on Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Proposals and all its suggestions. IRS data show a huge untapped source of new geographically dispersed investment capital that could be unleashed by the letter's proposal that would allow large S-Corps and Closely held C-Corps to fully utilize the LIHTC.
- Despite the “success” of the LIHTC, there is still an urgent need for affordable housing, and, thus, the program needs to be cared for and helped through the current economic crisis.
Q: What makes you mad?
A: Discrimination. I have a really thick Southern drawl, and I believe that people often make assumptions based solely on my accent. It seems to me that judging others on the basis of external characteristics such as skin color, gender, disability, and national origin, or even such things as religion or accent, is not just wrong, it is also very bad business. Every day, my goal is to make as many good decisions as possible. If I refuse to listen to, or even hire, someone because of the color of their skin, their gender or disability then I am needlessly placing limits on valuable perspectives and useful information.
Q: What makes you happy?
A: When our company's true craftsmanship as developers and builders shows through in the finished product, that makes me happy. I want it to be apparent to everyone who sees our work that we care deeply about what we do and who we serve.
Q: What's the best business advice that you've received?
A: My father always told me growing up to keep your word and pay your debts.
Q: Favorite fictional hero and why?
A: Batman. One word: Batmobile. Also, he gets to wear a cape in public and no one questions his fashion sense.
Q: Besides the usual items, what's in your office?
A: A 10-foot-long table, 15 mismatched chairs, an overhead projector, a (very full) whiteboard, lots of people, big bookshelves, samples of brick, siding, and carpet. Did I mention that my office is also our conference room?
Q: What do you do when you're not working?
A: Spend time with four beautiful women: my wife, Didi, and our three daughters, Kennedy, Claudia, and Campbell.
Q: What's next for Lowell Barron and Vantage Development?
A: Our goal is to continue to produce affordable accessible housing of the highest quality while expanding into new ventures related to our passionate interests: green construction, carbon-neutral vinyl windows, and renewable energy generation.