Cross-sector partnerships fuel new breakthroughs in affordable housing

September 30, 2013

"It's Maslow's hierarchy of needs," Paul Weech says. "Cover the basics—food and shelter—and you allow people to focus their time and energy on work, family, education, and all the rest."

A self-proclaimed "houser," Weech is fervent about the need for affordable housing in the United States, and has dedicated much of his professional career to the cause, including ten years with Fannie Mae and four with the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. For the past four years, Weech has continued that work as executive vice president of policy and member engagement for the Housing Partnership Network, a Boston-based network of the nation's 100 largest and most active nonprofits in affordable housing and community development.

The Housing Partnership Network (HPN) is, by many measures, an impressive organization. Collectively, HPN members have:

  • Developed or preserved 300,000 affordable homes serving more than 600,000 low-income people;
  • Counseled 710,000 families to access and preserve sustainable homeownership;
  • Provided $10 billion in community development loans for 160,000 homes, 260,000 charter school seats, 190,000 day care and after school slots, and community health centers serving 260,000 people;
  • and Assisted 4.3 million people through housing, community facilities, and services.

In addition, HPN works with its members to develop new, collectively-owned social enterprises that help these organizations succeed while demonstrating innovative new ways to improve the practice of affordable housing and community development. With what it learns from these ventures, HPN develops policy platforms, and then advocates for policy changes that can advance and improve the sector.

It's this last bit, the focus on social enterprise approaches, that's most important to Weech, whose vocabulary is studded with business terms—R&D, revenue model, entrepreneurship, return on investment, and the bottom line. "Network members are all mission-oriented nonprofits," he clarifies, "but they deliver their products and services with the business acumen of for-profit institutions."

This spring, for example, the Housing Partnership Network launched a ground-breaking public/private sector partnership—a $100 million investment fund, the Housing Partnership Equity Trust (HPET). The first Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) owned by non-profits, HPET will provide capital for real estate purchases, allowing its non-profit owners to compete with the for-profit developers who "would buy that housing, raise the rent, and gentrify it," says Weech.

The non-profit members, in turn, work to ensure that the properties remain affordable, are well maintained, and that the residents have access to appropriate community services like child care programs, community centers, and medical clinics. Funded by Citi, Morgan Stanley, Prudential Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, the Housing Partnership Equity Trust is a fine example of the innovative public/private partnerships that Weech finds so exciting.

In the spring of 2013, members of the Housing Partnership Network convened in Washington, DC, to discuss the outcome of pilot projects funded by Citi Foundation's "Innovations in Neighborhood Stabilization and Foreclosure Prevention Initiative." They had hired the unemployed to rehabilitate foreclosed homes; trained local residents to become landlords and managers of small, multifamily properties; and purchased houses out of foreclosure, selling them back to the families that lost them with new, more affordable mortgages. Not surprisingly, they learned a good deal from these pilots—lessons that will improve their practices going forward.

HPN awards in 2013 include the MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions and the NEXT Opportunity Award for innovative community development financial institutions. It will be interesting to see what the $1.5 million grant from MacArthur and the $2.5 million investment from the NEXT Award will make possible for the Housing Partnership Network in the years ahead. Weech's guess? They'll leverage additional private capital for the network's social enterprises, while furthering the mission HPN shares with its members: to transform lives and communities.

Paul Weech is current chair of the Ford School's Alumni Board, a representative group of alumni that provides volunteer leadership to support the programs and activities of the school.