Posted: Monday, December 10, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 9:18 am, Mon Dec 10, 2012.
T.K. Somanath: Changing lives through high-quality affordable housing BY CAROL HAZARD Richmond Times-Dispatch Richmond Times-Dispatch
If it weren’t for lost luggage, T.K. Somanath might not have stopped in Richmond.
Nor would he, as the first and only president and chief executive officer of the Better Housing Coalition, help transform neighborhoods and change lives with high-quality affordable housing.
Somanath arrived here in late 1971. He was traveling by Greyhound bus from New York to Florida searching for a job that fit his skills as a civil engineer.
He and his bride, Mukthalata, fascinated by the speeches and legacies of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., set out that year from India to explore and see the world.
The U.S. was coming out of the Vietnam War, and the country was in a recession. It wouldn’t be easy to find work, especially as winter approached.
The couple had $400, and they spent a chunk on a winter coat and jacket when they arrived in New York. She stayed with friends there while he hopped on a bus and scouted for a job.
His luggage got lost somewhere between Washington and Richmond, so Somanath ended his trip here and paid $3 to sleep that night at the YMCA. “I didn’t care about my clothes, but my college credentials were very important to me.”
Somanath stayed at the Y for a few months, finding work first at Standard Drug store on East Broad Street, cleaning up after the store closed, and then as a survey crew member for Timmons engineering firm at its Main Street office.
“Greyhound located my baggage in about a week, and, in the meantime, I was actively looking for jobs and registered at the Virginia Employment Commission,” he recalled.
“I didn’t have Richmond as my destination, but it didn’t take too long to fall in love with the place and its people.”
His career path in affordable housing began when he took a job in early 1972 with the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority.
His introduction to housing here was an eye-opener. “I couldn’t believe the big divide between the poor and the rich,” he said.
Coming from India and learning about the U.S. through reading The Saturday Evening Post and Time and Life magazines, Somanath was under the impression that most everyone in this country was rich.
His wife, a medical doctor, joined him in Richmond, and they reared their family here. “We made this as our home because Richmond is so beautiful,” he said.
The couple settled 35 years ago in Brandermill near the Swift Creek Reservoir in Chesterfield County.
When they arrived, only a dozen or so people from India lived in the Richmond area. The area is home now to thousands of Indian immigrants.
Somanath is a co-founder of the Hindu Center of Virginia.
“In the early days, we met at rented community centers in the West End and South Side until the center acquired a large parcel at Spring Hill Road in western Henrico,” Somanath said.
“Today, we have a beautiful temple for worship and classrooms to teach dance music, yoga and studies in Hindu and Jain religions.”
Four decades goes quickly, Somanath said. His wife retired about five years ago.
Somanath, 66, plans to retire in April. “I have been busy the last 40 years,” he said.
“It has been a great privilege to serve thousands of low-income families with decent, beautiful, affordable housing in our region.”
For the past 22 years, Somanath has set the foundation for the Better Housing Coalition, leading efforts to revitalize, preserve and develop about 1,600 housing units in 13 communities in the Richmond area.
“T.K. has a big heart and cares about people,” said James E. Ukrop, former chairman of the Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corp., a partner housing organization to the Better Housing Coalition. His wife, Bobbie, served on the coalition’s board, and their son, Scott, is a committee chairman.
“He has a very creative financial mind, and he is a good deal-maker,” said Ukrop, former chairman of Ukrop’s Super Markets Inc. and First Market Bank.
The Better Housing Coalition was formed in 1988 by community leaders, including the late social advocate Mary Tyler McClenahan, to find private, locally initiated solutions to build high-quality affordable housing.
A nationwide search was conducted for someone to lead the organization.
The doors to the nonprofit opened in 1990 in a one-room office in the United Way building with Somanath, former development director at the housing authority, as executive director. He recruited an office manager, a part-time planner and several volunteers.
The group now employs 80 people. It owns 1,459 apartments. A property-management subsidiary handles leasing and maintenance.
“T.K. has built a remarkable organization with strong support from the staff and board,” said Carter McDowell, the coalition’s co-founder.
“He is an engineer by training, so he is results-oriented, but in addition, he is truly a visionary, and he has the ability to create multiple options,” she said.
“He has a very positive view of the world, and he expects things to happen around him and they do.”
The board is conducting a search for his replacement.
“We play an important role at the BHC by being a catalyst to bring change,” Somanath said.
Once a critical mass of houses is built or revitalized, private development follows and neighborhoods are transformed.
Challenges included transforming Park Lee — 35 barracks-style buildings with 420 apartments in Chesterfield — into Winchester Greens, a mixed-use, mixed-income planned community with 240 town homes.
The coalition bought the run-down complex in 1997 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 20 percent of residents at Park Lee worked, and the average household income was $6,500 a year.
Most residents at Winchester Greens work, and the average household income is $35,000, said Andrea Butler, the coalition’s spokeswoman.
Social transformation through support services provided by the coalition has resulted in reduced crime, children succeeding in school and going to college and zero teen pregnancies, she said.
“It is absolutely true that when you can take a family or a senior out of poor housing in an unsafe neighborhood and put them in high-quality housing, whether rental or for sale, in a neighborhood on an upswing that you change their lives,” said John P. McCann, chairman of the coalition’s board and founder of McCann Realty Partners.
“Suddenly, they have pride in their home, their outlook improves. … In addition, you give them support with needed social services, such as employment counseling, financial literacy, nutrition direction and medical guidance,” McCann said.
“This is the model that T.K. has built that has changed more than a thousand households in central Virginia.”
To develop high-quality affordable housing, the amount of debt on projects must be minimized so purchase or rental prices can be kept low, McCann said.
“T.K. is an expert in creating the capital stack. If a high-quality rental property costs $100,000 a home, to keep it affordable, maybe it can only service $40,000 of debt.”
For the project to work, it needs tax credits, energy grants, municipal subsidies, other grants and subsidies that make up the remaining $60,000 of the cost.
“T.K. finds this other capital better than anyone else probably in Virginia,” McCann said.
“Changing lives and starting the transformation of a difficult neighborhood is what motivates him.”
Mary White Thompson, 75, who lives in the Fairmount area in Church Hill and served on the coalition’s board, said the nonprofit group has changed her life.
She recalled how the community thrived in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. But it fell into disrepair as residents aged and houses were abandoned.
Somanath came to talk to residents in 1993. He asked what they wanted and developed trust with the residents from the beginning, Thompson said.
“The neighborhood is beautiful now with the new and rehabbed homes,” Thompson said. “New families have moved in. We have mixed incomes. For me, it is a dream. I love to see people talking and children playing again.”
The people at the Better Housing Coalition are team players, she said. “T.K. is the head of the team. He is a wonderful friend and a wonderful humanitarian.”
Active in Church Hill since 1994, the coalition launched a capital campaign in early 2010 to add 150 affordable homes in a 10-block area north of East Broad Street in north Church Hill by the end of 2016.
To date, the coalition has built and/or renovated 25 single-family homes and opened the 22-unit Beckstoffer’s Mill Loft apartments. Beckstoffer’s Seniors, a 39-unit apartment building, is under construction.
There is a right way to build affordable housing and a wrong way.
Somanath is all too familiar with the “not-in-my-backyard” mentality.
“It should surprise no one that many communities no longer accept affordable housing with open arms,” he said.
“When anyone proposes developing affordable housing or multifamily rental communities, ambivalence against affordable housing often shifts to hostility,” he said.
People use myths to convince decision makers that the development and its residents don’t belong there, Somanath said.
They claim traffic will add to congested roads, schools will become overcrowded, new buildings will clash with existing neighborhoods, people won’t fit in and they might bring a criminal element.
“It is essential to counter these myths with facts to win them over to support development of affordable housing to accommodate housing needs of our workforce and to bring economic stability and prosperity to our region,” he said.
Somanath’s first opportunity to change the face of public housing, while working at the housing authority, was in Randolph, a 76-acre urban neighborhood plagued by substandard housing and decay but with deep roots as a community.
Dilapidated houses were cleared during the urban renewal of the late 1960s. The Downtown Expressway cut through low-income, working-class neighborhoods of Randolph, the lower Fan District and Oregon Hill.
Initial plans for Randolph’s redevelopment called for construction of typical subsidized public-housing apartments organized around courtyards surrounded by parking lots and 40-foot-wide single-family ranchers.
Somanath stepped in to dramatically change the direction of redevelopment. “I was successful in pressing the concerns expressed by the residents with the city and decision-makers at RRHA (the housing authority).”
“He called a timeout on projects that were approved and ready to go,” recalled Rob Robinson, an urban designer in Pittsburgh who worked with Somanath at the time.
He took an incremental, organic approach that stirred criticism and anger. “But it was the right thing to do.”
“T.K. is broad and visionary in his thinking and an ardent supporter and advocate of how best to assist neighborhoods,” Robinson said. “He is genuine, honest and optimistic. With him, it is never ‘you can’t,’ but ‘find what you can do.’ ”
Randolph residents wanted to return to a community reflecting neighborhood traditions, said Somanath, who involved the residents in planning their new community.
New homes were designed with porches and yards along streets and sidewalks, alleys and trees. The bold plan featured a park close to the expressway, pocket parks, gazebos and a mix of housing types and materials.
“Today, the overriding impression of Randolph is one of stability with a steady rhythm of porches along its tree-lined streets, with a mix of affordable rental apartments and single-family homes occupied by a mix of income homeowners,” he said.