Interview with Tony Pickett, Urban Land Conservancy

Probably no one in the country is in a better position than Tony Pickett to talk about efforts to include long-term affordable housing in two of the nation’s largest Transit Oriented Development (TOD) ventures: Denver’s FasTracks plan, and Atlanta’s Beltline project.

Pickett, who has over 25 years of real estate experience in the planning, design, financing, and implementation of mixed use and mixed income communities, joined Denver’s nonprofit Urban Land Conservancy (ULC) last October as Vice President of Master Site Development. The land bank-land trust hybrid partnered with Enterprise Community Partners, the city and county of Denver, and other investors to establish the first affordable housing TOD acquisition fund in the country.

The purpose of the Denver TOD Fund is to support the creation and preservation of over 1,000 affordable housing units through strategic property acquisition, as the city builds 122 new miles of rail lines through the FasTracks plan.

Before joining the ULC, Pickett was the Founding Executive Director of the Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative (ALTC), and led efforts to create equitable development along the multi-billion Atlanta Beltline project. Pickett sat down with Shelterforce recently to talk about his efforts to include permanently affordable housing in transit development projects.

Shelterforce: Tell us more about your background, and how you got involved in creating long-term affordable housing?

Tony Pickett: My college degree is in architecture, and I started my career working in large firms working on corporate projects. Around the time of the Atlanta Olympics, I left for a smaller firm doing more community-type projects like schools and community centers. I developed an affinity for work achieving some measurable impact, especially in neighborhoods with few resources.

Later I worked with the Atlanta Housing Authority. Figuring out how to combine public and private money, translate technical language between design professionals, public officials, and community residents, and coming up with a master plan used all of my skill sets. I enjoyed it very much, so I switched to community development and helped found the ALTC to create permanently affordable housing along the route of the beltline to avoid the displacement of predominately African-American residents.

I wasn’t contemplating moving to Denver, but when the ULC sent out the job posting, I said to myself: I can continue to invest my efforts in education, or literally do what I’m talking about on the ground in Denver. I like doing more than talking, so I applied and got the job.

Shelterforce: Why incorporate permanent affordability into Denver’s TOD?

Tony Pickett: TOD has a variety of benefits. You can lower your transportation costs, increase opportunities, and attract additional development to an area. But if you allow change to just happen, you run the risk of wholesale displacement of low-income folks.

We’re working to avoid that. For example, on the West Rail Line, we purchased the 62-unit Jody Apartments prior to the line opening—for the purpose of preserving affordability. We worked out additional property assemblage with the RTD (Regional Transportation District) that will allow us to build up to 200 new apartments, and at least 62 of them will be permanently affordable. So when we later tear down the apartments, which are sorely in need of replacement, we won’t displace any residents.

Shelterforce: What are some similarities between Denver and Atlanta, especially regarding long-term affordable housing issues?

Tony Pickett: There are a lot of parallels. Both are dealing with suburbanization of poverty, TOD-sponsored change happening in the urban core, and the impact that has on low-income populations.

When we talk about long-term affordability, we want to address housing preservation, rentals, and new property in Atlanta and Denver. And in both places, there’s a focus on multifamily rentals. The most impactful method to achieve affordability is by using low-income housing tax credits, but that resource is limited, and the competition for it is intense.

Shelterforce: Compare the challenges between the Denver and Atlanta projects?

Tony Pickett: In Denver there’s more acceptance of community land trusts. In Atlanta, CLT’s were virtually unknown. There were a lot of concerns and questions, like: Are you limiting the wealth-building capacity of low-income communities?

In Denver there are banking partners who understand the importance of affordable housing at transit stations, who’ve bought into it. The ULC has access to a unique collective fund pool. We didn’t have that in Atlanta, where there was more reliance on institutions that deal with affordable housing and for-profit builders to resolve operating capital, land acquisition, and construction financing. But it’s a big burden, and you need support for that.

In Atlanta we had a lot of success with tax increment financing. In Denver we’re just beginning to talk about how to use it to support TOD development.

Shelterforce: Who are some of your strongest allies?

Tony Pickett: There’s a well-established, collaborative group effort here called Mile High Connects. It includes investors in the TOD fund, plus philanthropic and nonprofit partners. It looks at TOD from a variety of perspectives, including health and employment. They’re having open discussions, reaching consensus, and focusing everyone’s efforts on achieving long-term benefit for the local residents. It’s a tremendous asset.

Shelterforce: Who would you still like to get on your side to help with efforts to increase the units of permanently affordable housing in Denver?

Tony Pickett: A variety of folks, from elected officials to registered neighborhood organizations—especially the state housing finance and urban renewal authorities. It was the same in Atlanta.

There has got to be an education campaign. Sometimes folks are just interested in leveraging dollars to get the most affordable housing as possible—educating them on long-term affordability is key.

Shelterforce: What are some other obstacles?

Tony Pickett: There’s a lot of confusion over HUD’s exact rules and regs regarding CLT’s. No one wants to lose HUD money, so they err on the side of extreme caution. We’re still a small part of HUD’s programs, so it’s not a high priority for them to clarify things. That’s why it’s very important to get more CLT homes on the ground.

Shelterforce: Where do you envision the Denver project in five years?

Tony Pickett: We’ll continue to build-out our current TOD acquisition portfolio, including eight sites. The largest is Park Hill Village West, with 9.4 acres. It’s a vibrant, mixed-use development that includes open space, affordable housing, opportunities for resident employment, and priority for local businesses.

The east corridor commuter line will lead from the downtown business district to the Denver International Airport. A variety of stations along the line go through at-risk neighborhoods, and will change their character.

Shelterforce: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

Tony Pickett: Now that I’ve moved to Denver, I live in an apartment in an urban setting within walking distance of the office, light rail, a park, a grocery store, and other essential services. It’s quite pleasant, and I already feel healthier.

Walking encourages interaction, and people here are very friendly. It’s a much more diverse environment then I was expecting—there are people of various ethnicities and walks of life. There’s a coffee bar nearby called Fluid, and you end up interacting with your neighbors there on the way to work, or sitting outside and socializing in the evenings.

I’m living the TOD lifestyle here, and I’m excited to help create new communities that offer people—across a range of incomes—the opportunity to do the same.

Read more about Pickett, and his work in Denver and Atlanta on Shelterforce’s Rooflines blog.

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