Interview #166 Summer 2011 — 36th Anniversary

Conrad Egan

Let’s talk a bit about your experience at National Housing Conference First of all, I want to highlight the longevity of the National Housing Conference. It’s celebrating its 80th birthday […]

Courtesy of NHC

NHC 2010 “Housing Person of the Year” Gala

Let’s talk a bit about your experience at National Housing Conference

First of all, I want to highlight the longevity of the National Housing Conference. It’s celebrating its 80th birthday this year. Under Maureen Friar’s leadership it really is in a strong position.

I was blessed with an opportunity, going back to my NHP days, to get involved with the organization. Back then it was really, if you’ll pardon the phrase, a paycheck-to-paycheck organization. There was a time when the senior officers had to pull their checkbooks out of their pockets to meet payroll.

I realized that the organization needed to be recapitalized and reconstituted. This was just as I was going over to HUD back in ’93. I worked together with other officers and board members, and we brought in Bob Reid to be our executive director. Bob did a wonderful job of strengthening the organization’s finances and its visibility and its, frankly, credibility within the Washington community, national community.

Come 1996, I’m at HUD, and Bob says, “Hey, Conrad, why don’t you come on over as the policy director?” I said, “OK, time to leave HUD. I’m ready to go.”

I served under Bob, served under great chairpersons like John McIlwain, Mike Pitchford, and many others. And comes along 1999, 2000, and Bob calls me into his office — I forget the exact date — and who’s sitting there but Dick Ravitch. And Bob says, “Dick’s looking for someone to head up the Millennial Housing Commission. Would you be interested in that?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I guess so. Gosh, what the hell’s a Millennial Housing Commission?” So I went off to do that for three years, and then came back in 2002 to the conference as president and CEO. Bob Reid moved over to head up the [NHC research arm], Center for Housing Policy. We were a great team. After a bit, Bob moved on and we recruited, very fortuitously, Jeff Lubell to head the center.

After having been the president and CEO for a number of years, I decided that, gosh, I’m pushing 70, and the organization — while very strong in financial position and policy impact — really needed a good, strong five-year commitment to raise it to the next level. And I said, “I really think it’s time to step aside and to bring in new leadership.”

And so I worked with my board and my chairman at the time, Helen Kanovsky, and then Dan Nissenbaum, on what I think was a successful transition and brought in Maureen. And she’s now finishing up assembling her team and the conference remains a very strong, viable, and credible organization with a great future ahead of it.

A few minutes on your work in Fairfax. I remember being in your office once and you showed me a photograph or plans for a an innovative, mixed-income housing development called The Green.

Yes. We now call it West Glade. This was a complex is Reston, Virginia, that was a 100 percent public housing complex. And we figured out, under Walter Webdale, the director of the Housing and Community Development Department, how to move roughly half of the public housing units out of The Green and into other places in the county using our right to purchase units through our inclusionary housing ordinance — not without some conflict, by the way — and then we replaced those units with tax credit units. We revitalized and rehabilitated the property and now we have a mixed-income property that’s doing very well these days, so thank you for remembering that.

And speaking of Walter, he actually asked me if I wanted to serve on the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority as a commissioner. And I said, “Gee, Walter, I don’t know, maybe,” and I eventually was appointed. The Fairfax County Redevelopment Housing Authority is a consolidated authority — we are a public housing authority. We are an HFA. We are a redevelopment authority. We run the HOME and CBG programs all at the same time. We’re a one-stop shop.

I served for eight years as a commissioner on the board, six of those as chairman. And I stepped down about two years ago, again for similar reasons as I did at NHC, because it was time for new leadership, time for me to move on, and time for younger, more energetic people with greater and broader vision to come in, and so we organized that.

But one of the very strong strengths of the Fairfax County situation is, first of all, we’ve had very, very strong and supportive leadership at the elected level. I was originally asked to serve when Kate Hanley was the chairman of the board of supervisors, and she was followed by Jerry Connolly, now Congressman Connolly — he’s actually is my congressman — who appointed me when he was the Providence district supervisor for a while to the RHA board, and now Sharon Bulova, who is the current chairman of the board of supervisors.

And while Jerry and Sharon have different ways of operating, they have continued to advance the cause of affordable and workforce housing, and inclusionary housing in Fairfax County. And we’ve adapted over time, realizing that we needed to adjust our expectations, which five years, six years ago were different than they are now. So we’ve developed an ongoing annual strategic planning document called “The Blueprint,” which is a way of updating our priorities and getting confirmation from the Board of Supervisors about them, and then working that into the budget process.

I also have been pleased to serve as a member of the governing board of the Fairfax County effort to prevent and eliminate homelessness, which actually I think has been quite successful so far. We’ve got a steep hill to climb, but we’re sort of one-quarter of the way there, and we know that we have to pick up the pace.

And also, recently, I was appointed by Gov. McDonnell to be a part of this housing policy group in Richmond, which was called to help him and his senior economic advisor, Bob Sledd, update, modernize and energize the state’s housing and community development and transportation, sustainability, and special needs policies. And so we did that, and now we’re about to implement it. I also serve on the governor’s foreclosure task force.

So I can see you’re keeping busy.

Well, as I sort of move toward the sunset of my career, Harold, I think I’m gravitating more toward Virginia and Fairfax County. I’m also on the board of something called Housing Virginia, which is a statewide coalition of for-profit, nonprofit, and public leaders to advance the cause of affordable housing in Virginia. But I also remain involved with organizations like Community Preservation Development Corporation, and we own about 5,000 units mainly in the D.C. Metro area. We sometimes refer to ourselves as a Mid-Atlantic organization, although we’re really D.C. Metro-based.

As an organizer who became a developer who ran a policy organization, where do you think our field is heading, and what are the challenges ahead?

First of all, I think we have the tools we need. We just need to make sure that they remain strong, supple, and well funded. The LIHTC program replaced an only occasionally effective monitoring system for privately owned assisted properties (which I ran for many years) with a very effective self-enforcing performance-based system by putting the investors at risk for property failure. And in a truly “paradigm shifting” event, we have learned that we can prevent and eliminate homelessness through “Housing First” and permanent supportive housing strategies at the local and state level with strong federal support.

I think we’ve also learned that we need to connect across the various dimensions of the challenge we face. It ain’t just housing, it’s community development. You know, Harold, what really concerns me about the future of this great nation, and this is where I get stumped, is what role housing can play in this. The specter of a serious shortage of affordable rental homes still haunts us, and I’m really concerned about the growing gap between incomes and skill sets and jobs. I see our friends in lower income communities who are increasingly being left behind for a variety of reasons: the globalism challenge, the technology challenge.

We thought for a while that homeownership would help to close that gap, and that’s turned out to be a chimera. So how do we get the kids of today into the jobs of the future and what role does affordable housing and community development play in that? Is this a new mission for CDCs, CDFIs, for-profit housing development corporations, HUD, FHA, and so on? If I were to point to the next biggest challenge that this nation faces, I think it would be that.

Thank you.

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