At ELDI, we believe that a thriving neighborhood is a mixed-income neighborhood — one that has a healthy mix of affordable and market-rate housing. Studies show that mixed-income neighborhoods not only bring social and health benefits, but we also know from experience that breaking up concentrations of wealth and poverty enhances the lives of people on both ends of the spectrum. Yet acquiring the funds to build and renovate the affordable housing needed to create such communities is not always easy. Over the years, ELDI has worked with countless partners to find innovative ways to fund affordable housing projects.
In recent years, we have found success with the Federal Home Loan Bank Affordable Housing Program, working with John and Michelle Connor of Full Quiver Consulting to submit successful grant applications to the program. The Connors were instrumental in helping us secure $750,000 for the Garfield Affordable Homeownership Project, as well as $410,000 for Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh to rehab 10 owner-occupied houses in Enright Court. They also helped our spin-off organization Rising Tide Partners obtain $750,000 to redevelop an apartment complex in the East Hills and $500,000 for a single-family rental housing in Hazelwood.
The Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLBank) Affordable Housing Program (AHP) provides grants and subsidized loans for the acquisition, construction, or rehabilitation of affordable housing for households with incomes at or below 80% of the area median income (AMI), with projects serving lower AMIs typically being more competitive. Project Sponsors (housing developers) partner with FHLB Pittsburgh Members (banks) to apply for AHP funding, which is offered through one competitive funding round each year. Grants are awarded to the highest-scoring projects with up to $750,000 in AHP funds awarded per project.
The Connors, our trusty guides in this process, have a fascinating story themselves. The couple worked for Almost Heaven, a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in West Virginia, for nearly two decades with John serving as the chief development officer and Michelle as CEO. Under their leadership, the affiliate grew from a small home office to one of the most productive Habitat for Humanity affiliates in the US. This experience gave them a wealth of expertise in grant writing and fundraising as well as an intimate understanding of what it takes to develop affordable housing projects.
In 2013, the Connors launched Full Quiver Consulting and now help for-profit and non-profit affordable housing providers across the nation secure financing for their projects. In recent years, their work has centered around helping organizations— increasingly in the Pittsburgh area—navigate the often-tricky FHLBank grant process. As they began to spend more time in Pittsburgh, ELDI helped them find a home in East Liberty’s Enright Court to serve as their Pittsburgh “home away from their permanent home” in West Virginia. They are due to become homeowners in the Court this spring.
We sat down with John to learn more about his and Michelle’s work. He explains more about the FHLBank grant and why the funding mechanism can be so fruitful in bringing more affordable housing projects online in neighborhoods across the US. He also talks about the projects they have helped bring to life in East Liberty and their surprisingly enriching personal experience in Enright Court as a family.
Can you tell me more about your background and how you and Michelle came to be doing this work?
I grew up in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and while I was studying at Lebanon Valley College, I started traveling to West Virginia on Habitat for Humanity mission trips. Upon graduation in 2000, I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity as their director of community relations and fundraising. Michelle was the executive director of the affiliate at the time. I like to quip that I had no experience with fundraising other than selling popcorn with the Boy Scouts. I had a baptism by fire, writing my very first grant as a young college graduate, but I had success, and over the years to come, I continued serving with Almost Heaven. In the meantime, Michelle and I became a couple and married. She already had seven children at the time, and together since then, she and I have had five more. So, we have 12 beautiful children, and I think we’re up to 19 grandkids, by my last count.
Fast forward to 2004. I was the chief development officer for Almost Heaven and Michelle was the CEO. Under her wonderful leadership and vision, the organization grew exponentially to become the most productive Habitat affiliate per capita in the country. We were, and still are, very passionate about the mission of creating and preserving affordable housing, but in 2013, I was burned out. So, I decided to finally put my teaching degrees to use and became a reading interventionist at Pendleton County Middle High School. I felt called and drawn to do that, but I also wasn’t ready to put my candle under a bushel basket. I wanted to continue helping others, including Habitat for Humanity, to raise money for their affordable housing needs. That’s officially when we launched Full Quiver Consulting. Even though I had a vision that we could do it all—be all things to all organizations—when it came to fundraising and grant writing, early on, we recognized a need to specialize and hone in on some very specific grants, and the FHLBank program is one of those. The first time I submitted a FHLBank of Pittsburgh application was in 2004, and I can safely say that we’ve submitted at least one application (on average 10-12) every year since, with a 95% success rate thus far.
How exactly does the FHLBank program work? What makes this program unique?
The FHLBank system in our country was established in 1932, coming off the heels of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, as a way for the federal government to help stabilize the banking markets. The FHLBank System consists of 11 district/regional “Federal Home Loan Banks” which provide lending, deposit, and other services to member lending institutions (Member Banks). Pittsburgh is one of those 11, and it serves Member Banks in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia.
In 1989, as part of some banking reforms that were taking place, the FHLBanks created the Affordable Housing Program (AHP). Every year, the FHLBanks must set aside 10% of their net income from their lending activities for Member Banks to use in the AHP to preserve or create affordable rental and homeownership opportunities across the nation. So, when you apply for a FHLBank grant, you must partner with a FHLBank Member Bank which submits the application on your behalf.
Why is it called a “Federal Home Loan Bank”?
That’s one thing I always like to point out—and I steal this from Bill Miller who was the former communications director at FHLBank Pittsburgh—”Federal Home Loan Bank” is one of the absolute worst and most misleading names ever. When you think of “federal,” you immediately think federal tax dollars go into that. Yet there are no tax dollars infused into the FHLBanks—it’s all private money from investments and from the membership dues Member Banks pay. Secondly, the FHLBanks do not provide home loans as we think of them, so to call them a “home loan bank” is a misnomer. Lastly, they’re not a bank that you or I could go to and open an account. In fact, they only exist for their Member Banks, so they are a bank for banks. So, just to pull that curtain back, there are no federal tax dollars. It’s not a government grant. It’s all private, but the beauty of it is that banks are in the business of making money, and they usually consistently make money year after year. So, it can be a very reliable, regularly occurring source of grant funds for projects. FHLBanks are government sponsored enterprises, or GSEs, but unlike other GSEs like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they have done a wonderful job of being responsible in the handling of their money and finances. I can attest to that. They do amazing work in their communities.
So, the money that is given to organizations like ELDI through the FHLBank Program is a grant, not a loan, correct?
That is correct. It is a reimbursable grant, meaning it’s a grant that comes after the organization applying for the grant delivers on what they say they’re going to do. That means the entity must incur the expenses for the project first. Here’s where the Member Bank can step in and fill in the gap with a bridge loan or interim construction financing. Basically, once the award is granted, the Member Bank can very confidently lend the money knowing that the grant will come through once the house is complete and sold to a low-income buyer, or once the rental units are developed and rented out to qualified low-income families. In that process, they get the loan origination fees and some loan interest over the life of the project, so it’s a win-win.
What makes the FHLBank grant process so complex?
One of the things I like to tell prospective clients is that even though it is a grant, it’s not the same kind of grant as a federal grant program or a community foundation like the Mellon Fund, for example. You have to remember that you’re not only dealing with a bank—you’re dealing with a bank for banks. So, it’s more like a very complex housing finance deal that you’re trying to put together. A lot of times when we first start working with a client, the executive director tells us they’re going to have us work with their development director, and we tell them that we really need to have their CFO and construction project manager involved. There are also just a lot of moving parts. You have to have a pretty solid construction budget in place with construction timelines. Your total sources of funds need to match your projected uses of funds, etc. It truly does take a development team approach to submit a solid FHLBank application. And while all the FHLBanks think they operate the same, each one is different and has different priorities each year. So, if you’re not working with it on a regular basis, it’s very easy to get lost in all that.
Are the FHLB awards mostly going to nonprofits and CDCs?
Mostly, I would say. Our client base historically has been nonprofits, including many Habitat for Humanity affiliates, but in recent years, we have also begun partnering and taking on for-profit developer clients, because the FHLBank program is designed to work for and with for-profit builders just as much as it is for non-profits. I think that makes it rather unique as well. Essentially, for-profit developers utilize the grant money as a developer’s subsidy when there’s a funding gap between what it’s really costing them to rehabilitate a house or project and the return they can get on it.
What affordable housing projects have you helped ELDI bring to life in East Liberty?
In 2018, we submitted a grant application on their behalf for the Garfield Affordable Homeownership Project, a collaboration between ELDI and the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation to rehab eight houses in Garfield. The application was successful, and ELDI was awarded $750,000 for the project. Due to COVID and other challenges, the project was eventually scaled back to three homes in Garfield, all of which have been fully renovated and sold to minority, first-time, affordable homeowners. (Check out one of those homeowners’ stories here.) Full Quiver Consulting plans to help ELDI apply for another round of FHLBank funding in 2023 for more affordable housing projects they are working on in East Liberty. Working with high-performing real estate developers like ELDI is highly rewarding as their work is transformational, but we are also passionate about working with smaller minority developers and minority contractors who are stepping into this space in the greater Pittsburgh area.
Can you tell me about your experience living in East Liberty’s Enright Court?
Michelle and I have a beautiful 32-acre farm in the mountains of Pendleton County, West Virginia, but as we started to take on more clients in the Pittsburgh area, we were traveling to Pittsburgh a lot throughout the summer for multiple days on end. Early on, we would stay in an Airbnb or a hotel with our large family, but that became challenging, so we started asking some of our clients if they had a unit we could rent for the summer. Around the summer of 2019, Ted Melnyk [ELDI’s director of operations] reached out and said we could rent a unit in East Liberty’s Enright Court. We said absolutely and immediately fell in love with the neighborhood. The location is fantastic, right there in the heart of it all in East Liberty, but the charm and beauty of Enright Court is that it’s its own little community within the East Liberty neighborhood with salt-of-the-earth people and diversity we don’t get in the rural hills of West Virginia. Our kids made fast friends with the neighborhood kids and our son Jack eventually befriended Miss Jeanette Carter, who was kind of the neighborhood grandmother. She has since passed away, but they really had a special connection. We’ve just developed such a love for Enright Court that we can see ourselves staying there for many years to come. We love our school system down here in West Virginia and are not ready to make a full-time move up there, but we still spend almost all summer and a couple of weekends each month in Pittsburgh, so we were excited when ELDI was able to identify another unit in the Court that we’ve begun renting and are poised to buy this spring.
Are you involved with the Enright Court Neighborhood Association?
As much as we’re able to be. For example, we were able to provide some assistance by bringing in Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh with ELDI for a Blitz Build in 2019. It’s been very exciting and exhilarating to see a kind renaissance take place in Enright Court. I’m excited for the long-time residents, because I feel like their day has finally come. Their equity is growing by having their home in the midst of this amazing East Liberty neighborhood that has been transformed. And I am equally excited for the new residents who have arrived, ourselves included. I like to think that we bring value and perspective to that neighborhood, to the families who have been living there for, in many cases, generations. We can say, “Have you ever thought of this? Or are you aware of this funding program that is out there?” I think that’s something we’re able to bring, not just to the Enright Court community, but to all our clients. We can offer lessons learned from one organization to another, valuable pearls of wisdom that we’ve gleaned from our years of experience, and then we are always grateful when we can celebrate the wins with them.