Affordable Housing Gets Some 'Southern Charm'

Milton Prat, senior vice president, The Michaels Organization, speaks to MHN about their new affordable housing community in Montgomery, Ala.

Montgomery, Ala.—The Michaels Organization, working with the Montgomery Housing Authority (MHA), recently broke ground on The Plaza at Centennial Hill, an affordable housing community in Montgomery. MHN speaks with Milton Pratt, senior vice president, The Michaels Organization, about the new affordable housing design and the significance of public and private funding for the development.

MHN: Describe The Plaza at Centennial Hill.

Pratt: The Plaza at Centennial Hill is a new sustainable development that we’re working on with the MHA. It’s more than the 129 units we just had a groundbreaking for; in total it’s going to be more than 400 units of affordable housing and mixed-income housing. The first phase is 129 units with a design that has a little Southern charm in it. We took a lot of time and great patience and care to work with the city of Montgomery and working with the housing authority and leadership bureau to really come up with a design that we think will be timeless in the city of Montgomery.

MHN: How would you describe the “Southern charm”?

Pratt: One of the things we do on all the designs in our communities is when we have a housing partner (like the housing authority in a city) we spend an inordinate amount of time with them. For example, we said to our housing authority partner, “Go take pictures of the details you like around the city. And we’re going to incorporate some of those details into our design.” Certainly [the Plaza] is an efficient design, it’s a sustainable design, but it has architectural details and elements that our local partner saw throughout the city of Montgomery, and they said to incorporate that into this project. That’s really where that Southern charm [comes from]—everything to how the doors are treated, the rooflines, the window lines. Those are real elements and aspects that make the fabric of a very rich community.

MHN: Do you think design is now an important element when it comes to affordable housing, as opposed to the past when those communities tended to be very utilitarian?

Pratt: Absolutely! We have to be competitive in every marketplace we work in. The communities that we develop in this climate and in this market are always going to look exactly like any other market-rate housing. The only difference is that some of the families just happen to be low-income. We really think about the income mix of some of the families that live here. Really, it’ll be workforce housing. There’ll be families that include first-year teachers, firemen, people who work at, say, Alabama State University. The property is immediately adjacent to downtown. We want to create a place for people who are working in those offices to live, work and play.

MHN: I read you’ve said that The Plaza is the first step in changing the face of affordable housing in the area. What did you mean by that?

Pratt: It’s some of the first mixed-finance housing to be developed with the Montgomery Housing Authority in Montgomery. I think it’s the public/private partnership that’s so unique. Everyone in the city decided they would seek out a world-class developer, like Michaels, to work with them. And I saw all throughout the design process, and throughout the process of arranging for financing, that everyone spoke very loudly and clearly that the citizens of Montgomery deserve better than the housing authority had previously been providing. They wanted to do something new and creative and innovative. Everybody in the city pulled in the same direction to make this happen. We’re proud as an organization to simply be a part of that—the commitment to citizens who just happen to be low income.

MHN: Do you think public and private financing will become a trend?

Pratt: With respect to [the city of] Montgomery, they are committed to Michaels and the Montgomery Housing Authority. They are working on a total of four phases on this site, and then there will be some other commercial and retail development that will eventually happen. The first thing we want to see is getting families back in the neighborhood. Then we know that small retailers will follow. I think this is the trend that the city of Montgomery wants to see. I think all throughout the country we’re seeing this trend. I wouldn’t even call it a trend at this point—I think it’s simply the way that housing authorities and redevelopment authorities are working in close connection with people like myself, as well as some of the financiers in this project, through low-income housing tax credits.

One of the other things you should know is that we have a number of local partners. From our organization’s perspective, we work nationally, but what we’re seeing is that all business gets done locally. The emphasis around making sure we understand the local market is one that we take very seriously.

MHN: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Pratt: It’s a great time to be working in the affordable housing space. There are tremendous opportunities, but at the same time there remain challenges. We are one of the premier companies that does this work, and one of the things that really separates us is that our biggest, most important efforts are always taken around affordable housing. We do other things, certainly, but one of the things we’ve done for 40 years is focus on affordable housing. We work with non-profits to provide social services to all of our communities around the country. It’s something that we’ve been doing for years and it works toward our bottom line, but it also works toward creating strong, stable and viable communities.