Q and A: A Former Broadcaster Provides Tips for Developing and Investing in Affordable Housing

By Anuradha Kher, Online News EditorAs executive director of Community Housing Innovations (CHI), Alexander Roberts has overseen the acquisition of 500 houses and apartments in Westchester, Ulster, Nassau and Suffolk Counties, with a budget of $15 million a year. Roberts founded CHI in 1991, after spending nearly 20 years as a television news correspondent. After covering the welfare hotel scandals in the late-80s in New York City, Roberts decided to leave broadcasting for affordable housing development and human services.Roberts tells MHN about the challenges of affordable housing and provides tips to those thinking about investing in or developing affordable housing.MHN: Describe your role in CHI.  Roberts: My role at CHI is to provide direction to the agency and its various departments consistent with its mission of “providing the housing and human services that enable low- and moderate-income individuals and families to achieve the greatest social and economic independence at the lowest cost to society.” I see my role as a facilitator to directors of our agency to help them achieve their and the company’s goals. MHN: What has been your biggest challenge so far as executive director of CHI?   Roberts: The biggest challenge I face is dealing with the complexity and bureaucracy of housing development in the suburban New York Metropolitan Area.  MHN: What is the biggest challenge CHI faces today?    Roberts: The biggest challenge for CHI is re-orienting growth toward housing development as we deal with exclusionary zoning and ability of few neighbors to thwart housing developments. MHN: What are the challenges facing affordable housing today? Roberts: The biggest challenge is the lack of laws that would enforce fair zoning policies. Narrow self-interests are protected to the detriment of the greater good. MHN: How will Gov. Paterson’s $200 million increase in funds to affordable housing be useful to organizations like the CHI?Roberts: The additional funding will be very useful to financially allow housing development to proceed.  However, it will not be as effective as fair zoning, which no governor has yet to tackle.  MHN: What qualities do you bring to CHI?Roberts: Because of my background as a reporter (and not a manager), the agency operates less as a hierarchy and more like a collaboration of equals. My directors are very strong managers; however, dissent and new ideas are encouraged. Employees feel free to help the agency grow in new directions. MHN: Can a builder make profits in affordable housing?Roberts: Yes. In fact, it is a much safer investment than market-rate housing in today’s uncertain market. Affordable housing funders generally allow a profit of 15 percent of total development costs.MHN: What is your advice to a builder/developer starting out in the affordable housing market?Roberts: The qualifying rules for tenants or homebuyers are esoteric to the market-rate developer. So anyone starting out should engage the services of an experienced consultant or nonprofit that understands the financing of affordable housing, and one that employs heavy use of grants and low-interest loans.    I also recommend using the best and most efficient building materials and equipment. There is no “cheap” affordable housing.  Better to pay now than pay later after the project is placed in service.MHN: What tips would you give someone who is thinking about investing in affordable housing?Roberts: Affordable housing is a very safe investment because there is virtually no market risk. However, as with any real estate project, carefully investigate the background and experience of the developer, manager or owner.