Larry Curtis is the President and Managing Partner of WinnDevelopment, a Boston-based subsidiary of WinnCompanies that specializes in affordable and so-called “workforce,” or middle-class, housing.
With degrees in architecture and urban planning, Larry got into the real estate business early in life and never looked back.
He’s done half a billion dollar’s worth of development in the 25 years he’s been at WinnCompanies, which is the largest manager of affordable housing in America.
Larry started in real estate early.
At age 18, he spent the $3,000 he had saved up working odd jobs as a down payment on a $17,000 house in Amityville, Long Island.
He painted it, fixed it up and then made the first of many real estate deals in his life, selling it for a modest profit.
He still has the deed, and the house is still there.
Since then, Larry has helped provide good homes for thousands of American families.
In this talk, Larry answers – in less than 12 minutes – the biggest question facing us:
How are we going to solve this crisis?
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How to address the crisis:
The path to get every American family a safe, decent home they can afford
PRESENTED AT HOME1 LAUNCH EVENT
NEW YORK, NY • FEBRUARY 27, 2018
BY LARRY CURTIS
PRESIDENT & MANAGING PARTNER, WINNDEVELOPMENT
Over the next hundred years, the cotton milling industry exploded across New England. The mills were everywhere, and they dominated the economy.
Built from bricks and heavy timber, the main Yarn Works building has huge arched windows and ceiling heights from 12 to 25 feet.
The first time I walked in, my heart was pounding out of my chest.
Even though the mill had been vacant and neglected for decades—and was in need of major restoration—I knew we had to build there.
We broke ground at the end of 2015 and opened two years later.
It’s the kind of project that makes me jump out of bed at 5am to get the work day started.
(Well, to tell you the truth… I do that pretty much every day of the year.)
When people ask me how I approach my work, I say it’s all about doing well while doing good.
And a project like Yarn Works is good in so many ways…
We brought a historically significant site back to life.
And over a million bricks, which were made using what they called a “soft mud process,” with wooden molds dipped in sand—resulting in beautiful irregularities that you don’t see in the bricks they sell at Home Depot.
Also a solid granite foundation, which will last forever.
But the best part is this:
Of the 96 rental units, 38 are for low-income families.
And 30 are middle-income. (Back when the mill was in full swing, the bulk of the employees would have been in this category.)
For the other 28 homes in the mill building, we set the rent according to what people are willing to pay.
Everyone benefits from this mix of families living alongside one another.
And living in a place with that kind of historical significance… it creates a bond with the community that wouldn’t exist in ground-up construction.
We know this well, because we’ve done, in recent years, 32 of these projects—reusing structures that previously played a different role in the community… a lot of mills, a majestic high school built during the Great Depression, even a chocolate factory!
All 32 of these have a similar mix of income levels, with about two thirds of the apartments reserved for people who need help with the rent. I’m proud of that.
But, when I take a step back and look at the magnitude of the crisis our nation is facing…
I get upset.
In order to provide homes for all the families in America who can’t afford their rent…
Our company would have to build ten thousand times the number of these apartments that we’ve built so far.
That fact was hard for me to wrap my head around.
As a visual thinker, it helped me to think of it in terms of this image:
A tall Starbucks cup, filled to the brim with grains of rice. (Uncooked rice.)
Are you picturing that?
Now, let’s say you take a pair of tweezers and pull out a single grain of rice and set it on the table next to the cup.
That grain of rice represents the 3,000 apartments we’ve built in these “mixed income communities.”
All the other grains of rice are the remaining American families who can’t afford their rent and need our help.
Yes. We have a problem.
By the way, we’re one of the biggest companies doing this.
If you wanted to pull out grains of rice for all the mixed-income communities built by others, all you’d need is a teaspoon.
Having dedicated the past 31 years of my life to these projects, this is a harsh reality to face.
I know that we are part of the solution.
I’ve seen first-hand how much of a difference we make in the lives of the families that live in our apartments—and in the communities where we build.
But how can we possibly scale up enough to solve the crisis—or to even take a meaningful step towards a solution?
Here is what has to happen first:
As a nation, we need to recognize how serious a problem this is.
We need to talk about the fact that hard-working Americans with good careers can’t afford decent homes.
We need folks across the country, in large numbers, to be loudly and vehemently demanding that we fix this.
Only then will this become a national priority.
Once it rises to that level—and only then—will legislators feel pressure to take action.
And once this becomes a national priority, our leaders are more likely to acknowledge that it is the role of government to ensure that safe, decent homes are within reach for its citizens.
For most of the 20th century, this was a national priority.
Leaders at all levels of government took action to address it.
Starting in 1937, the answer was public housing:
Subsidized apartments built and managed by the government.
Twelve years later, Truman signed a bill that promised “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.”
That bill immediately led to the construction of sprawling housing projects like Cabrini Green in Chicago—and, for more than 50 years, the solution was to build more public housing.
Then, in 1992, that trend came to an abrupt stop when a Congressional Commission issued a scathing report on the failure of public housing in America.
It cataloged the “severe physical deterioration” of many of the sites, describing “residents living in despair”, with high crime rates and “concentrated poverty and distress.”
Since that time, public housing has slowly begun to fade out—and one solution has emerged as the clear winner:
Government and private enterprise working together.
The Yarn Works—and all of the other similar projects we’ve done—are in this category.
Through a variety of different programs, public funds—from federal, state and local sources—underwrite the capital costs and enable people in need to pay lower rents.
Private developers do the construction, and private management companies oversee the properties. All are given incentives to perform at the highest possible level.
This is what works.
There are thousands of success stories.
But we need to dramatically increase the size of these programs.
The fact that 1,000 people or more are often vying to get a single apartment is a sign of the dire shortage of funding for these programs.
But, as of today, while the Federal and State Governments acknowledge the problem, their budgets often do the opposite of funding more–which is what is needed.
They slash some existing funding and doesn’t expand what’s worked.
Where does that leave us?
We’ll just have to play the long game.
It could be several years before we have any chance of creating positive change.
Let me suggest three priorities for us to focus on during this time:
Build a movement. Make this a national priority. Rally people around the cause.
(Funding cuts may actually help us achieve this—by worsening the crisis to the point that everyone has to start talking about it.)
Develop an action plan and build consensus around it.
We need a clear plan that lays out steps towards a solution, and we need to unite behind it.
This plan will identify the specific program expansions that would have the most impact.
In other words, it would address how public funds can be applied most effectively.
[For example: I’m a big fan of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and the Historic Tax Credit.]
Our plan will also propose changes to the system to put more homes within reach of those in need.
One way to do this:
Make homes more affordable by increasing the supply.
To make that happen, decrease regulation.
(If you want to see more on that – look up Edward Glaeser, a Harvard Professor of Economics who has written extensively on this.)
Use new construction technology to build a better building less expensively.
As I think you gathered earlier…
I love my job.
But only 1 in 1000 developers in the U.S. builds affordable homes through the programs I mentioned.
I’d like to take a minute and speak to the other 99.9% of developers who don’t do affordable:
I want to give you the top 5 reasons you should start.
REASON #1 –
You may be surprised just how rewarding it is for you to transform the lives of families by getting them into good homes they can afford.
REASON #2 –
You see how bad the problem is; take this opportunity to be part of the solution. It feels good. (I promise.)
REASON #3 –
Expand your world. Meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. Go places you wouldn’t otherwise go.
REASON #4 –
You may be steering clear of this because you think it’s complicated.
Well… It is.
Do it for the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you figure it out and it comes together.
REASON #5 –
Do well while doing good.
There’s only so much satisfaction you can get from making money.
There’s no limit to what you can get from doing good for people in your community.
That’s all I have to say to the developers.
To everyone who cares about this and wants to make a difference:
Go to www.home.one, click JOIN, and add your e-mail address.
Connect with Home1 on social media.
And share Home1 videos with everyone you know.
Together, we can make this better.
The first step is to give people a reason to care.