Larry Curtis: Solving the Workforce Housing Puzzle
Everyone worries about the yawning chasm between the need and supply of workforce and affordable housing. WinnDevelopment president Larry Curtis is winning recognition for his efforts to do something about it.
For nearly 30 years, Larry has been developing affordable and mixed-income housing that gives struggling households a home while preserving and reusing historic structures. A few weeks ago, Larry and his team cut the ribbon on Lofts Five/50, the redevelopment of the long idled Malden Mills textile plant in Lawrence. A few days ago in Washington, DC, the team kicked off a $69M rehabilitation and refinancing that will keep 303 apartments at Atlantic Gardens and Atlantic Terrace affordable for 40 years.
Last week, the Greater Boston Rental Housing Association gave Larry its 2015 Industry Excellence Award, putting him in the ranks of legendary Boston developers: Norman Leventhal, John Corcoran and Edward Fish. To help create city, state and national policies to promote affordable and workforce housing, last summer Larry was named chairman of the Workforce Housing Affordability Committee of the National Multifamily Housing Council. For a kid from Massapequa, Long Island (displaying his ultra low-tech way of staying organized), being recognized by his peers is about as good as it gets, Larry tells us.
Here's Larry back in NYC, checking out a site. As a schoolboy, Larry saved the $1.65/hour he earned doing odd jobs and learned about commercial real estate from his Dad, a real estate attorney. His father also shared some simple rules about business. Meet one new person a day. Never touch any piece of paper more than once. Don’t ever say would have, could have, or I forgot. At age 18, Larry used his savings—$17k—to buy a property that he renovated and sold for $34k. The real estate bug bit him. He graduated from Cooper Union as a licensed architect and won a master’s in urban planning from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Since joining WinnDevelopment in 1987, he's been instrumental in growing the portfolio from 3,000 units to nearly 96,000.
While there are programs that seek to provide housing for low-income folks, there are few options for households earning a mid-market income of $80k/year to $100k/year. (Winn's adaptive reuse of Boott Mill in Lowell is a rare mid-market development.) The problem is the basic disconnect between the rent a developer needs to cover the cost to produce an apartment in a prime US city ($3,500/month to $4k/month) and how much a working family can spend on rent ($2k/month or less). Larry is among those trying to figure out how to close the gap.
Larry is constantly in contact with government officials like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (second from right). One possible solution is to open some affordable housing programs to middle-income residents. Another is to increase the long-term tax credits and ongoing capital subsidies available to developers building workforce housing to write down the effective cost of the asset. Perhaps there could be new incentives to encourage financial institutions that are required to support low-income housing production—like banks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—to support mid-market housing. By lending to these developments, banks can earn the required credits under the Community Reinvestment Act.
Larry says he’s tremendously gratified to complete affordable housing developments like the 137-unit Lofts Five/50 in Lawrence. The long-depressed city suffered a near mortal blow when fire ravaged one of its major employers, Malden Mills. It’s taken 13 years for Larry to get the funding, the public approvals and work with Malden Mills as it went through bankruptcy. But cutting that ribbon on Phase 2 recently—knowing the housing provides a great environment for families and helps revitalize the city—is Larry's big payback.