Mark Allison has been working to prevent and end homelessness for 20 years.
For the last 12, he has served as executive director of the Supportive Housing Coalition of New Mexico (SHC-NM), one of the state's most active and innovative affordable housing developers. The agency, which completed three projects with 153 units last year, has another 177 units in various stages of development in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces. SHC-NM was named Affordable Housing Developer of the Year by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority in 2010.
Allison also serves on the executive committee of the National Low Income Housing Coalition and was recently reappointed to a three-year term on the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas' Advisory Council.
Q: What was your first job in affordable housing?
A: I managed an emergency shelter and a transitional housing program for the homeless in Albuquerque fresh out of graduate school. It was primarily a daytime drop-in center, but for five months each winter, we were open 24/7 and served an average of 425 people each day. In my five years there, I saw many people who were unable to escape their homelessness. We've been building emergency shelters for over 30 years in this country, which has done nothing to reduce the numbers of people experiencing homelessness. It is appallingly bad public policy, and we've failed a lot of people. That experience was the reason I became passionate about permanent affordable housing.
Q: Share some interesting statistics or facts about housing in New Mexico.
A: Someone with a disability in Albuquerque receiving Supplemental Security Insurance spends 95 percent of their entire income for a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, leaving them just $1 a day for all other living expenses, including transportation, food, and medication. It's not difficult to see why this population is vulnerable to homelessness.
Q: What's a creative move made by your organization that other developers can learn from?
A: One advantage of living in New Mexico is that we have the opportunity and the time to learn from the rest of the country's mistakes and experiences. We're not ashamed to borrow the best ideas and adapt them to our unique New Mexico context. SCH-NM is known for high-profile projects that combine affordability, mixed-income units, innovative sustainable green elements, and award-winning design. We've been doing more transit-oriented, infill developments on reclaimed brownfield sites. Consistent with our mission, we try to set aside no less than 25 percent of each project for people with special needs who have experienced homelessness. Supportive services are made available on-site. We are highly collaborative and routinely partner with housing authorities, service providers, and for-profit developers. We've just completed an intensive five-year strategic planning process, but it is important to remain nimble and opportunistic too.
Q: Tell us about a project that you are working on.
A: Albuquerque has the highest percentage of Native Americans of any American city (10.5 percent), estimated at over 40,000. Some unfortunately are struggling with long-term homelessness. Many of those who are have serious behavioral health issues but do not access the limited conventional housing and service resources that exist. There is a huge need for permanent supportive housing that is designed and marketed in a culturally appropriate way. “Supportive housing”—combing housing that is affordable with voluntary supportive services—has been demonstrated to be the single-most effective way to prevent and reduce homelessness, particularly for special-needs populations.
We're envisioning a project that will be the first of its kind in New Mexico. The ground floor will be devoted to health care and supportive services space with residences on the upper floors for single Native American adults, many of whom will have been without housing for years. Our service partner is a local Native health center, and our design team includes a Native-owned architectural firm. We've visited Native-focused initiatives in Arizona and Minnesota. We are expecting this development to be extremely challenging, which keeps it interesting.
Q: What's your idea of a perfect affordable housing development?
A: One in which the neighborhood invites us in, where the land is donated, where the investors and general contractors are courting us at the same time, where other funders are competing to see who can contribute the most, that comes in ahead of schedule and under budget, where all of the units are pre-leased, and where I don't ever have to manage the property.
Q: Who is your favorite fictional hero and why?
A: Whoever has consistently figured out how to do the above.
Q: What saying do you use the most?
A: “Too dumb to quit” and “I believe that affordable housing is the literal and figurative foundation upon which all other quality of life issues are built.”
Q: What has been your greatest accomplishment so far?
A: We're proud to have pioneered the Housing First approach in New Mexico, starting in 2005. There was significant skepticism. Detractors doubted that we could house persons who had serious behavioral health disorders and who had been homeless for years, and some even doubted that this population wanted to be housed.
Today, through that first program alone, 200 people who had been living on the streets are in their own homes. Over 91 percent remain housed for at least seven months (a federal benchmark), and many stay for years. Of those who do leave, over half move to other permanent housing. We have fostered partnerships with 95 property owners throughout the city. The cost is less than $18 per home per night (compared with $700 for a single overnight hospital visit, for example). Services are offered by numerous provider partners. We have observed firsthand how desperately needed this program was and continues to be. Not only has it enabled hundreds of individuals to escape their long nightmare of homelessness, it has also offered hope to the broader community by serving as an example of an effective, humane, and financially responsible way to address homelessness.
Q: Something that recently inspired you?
A: In October, I co-guided a group of advanced high school-aged students from Bhutan, Japan, Afghanistan, Peru, and other countries on a five-day backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon. Most had never backpacked before, and none had ever seen the Grand Canyon. I was able to experience the canyon anew through their eyes. They were an amazing group of kids, and I'm certain I learned more from them then they did from me.
Q: Memorable performances (concert, play, speech, whatever) that you have seen?
A: The best singer-songwriter and acoustic guitar player you've never heard of, Chris Smither, in a 60-seat club in Santa Fe and hearing Kurt Vonnegut talk about creativity and imagination.
Q: What's next for Mark Allison?
A: Developing housing is critical, obviously, but we aren't going to be able to meet that level of need 70 or 80 units at a time. I want to focus more of my energies on public policy and advocacy efforts. This country needs to make a real commitment to affordable housing, particularly multifamily rental housing for our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors.