Debbie Burkart has been a leading force in creating permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness, veterans, disabled, and nursing home-eligible older adults across the country.
During a 30-plus-year career at the National Equity Fund (NEF), she, along with her colleagues, have helped finance and underwrite an estimated 30,000 affordable and supportive homes, often for the most vulnerable residents in a community.
“Supportive housing gives people a second chance,” says Burkart, who understands the importance of a safety net. Her father died when she was 9, leaving her mother as a single parent to raise her and her brother. Fortunately, they had just enough to keep their home, but many others aren’t as lucky. Burkart understood that and found her calling early in her career.
She joined NEF, a leading nonprofit low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) syndicator and affordable housing finance company, in 1992. That’s meant Burkart has grown up in the industry, and, in turn, she’s helped the industry grow. She was a pioneer in financing some of the very first affordable assisted-living developments in the country and has continued to help advance the field to be able to do more challenging and complex deals to serve the neediest throughout her career.
“Deb is an authentic advocate for supportive housing—full stop,” says David Cleghorn, president of HELP Development Corp. in New York City. “That is what makes her so effective and impactful. She is driven by an internal mission to make supportive housing projects work all over the country. She believes in the work, and that comes across in every transaction. This is not just a job, or something she stumbled into and was good at—she is the best.”
He has worked with Burkart on seven developments since he has been at his organization, including the notable HELP Perry Point Veterans Village, a 75-unit development for homeless veterans in Maryland, and the award-winning HELP Walter Reed Veterans Apartments, a 77-unit development also for homeless veterans on the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus in Washington, D.C.
“Her wealth of knowledge in supportive housing is hugely helpful in putting together these projects,” Cleghorn says. “She knows so many people in the industry and is never shy about connecting folks with each other. She has also secured a number of grants for our projects that are impactful. She is a creative problem solver, and, in my opinion, building supportive housing is just one large problem-solving exercise.”
Burkart has helped make possible numerous other prominent projects across the country, including:
- Milwaukee Soldiers Home, an award-winning project by The Alexander Co., in joint venture with the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, that restored a historic Civil War-era site on a Veterans Affairs medical campus into 101 permanent supportive housing for veterans who were homeless;
- Several phases of Hope Manor, model supportive housing communities for veterans and their families in Chicago and Joliet, Illinois, by Volunteers of America of Illinois and Volunteers of America National Services;
- Town Hall Senior Apartments, 78 units of LGBTQ-friendly senior housing in Chicago by Heartland Housing and Center on Halstead;
- Harmon Apartments, a 36-unit independent, accessible, and mixed-income community serving adults living with physical disabilities, including those that are progressively degenerative, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, by The Boston Home and Affirmative Investments; and
- Florence Mills Apartments, 74 units of affordable and supportive family housing, with a community center to provide residents tuition-free music lessons and a workshop/concert series, in the Historic South Central District of Los Angeles by Hollywood Community Housing Corp.
“Debbie has long been a tenacious champion of affordable housing and services for people who need additional support, whether she has spearheaded investments in supportive housing, advocated on behalf of veterans, or been at the forefront of assisted living as models to help individuals thrive,” says Deborah De Santis, president and CEO of Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH).
Over the years, Burkart has held different positions at NEF, starting as an underwriter, rising to vice president, and now managing director for supportive housing.
The mother of two grown children, she is also the founder and leader of Bring Them HOMES, an initiative of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. and NEF that has assisted in the development of approximately 6,000 units in 22 states and Washington, D.C., for veterans and their families.
Burkart credits her roots as an underwriter, which required a deep dive into the LIHTC program, for making her a better problem solver. A strong understanding of the federal, state, and local policymaking process has also been important during her career because supportive housing relies on public partners for rent and services funding.
“It’s been gratifying to work on affordable housing project types considered ‘a square peg in a round hole’—and the outcome being a successful project assisting vulnerable populations that the traditional investment community initially shied away from,” she says.