Walter Moreau is executive director of Foundation Communities, a nonprofit affordable housing developer in Austin, Texas.
The award-winning organization owns 15 housing communities that provide affordable apartments or duplex homes to about 2,400 families, including many that used to be homeless.
Moreau, who has been at the helm since 1997, reveals what makes Foundation special, his favorite green building feature, and what’s next for the organization.
Q: Why do you work in affordable housing?
A: I am a do-gooder at heart. I had to find work that uses the economics and finance part of my brain, but at the same time helps others in a tangible way. I like that supportive housing is a real solution to end homelessness. It works.
Q: How did you get started or interested in the industry?
A: Twenty years ago, I got inspired by seeing single-room occupancy (SRO) housing on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Then I returned to Texas and got to put together funding for the Prince of Wales, a supportive-housing deal. Doing deals with a social purpose became addicting. It helped back then that I could make all kinds of mistakes with tax credits and HOME money because it was still so new.
Q: What makes Foundation Communities different from other housing groups?
A: A model that combines beautiful, first-class, well-managed housing with busy on-site learning centers, financial programs, and other support services. Our mission is not just about nice, cheap apartments but the services that help families succeed. We’ve built a strong charitable donor base that makes our work possible.
Q: How has the nation’s financial crisis affected Foundation and what are you doing to cope with the weak economy?
A: Luckily, Austin has been relatively unscathed so far. All our apartments are full. We snagged the land for our latest project from a failed luxury condo deal. We’ve managed to still find lenders, equity partners, and donors, but it is harder.
Q: What’s your strategy or approach to green building?
A: We are lifetime owners so we’ve got a long payback horizon and fully embrace green practices. All our house meters are 100 percent renewable wind and solar energy. We have a full-time sustainable projects manager who continues to come up with new projects.
Low rent is great but not if it comes with a high utility bill. What will happen to our industry definition of affordable housing if 30 years from now utility allowances grow to be 50 percent or more of the rent cap?
Q: What has been your favorite green feature at one of your projects?
A: Toilet flappers. Our first consciously green project eight years ago was to replace 1,000 old toilet flappers. Not too exciting, but the payback was about three months, and the monthly savings over $20,000. Now we’ve just finished replacing all our toilets with flapperless models. The best green projects have always involved passive, low-tech solutions.
Q: Share with us a housing statistic or interesting fact to think about.
A: 424 people … that’s the number of homeless “rough sleepers” counted in London a few years ago. By comparison we have 4,000 in Austin. The Brits started developing and investing heavily in supportive housing in the 1980s, and today they’ve largely solved their homeless problem. Politically and culturally it is just unacceptable to step over people lying on the sidewalk. Instead they provide the mental health, addiction services, and supportive housing needed. If they can do this in the most expensive housing market in the world, then we probably can do it in any city in the United States if we have the will.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: “Don’t get emotional about real estate” from my first board chair. He was right, but I break this rule on every deal. I do this work because it changes lives so I can’t really let go of the emotion.
Q: Besides the usual work papers, what’s in your office?
A: On my wall I’ve got two abstract art quilts made by my mom and an original black and white photo of Barbara Jordan that I found in a thrift store. I was blessed to take an ethics class from Professor Jordan, and this photo of her staring down at me is a daily reminder to do the right thing.
Q: What do you do when you are not working?
A: Ultimate Frisbee, Crossfit, hunt for used music CDs at thrift stores, hang out with my two boys and wife.
Q: Austin is the live music capital. Seen any good shows lately?
A: The SXSW music conference was just here, and I overdosed on shows. I’m a big fan of Austin artists Sarah Jarosz, Black Joe Lewis, and Mother Falcon.
Q: What’s next for you and Foundation Communities?
A: More donors so we can add more supportive housing. Entrepreneurial financial service programs. Cutting our utility bills another 10 percent. Building M Station, our dream new family community and child care center. Renovating a recently purchased slum property into a great place to call home.