From debunking myths to advocating for change, Tony Bertoldi outlines the urgency of addressing America’s affordable housing crisis with Danielle Champ

It is very seldom that the topic of ‘affordable housing’ is read in the pages of this magazine. However, I recently came across a book that urged me to make that change. American Dream Come True: Why Affordable Housing is Good Policy, Good Business and Good for America was written by Tony Bertoldi, a Bostonian who is very proud of the work he does as Co-President at CREA LLC, and who raises compelling arguments in support of the need for affordable housing. Subsequently, he made an excellent candidate for this month’s Main Interview.  

Tony Bertoldi

Access to a home is more than the provision of basic amenities. A home offers the opportunity to succeed, to establish ourselves as dignified individuals contributing to society, which is perhaps why this conversation is crucial. In our exchange, Tony outlines the current housing crisis taking root across the US. However, more optimistically, he shares solutions to the issue, and eloquently breaks down the stigmas associated with this topic.   

Tony, to get started, I’d love to know more about you and the journey you’ve been on to build a well-established career in affordable housing.  

Absolutely, and I should add that some of this is in the book. There’s a chapter in there called ‘The Land of Misfit Toys’, which is a reference to the Christmas cartoon about Rudolph the Reindeer. A lot of us that end up in real estate don’t know that we’re going to end up in real estate. So, in college, I was an economics major, and macro- and micro-economics has always been the foundation for what I do. Additionally, I went to the University of Connecticut, which focused onoffers a concentration in real estate, and I thought that was really interesting. And so that led to my first job in New York City. Then, after graduation, I worked for what was, at the time, Arthur Andersen, one of the original ‘big eight accounting firms’, sadly it’s no longer around. But I was working in a real estate consulting practice and started to dabble in consultancy for the affordable housing sector. That led to my first job at a tax credit syndicator, which is the company I work at now. So, a combination of early consulting work and my time at a tax credit syndicate syndicator for the last 30 years is what brought me to this little niche industry.  

Could you share more about the state of affordable housing in the US, and the role it serves in society at the moment?  

In the wider sense, 90 percent of the affordable housing that has been built here in the US for the last 35 years has been made under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, also known as LIHTC. This credit is authorized by the US government under Section 42 of the Tax Code. It is a public-private partnership, one of the most successful in the US’ history, where the tax credits are granted awarded to developers of rental property. They, in turn, sell those tax credits to investors. The money that they raise from selling those tax credits offsets the cost of the property, allowing them to charge lower rents. When I began at CREA, I realized that there is a massive impact of what we’re doing, which is helping develop affordable housing. It is in fact all we do, and when you think about the affordable housing crisis we have in this country, it’s great to be part of an organization that is doing good, has good corporate governance, but at the same time, is also producing affordable housing. We target a lot of different specific populations; whether seniors, people with disabilities, homeless veterans, mothers who are victims of domestic violence, or those who are formerly homeless. So, the target populations that are impacted and are able to take advantage of this program are those for whom we see the value and in the level of assistance provided.  

And essentially, your work is what led Forbes to approach you to write a book on the subject. What is the purpose of this book, and why is it important to read? 

I’m trying to describe to people what our role is, and what our industry does, but also to debunk the misconceptions of what affordable housing is. I think that most people in America have stigmatized public housing, which in itself has been a complete disasterproblematic. Across the country, there are these notorious stories, like Cabrini Green, which is a good example in the North side of Chicago, but these couldn’t be further from the truth of LIHTC and affordable housing. So, the point of the book is to build awareness around affordable housing, to build support with the hope that it creates change in the way society thinks about it, to decrease the ‘not in my backyard’ perceptions, and ultimately, at a very macro level, to produce more affordable housing.   

In the book, you outline why affordable housing is good for America. In addition to trying to destigmatize the topic, what are the benefits to affordable housing? 

The cost of housing has skyrocketed, while wage growth has remained relatively flat. I mean, if you look at it on a chart, right, the cost of housing has been almost exponentially increasing. And wages are just not catching up. The deck is just stacked against anyone who could be a decent, hardworking American, but they just simply can’t get ahead. They can’t afford to live near their job because the housing is too expensive. They have to live an hour or an hour and a half away, which puts a tremendous amount of stress on their workday. Forget about the impact that it has if they have a family. And so, this crisis in the cost of housing is pushing the American worker outside of the downtown areas. And it puts incredible stress on the entire ecosystem. The utopia, if you like, is that in every community, you have all members of the economic spectrum, living and working in that town contributing to that town and doing it in a harmonious way.  At the moment, there is not one county in the United States, where an individual earning minimum wage can afford a market rate apartment. We need people to work at all jobs at all levels. We need people at retail locations, we need bus drivers, we need policemen, we need schoolteachers, we need dog walkers; we need people at every level. And so, if you can’t work minimum wage and afford to live there, there’s something wrong. 

So, with that significance in mind, what is the solution?  

Investment in innovation. What I’m advocating for is an increase in the amount of LITHC available in the US. As we speak, there is a bipartisan bill in DC that has the support of both the Democrats and the Republicans. It has made its way through the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives with a 40-to-three vote. It should be taken up by the house this week,  with approval, and then it would move on to the Senate. It has in it effectively three components. One is an R&D credit, which of course has been promoted by the Republicans. It ihas a reinstatement of the Child Tax Credit, which has been promoted by the Democrats. And then the last component is about $6 billion allocated to more affordable housing. But why do we need more supply? It’s a simple economics supply and demand. We’re facing unprecedented inflation right now. But you can’t tackle inflation without tackling housing. We have to think differently, and I think that applies to homebuilding businesses out there as well – there’s a way for everyone to come together to help out with this, but that starts with raising awareness of the implications this has. 

Thank you, Tony. I can tell you’re incredibly passionate about this issue, and rightly so. To bring the conversation to a close, my final question for you is: if you weren’t in real estate, what would you be doing?  

I often joke that if I wasn’t involved in this business, I would probably be a dog walker, because I don’t really have any other skills. And I love dogs. But I really can’t picture myself doing anything else. I’ve become a little bit of a one trick pony in affordable housing, but that said, there’s certainly more complexity to it than that. I mean, we raised and closed to about $1.4 billion of equity last year, we have about $11 billion under management. We have 160 employees, so, it’s a substantial operation. What I find is, you have to be passionate about what you do, you have to double down on what you do, and you have to take the hard knocks and just keep on going. Because over time, I think your value exponentially grows. I tell people: ‘build your life career around something that interests you, something that you enjoy, something that you want to go into work and do every day, and it’s not going to be perfect, but it is going to be fun’. At the end of the day, the more experience you build, the more value you have to bring to your organization, and the more respect you have for yourself. 

At the time of publication, the House of Representatives voted to pass the Tax Relief for American Families and Workers Act of 2024.