Banking on Affordable Housing

March 30, 2012
By

(Photo by Katherine Muhlfelder/Boston Private Bank & Trust Co.) (from left) Leroy Stoddard of Urban Edge, Sarah Lamitie of Boston Private Bank & Trust Company, Noah Maslan of Urban Edge, and Peter Hollands of Boston Private Bank stand before the soon-to-be-renovated building at Columbus Avenue and Dixwell Street March 23.

How one bank’s mission helps JP

The Urban Edge-owned apartment buildings around Egleston Square are easy-to-see neighborhood assets, preserving affordable housing and, in many cases, attractive historical facades.

Look a little harder, and you can spot some of the renovation work that is improving them and making them greener, such as the heat-reflecting white roofs being laid.

But totally invisible are the complex financial deals that keep affordable housing in Jamaica Plain and other neighborhoods thanks to such funders as Boston Private Bank & Trust Company.

Bankers from that company and Urban Edge officials joined the Gazette in visiting some of those buildings on March 23, then sat down in the park at Columbus Avenue and Dixwell Street to talk about their behind-the-scenes relationship.

“This isn’t just a bank making a loan,” said Noah Maslan, Urban Edge’s director of real estate development, describing a deal involving almost a dozen funding sources. “They really have to be part of the team and partner in doing it. If you’re too rigid in doing it, it doesn’t work.”

Ultimately, “it’s good business for us,” said Sarah Lamitie, a vice president and community investment officer at Boston Private Bank. But, she added, that is only because of the bank’s commitment to partnering with such nonprofit developers as the Jackson Square-based Urban Edge, and its know-how in making such deals.

The bank turns 25 this year, and Urban Edge is 38 years old. Their partnership goes back more than a decade and includes the 2002 upgrade of Egleston Square’s Father Jack Roussin Community Center, which now houses the YMCA and Greater Egleston Community High School.

Boston Private Bank also is a major partner in Urban Edge’s free first-time homebuyer training programs and provides loans to some of its graduates through its Hyde Square loan office. The bank also frequently hires interns from Urban Edge’s Youth Leadership Academy, a jobs program for young tenants in its developments.

“Urban Edge has been one of my heroes for a long time,” said Peter Hollands, a vice president and community reinvestment commercial lender at the bank. Years ago, as an urban planning grad student at Tufts, he interviewed Urban Edge’s Leroy Stoddard about JP’s Southwest Corridor Community Farm, a key precursor to the Southwest Corridor Park.

Hollands and Lamitie also both previously worked at the City of Boston agency now known as the Department of Neighborhood Development—a frequent partner of Urban Edge.

The latest collaboration involves a $10 million construction loan to help the rehab of 82 apartment units in various JP and Roxbury buildings. They include 1899-1901 Columbus Ave.; 2020 and 2030 Columbus; 60 Seaver; and a building at Columbus and Dixwell across the street from the park.

The $22 million project variously covers new windows, new roofs, insulation, updated water lines and interior renovations. The Seaver building will get a microturbine for generating high-efficiency heating and electricity.

Tenants will remain in place during the rehab and were consulted for input into the work. José Irizzary and Wanda Ortiz, a couple living in the 1899-1901 Columbus building, told the Gazette that they were looking forward to the occasional mice in the basement being replaced with a new on-site laundry.

Ortiz said the tenant input into the plan was “great. The building’s kind of old.”

The couple was less interested in the bankers hanging out in front of the building, who seemed used to the behind-the-scenes role. The bank holds an employee bus tour of some of its nonprofit partnership projects, said spokesperson and assistant vice president Katherine Muhlfelder. But they have little direct contact with the residents they are ultimately helping.

A big exception is in the homebuyer training classes and home loans.

“We get hugs, we get kisses, from many of the borrowers we have financed,” said Aida Franquiz, a vice president and community investment officer at the bank who works on the home mortgage side. The Urban Edge classes are graduating about 100 people a year, and Franquiz estimated that about 20 percent of the bank’s low- and moderate-income home loan business comes from the JP area.

Such pleasant community response to a bank may seem unusual in today’s climate, following the 2008 financial crisis. It’s an even bigger turnaround from the 1970s, when banks were engaged in “redlining,” a systematic practice of racial discrimination in lending that left entire neighborhoods marked as no-credit zones.

“There was a lobbying effort in the 1970s by community development corporations for banks to reinvest in the city,” said Stoddard, in what many would call understatement. The political effort resulting in the federal Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which pushes banks to lend in lower-income areas.

Boston Private Bank has made CRA work a core business, with other recent investments including the new Whittier Street Health Center building in Roxbury. In JP, it was a founding sponsor of Hyde/Jackson Square Main Streets. The bank is now boasting of its rare “outstanding” CRA rating from state and federal banking regulators for the 11th year in a row.

Stoddard said that sort of work has helped bridge a sometimes tense gap among homeowners and renters. “Property values and community life depend on both kinds of housing being successful,” he said.

“We’ve got so much more social cohesion” after years of affordable housing efforts, Stoddard said, adding that Boston Private Bank is “an agent of that improvement and change.”

For more information on Urban Edge’s programs, see urbanedge.org. For more about Boston Private Bank & Trust, see bostonprivatebank.com.