'Partnership' teams up on housing for low-incomers

The concrete-slab walls of a deserted, multilevel parking garage here will soon bloom with wallpapered living rooms as the structure is converted into a modern apartment house for 80 low-income families.

It is just one of the many innovative projects carried out by the National Housing Partnership (NHP), a private, profitmaking company that specializes in housing for the elderly, the handicapped, and low-and moderate-income families.

The sole general partner and administrative arm of NHP is the National Corporation for Housing Partnerships, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

NHP competes with other developers for bids from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and pools its capital with a local partner to finance a project.

Since the company was chartered by Congress in 1968, it has completed more than 51,000 housing units, ranging from a converted mansion for the elderly in Pennsylvania to a luxury high-rise in Cincinnati.

With projects in 40 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, the National Housing Partnership is the nation's largest private Developer of low-income housing. One measure of its success is that none of its projects have been foreclosed.

Most project suggestions come to the partnership's main office in Washington, D.C., from local developers who need its financial backing and security. Its development department thoroughly investigates the economic feasibility and actual need of a suggested project in a specific neighborhood.

If the department feels that a suggestiion is sound, it is presented to the project approval committee, which consists of the senior department heads in NHP.

When the committee gives a green light, the departments get to work. NHP architects work with a local architectural firm on design and energy efficiency; the construction department monitors the building at the site, makings sure the correct materials are used and bills are paid; the construction department monitors the building at the site, making sure the correct materials are used and bills are paid; and the wheel of cooperation between the state and federal governments and the NHO begins to roll.

In the past, the agency focused most of its efforts on California, Maryland, and Florida. The face-lift given to Baltimore's famous harbor, as well as extensive redevelopment in St. Louis and New York's Harlem, the Bronx, and Manhatten, are some of its accomplishments.

The latest area of concentrated effort is New England. Mark Sharp, vice-president of NHP's New England property management office, estimates that one-third of the projects are in the Boston and Providence, R.I., areas.

Mr Sharp's office takes full responsibility for the financial burden, maintenance, tenant selection, and anything else connected with the project.

"Tenant selection can make or break any subsidized rental project," Mr. Sharp says. Formerly, NHP was not involved with tenant selection, but when "alcoholics, drug addicts, and criminals wer easily getting accepted, we felt we had to take over."

The New England office conducts a detailed screening to determine who will get the apartments. After eliminating applications that don't meet HUD's financial eligibility requirements, the office investigates the applicants' financial standing. The project's district and site managers interview the applicants and have them fill out various forms. Finally, they make a home visit to see how the applicant treats hits or her own apartment as a gauge of how well the applicant can be expected to treat the project apartment.

The selection of site manager is equally important. About 70 percent of the managers live on the premises -- "an unusual condition," Mr. Sharp says. "Most site managers are only around to collect the rent."

Site managers are usually NHP affiliates. The firm does, however, hire managers from other developers, usually from original partners in a project.

Minnie Clark, for example, works for Boston's Abrams Management Company, which oversees an NHP-subsidized urban-renewal development in Roxbury, a part of Boston.

The Roxbury project used to be a hotel. Carved moldings still outline the ceilings, and marble steps still lead up from the main entrance.

but changes have been made to accommodate the city life style. Gone are the paneled hallways. Instead, there are cinderblock walls painted in yellow and brown geometrics. The cinderblock "helps deter vandalism and is easier to clean when it comes to graffiti," Ms. Clark says.

Behind the main doors of the building, dubbed TAB (Tenants Association of Boston), is an entryway sealed off by iron bars as a security precaution. The mailboxes, which have no nameplates, will soon be covered by an iron grate. The laundry room has locks, and there are no lounges.

"We found that lounges quickly turn into centers for drug users and dealers," Ms. Clark says.

Wise to the ins and outs of city living, Ms. Clark handles her job with expertise.

"You need compassion to work in this area," she says. "I let the tenants know they are important. After all, they pay the rent" -- which ranges from $40 to $300 a month. While she doesn't live at TAB, she comes in on off-hours and holidays -- "so they know I'm around," she says.

However, Ms. Clark gets firm when it comes to strangers in the buildings. "My tenants complain about strangers getting in," she asserts. "But I just tell them they've got to be more careful. The only ones who can let anyone in those locked doors are tenants. There's nothing I can do about it."

She runs a clean project. The lights all work; the exterminator comes regularity; the leaks get fixed; repairs don't linger. "The good appearance of the building has done a lot to uplift this neighborhood," she reports.

Now she's trying to get the vacant lot next door converted to a park for the 77 children in the project who are fast outgrowing the limited space of the 71 units. So far City Hall says "no."

Bobby and Linda Johnson have lived with their two sons at TAB since the project began. Mr. Johnson helps with cleaning and building in the evening and says he is pleased with their tidy, 2-bedroom apartment.

"There's good response to our needs," Mrs. Johnson says about the management.

Unfortunately for the National Housing Partnership, managers such as Winnie Clark are one in a million. Mr. Sharp termed NHP's project in South Providence a "management nightmare." With 23 buildings scattered all over the area, "it's hard to keep a cohesive, smooth operation."

In a Troy, N.Y., project, lighting and heating fixtures had to be replaced because inefficient fixtures were installed the first time.

Worse than technical mistakes are "the philosophical problems of management," Mr. Sharp says. The "philosophical" hitch is "getting the site managers to understand that the rent needs to be collected; the owners need to make money; NHP is not a philanthropic organization. At the same time, there are exceptions; some tenants need special attention, and NHP has a responsibility there which we can't overlook just for economic reasons."

The partnership's president, George Brady Jr., says, "Developing low-income housing is an economic impossibility these days without federal subsidizing." The challenges ahead for rental-housing developers will be "rent controls, condominium conversions, and constraints imposed by federal and state agencies."

Mr. Brady asserts that private industry must work harder to stimulate housing development.

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