Mary Wright is president of the Wisconsin Housing Preservation Corp. (WHPC), the largest owner of affordable rental housing in its state.
An industry veteran, she has served as director of multifamily housing at the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) and held executive-level positions at Wells Fargo Bank and Johnson Bank.
Wright discusses what makes WHPC unique, the organization’s latest development, and the skills that have helped her the most.
How did you get started in the affordable housing industry, and what did that first job teach you?
Earlier in my career, I spent time working at WHEDA, starting as a housing specialist. My primary role was to assist WHEDA with the foreclosure and disposition of over 300 single-family homes and work with mortgage insurance companies to file and negotiate claim settlements. It was an interesting experience, which also included working with the FBI on collusion/fraud among appraisers, Realtors, and home buyers that set artificially higher sales prices and took advantage of first-time home buyers with downpayment assistance. I also have a background in commercial banking, which requires complex financial solutions. Partnership issues/resolution/workouts, acquisitions, etc., this early experience helped me see how to resolve problems with financial considerations.
What makes WHPC different from other affordable housing organizations?
We are an S&P rated AA- not-for-profit corporation with a strong mission to develop, acquire, and preserve affordable housing in perpetuity. Additionally, we retain our earnings to leverage into strategic investments to address the needs of our residents and grow. Today, we are the largest owner of affordable rental housing with almost 9,000 units in Wisconsin.
Tell us about a development that WHPC is working on.
We are projected to close soon on RISE Madison, our largest new-construction tax credit development, which will produce 245 units, four buildings, seniors and families, of affordable housing, including a 1-acre park. This project has taken over 2.5 years to obtain the necessary approvals and move through a maze of financing resources (nine!) while battling interest rate creep. We are very proud to be able to deliver this much-needed housing and are estimating a 24-month construction period. The site is 6 acres and was a former commercial bakery, which had been closed since 2020. Our $82 million project is being funded through the sale of 4% tax credits (with CREA), tax-exempt bonds purchased by Wisconsin-headquartered banks (Associated Bank and Johnson Financial Group), Capital Magnet funds (U.S. Department of Treasury’s CDFI), city of Madison Affordable Housing Trust and tax increment financing, Dane County workforce funds, and WHPC equity.
What is the organization’s biggest challenge today, and how are you addressing that challenge?
Managing operating expenses, which have increased due to inflation, wages, interest rates, insurance, and more. While we have been successful with achieving rent increases, we are concerned about the ability to control costs. We have been focused on reinvesting in capital improvements to achieve better efficiency and higher quality for our residents. We continue to be growth oriented and manage our resources wisely.
What skills have helped you the most during your career?
Relationship/people management, financial expertise, leadership, business acumen, learning from others.
Besides the usual work items, what’s in your office?
A beautiful view of Lake Mendota, which offers positive vibes, nature, and tranquility.
If you could take a crash course on any subject, what would it be?
Favorite pizza topping?
Favorite fictional character and why?
Casper, the friendly ghost. (A joke from parenting when something happened and no one would fess up, we blamed it on Casper.)
What’s next for Mary Wright and WHPC?
WHPC is well positioned to do more in our state to support housing affordability and be innovative. We are unique to our competitors as we hold our assets in perpetuity, so that there is a long-term supply of affordable units. Annually, we preserve $40 million of Section 8 assistance for our very low-income residents. We seek new ways to provide affordable housing to decrease the rent burden and retain quality for our residents.