This edition of Developer Tips for Success features Clarence Ball. He is the president/CEO of Ball HealthCare Services, Inc.
Participation in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program and other federal housing programs requires significant individual and team experience/expertise, a tolerance for financial risk, and an ability to obtain major banking and credit relationships. We hope hearing from successful AHFA developers will inspire and educate others who are interested in becoming affordable housing owners/developers or increasing their level of experience.
My career in affordable housing began in 1973, while studying to complete a master’s degree in long-term care administration. That was when I first was introduced to various HUD products used to finance senior housing for skilled, custodial, and independent living facilities. After successful completion of the master’s program, I worked as a licensed nursing home administrator for 10 years. I formed Ball HealthCare in 1983, with a mission to go to underserved areas and develop quality services for seniors and special needs population groups. I was able to use the lessons I learned during my fellowship to expand beyond our nursing home footprint into affordable housing. I began applying for affordable housing projects in the late 90s, and in 2003 we opened Cherry Ridge Apartments in Birmingham as our first independent living apartment project. Since then, we have been able to repeat this model in other parts of the state.
A key challenge is that the need for quality housing is far greater than the available resources needed to build affordable housing. Thus, the competition is fierce among developers. Moreover, the use of tax credit financing can be complex. The application process alone is expensive, time consuming, and gaining an award is not guaranteed. These are highly specialized programs with their own set of rules, regulations, and tax code. To be competitive, you must have vision, development and operational know-how, capital, and a high tolerance level for risk. It takes experience, a respected track record, and the assembly of a team of highly talented professionals with expertise in different areas to be successful.
Overcoming failure is the most difficult challenge. Persistence matters. I was not successful in receiving awards until my third application but treated each failure as a learning lesson. Another challenge is assembling and working with the right team. This is one business where success means recognizing your own limitations and the skills of other team members. While one person alone can’t make you successful, a single wrong team member can bring failure.
People who are interested in participating should establish a track record in development, and particularly, senior housing. They can partner with or work for an experienced tax credit developer. That is what I did after my early disappointments. I set out to find the top developer in the state, partnered up, and together, we have completed 13 affordable housing projects.
Again, success requires patience, capital, and most of all fielding a winning team of highly talented professionals. Becoming a successful developer doesn’t mean you do it all yourself. You can’t. Before getting into affordable housing, I had substantial experience in developing healthcare facilities. I knew about needs assessments and screening applicants for income because we do that for Medicaid, Medicare, and other government programs. But I needed tax credit expertise to be successful in the affordable housing industry. You have got to have a great team comprised of a strong program specialist, lawyer, architect, engineers, CPA, contractors and bankers, each with a depth of affordable housing knowledge and experience. You want to work with people who are the best at what they do.
Affordable housing has been an outreach of Ball HealthCare’s mission of providing quality services and improving lives in underserved areas. The greatest benefit I see is improving the quality of life for low- and moderate-income families who have a legacy of living in substandard conditions. It is tremendously rewarding to see the happiness and excitement on the faces of our tenants when they move in. Many of them will tell you, “I never thought I’d be able to afford a home like this.”