Longtime affordable housing leader and visionary Marilyn Melkonian died Feb. 14.

Marilyn Melkonian
Courtesy Telesis Corp. Marilyn Melkonian

She was the founder and president of Telesis Corp., which plans, finances, and builds urban communities. Since its establishment in 1985, the firm has structured a mix of more than $2.8 billion in public and private financing for the planning and regeneration of neighborhoods with more than 17,000 housing units and diverse commercial and civic uses.

“Marilyn made livable communities that were resilient, well designed, with exceptional landscaping, and to the benefit of the residents,” says George Weidenfeller, CEO of Telesis. “… She was transformative in terms of how she looked at affordable housing and communities.”

Melkonian believed that physical development was inseparable from improvement for community residents, promoting homeownership, learning centers, day care, and community policing, according to Weidenfeller.

As just one example, he points to Telesis’ work in Bradenton, Florida. With Melkonian in charge, the firm served as the master planner and developer for Bradenton Village, overseeing the construction of more than 330 units of rental housing, 60 affordable for-sale homes, and community facilities, including a recreation center, a day care, and open space. “At the time, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary Mel Martinez said he had not seen a more beautiful HOPE VI project,” Weidenfeller tells Affordable Housing Finance.

Born in 1944, Melkonian graduated from Stanford Law School and became involved in housing policy from 1967 to 1970 while on the staff of Sen. Edward W. Brooke (D-Mass.), the first African-American elected to the Senate by popular vote.

Weidenfeller first crossed paths with Melkonian in the late 1970s when she was serving as deputy assistant secretary of multifamily housing at HUD.

Around 1980, she stepped away from Washington, D.C., to serve as general counsel and business adviser to George Lucas and Lucasfilm, where legend has it that she was instrumental in the naming of “Return of the Jedi,” according to family and friends.

Courtesy Telesis Corp.

Melkonian returned to Washington and affordable housing, soon launching Telesis. She was also the founder and longtime board chair of the nonprofit National Housing Trust (NHT). Beyond housing, she served on the national governing board of Common Cause.

“For me and other women in the field, Marilyn was a mentor and ahead of her time,” says Priya Jayachandran, NHT president and CEO. “She served as deputy assistant secretary of HUD multifamily back in 1977, which paved the way for Helen Dunlap in 1993, Carol Galante in 2009, and even me in 2015, and then went on to form her own wholly owned real estate company in the 1980s, which she continued to run. Even today, we don’t have many women-owned and run firms. To say trailblazer is an understatement.”

Melkonian’s establishment of NHT in 1986 shows how much foresight she had about housing issues. She saw the importance of preserving existing affordable housing long before most others.

As a result, NHT’s early years filled an important void by focusing on preservation policy and working on technical issues for owners. The nonprofit has since grown to be active in development, lending, energy solutions, and resident services.

Like Weidenfeller, Jayachandran credits Melkonian with seeing affordable housing as broader community development.

“She was always pushing me and us to think bigger,” Jayachandran says.

Sara Johnson saw Melkonian’s immense vision as a friend and colleague for 40 years.

She was on sabbatical at the National Housing Law Project in 1984 when she met Melkonian, who was developing her business plans for Telesis. Johnson soon joined the emerging firm as its first employee and later moved over to NHT. After retiring as NHT president in 1992, Johnson continued to work with Melkonian for the next 25 years as a board member and in other capacities.

“She was a big-picture thinker,” Johnson says. “She thought holistically but knew the devil was in the details. When she made a commitment to a given housing development effort, she worked hard to tie in all the resources needed by the residents for an abundant life, with a special emphasis on quality education, child care, and health services. She was never distracted, always laser-focused on the constituency she was serving.”

Melkonian was close to many other housing leaders.

Barry Zigas was president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition from 1984 to 1993 when they started working together during the critical tax reform efforts in 1986.

Melkonian was part of the progressive brain trust that helped create the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program, he says, noting that she was an astute attorney and an expert on how housing programs worked after working at HUD.

She became a featured speaker at a series of conferences that NLIHC held immediately following the passage of the tax legislation that established the LIHTC.

Zigas recalls asking her about her color preference for the brochures that would be sent out about the meetings. “She said, ‘You can never go wrong with red, white, and blue.’”

Melkonian asked him to be a founding board member of NHT, and they worked in that capacity for close to 20 years.She had a unique combination of tremendous intellect and rich experience while still being idealistic, according to Zigas.

In her office, there was a famous photograph of a drum major followed by a line of joyful children. The image captured one jubilant moment in time, Zigas says, but it also expressed Melkonian’s own approach to work and life.

“She believed in making things better,” he says.