Answering the call: Lark Mallory is on a mission to respond to Columbus housing needs

Steve Wartenberg
For Columbus CEO
Affordable Housing Trust CEO Lark Mallory

The term “affordable housing” has been in the news a lot lately. So what exactly does it mean?

Let’s begin with what it doesn’t mean, with the help of Lark Mallory, the new president and CEO of the Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County.

“It doesn’t just mean homelessness, and it doesn’t just mean Housing Choice Vouchers,” she says, adding these are different—and important—topics that need to be addressed, along with the societal issues that created them, such as systemic racism.

“What I’m talking about are teachers not being able to afford to live in the districts where they teach. I’m talking about retail workers not being able to live near where they work and having to take a bus two hours to get there,” Mallory says. “People with full-time jobs should be able to live in the communities where they work—the people we call the workforce housing group.”

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U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty has called the affordable housing problem “a health-care crisis” and “a social justice crisis.”

The general rule is that people shouldn’t pay more than 30 percent of their combined household income on housing. If they do, they are considered “cost burdened.” According to local experts, the number of Columbus-area residents who spend 50 percent or more of their income on housing is about 54,000. The number is growing, as property values and rents spiral upward and the region’s population continues to increase.

“That’s the affordable housing crisis I’m talking about,” Mallory says, adding that “what’s affordable to me may not be affordable to the young lady making my coffee at Starbucks.”

Mallory was selected to lead the Affordable Housing Trust in August, replacing the retiring Steve Gladman. A lawyer, accountant and tax expert, Mallory was a partner with Frost Brown Todd when she was named to the trust’s board in 2009, and she joined the organization on a full-time basis in 2016 as general counsel and director of CDFI investments.

“She was impressive as a board member and made a real effort to learn more about what we did, and she had a lot of skills,” Gladman says. Mallory helped the organization receive federal CDFI Fund (Community Development Financial Institutions) designation, and she played a key role in the trust’s successful campaign to create a $100 million Housing Action Fund that launched in 2020. This increased the total funds the agency is able to lend to about $200 million.

Mallory has a long list of plans to add to this momentum and a host of ideas on what’s needed on a regional basis to reduce the affordable housing problem.

“Lark is brilliant in terms of her knowledge of finance, and she’s so personable. People trust her,” says Robert Weiler, founder and chairman of Robert Weiler Co. and chairman of the Affordable Housing Trust board.

Mallory pushes for larger, new developments with Affordable Housing Trust

“I like to say that I believe my grandmother saved my life and my aunt made this life possible,” Mallory says.

She was born in Warren in industrial northeast Ohio, surrounded by a large and loving extended family, including several relatives who worked in local manufacturing plants that have since closed or dramatically downsized. Mallory’s grandmother, Eula Mae Mallory, took her in soon after birth. “My grandmother and grandfather [Leroy Mallory] had six girls, my mother was the youngest, and she wasn’t ready to be a mother,” Mallory says. When she was 3 or 4 (she’s not quite sure), Mallory went to live with one of her five aunts, Earnestine, who had just graduated from high school. She worked two jobs, at a chicken factory and Packard Electric. “I became her daughter,” Mallory says.

A few years later, her aunt married William Mack, who worked in the steel mills.

Mallory was a bit on the precocious side, a gifted student who tended to talk a little too much in class when she got bored. She was a majorette at Warren Harding High, “the only Black majorette,” she says. “I remember going to a different high school [to perform at football games] and there was some cat calling. The game at Steubenville stands out.”

For reasons she can’t really explain, Mallory, who was excellent in math, decided she wanted to major in accounting in college and earned a scholarship to attend Ohio State University. Even if she hadn’t received a scholarship, Mallory is certain her aunt would have found a way to get her there.

After working for a few years as an auditor, Mallory decided it was time to try something different. “It was a lot of tracking the books and I didn’t like that,” she says, adding a headhunter told her she had the personality of a tax attorney. She’s still not sure if this was a compliment. After scoring exceptionally well on the LSAT, Mallory was awarded a scholarship to Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law. She followed up with a degree in tax law from the University of Florida.

Mallory eventually moved to Washington, D.C., with her former husband and began her practice as a tax attorney and as a mom. She and her two children, Tasia and Micah, moved back to Columbus in 2004. Mallory continued her law practice, and she was eventually named a partner at Frost Brown Todd.

“I was a single mom and had a car and resources,” Mallory says. And then she imagines what life is like for a single mother with a full-time, minimum-wage-paying job who can’t afford a car. She describes how this woman takes public transportation to a daycare center, then another bus to get to work—and repeats all of this in reverse at the end of the workday. And so, Mallory pushes for the larger, new developments the Affordable Housing Trust helps finance to include daycare centers.

First steps to meet Columbus residents' housing needs

Mallory connected with and formed a bond with Donna James, managing director of Lardon & Associates and chairwoman of the Victoria’s Secret board. James has mentored several young Black women as they navigated the law firm world. “It’s tough being a partner in a law firm period, and when you’re female and African American, or a woman of color, it’s even more of a challenge,” James says. “It’s a relationship business. You have to build relationships, and Lark navigated that well and had great relationships with her clients.”

When the opportunity for a full-time position at the Affordable Housing Trust was on the table, Mallory met with her mentor to discuss the opportunity. “I remember sitting at dinner, and she took out a placemat and mapped out her strategy and thoughts about the housing market and affordable housing and development; she gave me a tutorial,” James says.

According to Weiler, several members of the agency’s board were in favor of dispensing with a formal search and appointing Mallory to replace Gladman. As chairman of the board, he decided a formal search was necessary. “I didn’t think it would be fair to Lark,” he says of appointing her without a search. “If she could stand the test of the process, she’d be better off going forward.”

Affordable Housing Trust CEO Lark Mallory

Several well-qualified candidates were interviewed, and “Lark stood head and shoulders above everyone else,” Weiler says. “She hit the ground running and nobody else could have taken over the way she has.”

How the Affordable Housing Trust works

The Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County was created in 2001, and the funds it was able to loan to developers for affordable housing projects grew. They came from a portion of the city’s bed tax and the county’s transfer fee for the sale of properties. “We don’t give the money out, we loan it,” Mallory says, adding that as loans are repaid, the funds are then loaned out again, creating a cycle of investment in affordable housing.

The agency loaned $33 million in 2020, according to its annual report. These loans will produce or preserve 1,314 housing units. This was an increase from the 2019 totals of $28 million in loans to build or preserve 974 units. An example is the 50-unit Kenlawn Place in North Linden, developed by Homeport with the help of a $3 million loan from the trust.

To increase the funds it can loan, the agency applied for and received CDFI certification in 2015. “[Mallory] took the lead on some parts [of the process] and led us to receive fairly significant grants,” Gladman says of the $4.7 million in CDFI federal grants the trust has received. CDFI certification allows organizations to “provide financial services in low-income communities and to people who lack access to financing,” according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Being CDFI-certified also made the Affordable Housing Trust a better option for financial institutions, as it provided another outlet for them to meet Community Reinvestment Act requirements. This 1977 federal law encourages and monitors how well banks meet the credit needs of the communities in which they’re located.

With the CDFI certification in hand, the trust created a Housing Action Fund that eventually acquired $100 million in funding from local financial institutions as well as other local organizations, including charitable nonprofits. These millions aren’t donations, Mallory points out, they’re interest-paying loans to the developers that are building or renovating housing that meets the agency’s “affordable housing” requirements.

Huntington was one of the first to invest in the Housing Action Funding, putting in $40 million. The return, about 3 percent, is potentially less than the bank could make on other investment options. “I think of it as good business,” says Stephen Steinour, Huntington’s chairman, president and CEO. By this, he means that providing more affordable housing is good for the community and “the better the community does, the better we do.”

Some of the other investors in the Housing Action Fund include Heartland Bank, Park National Bank, PNC Bank, Columbus Foundation and NiSource Charitable Foundation.

Lending requirements tougher than they seem

The Affordable Housing Trust has some flexibility in its lending practices, but it has developed specific requirements developers must meet. “This gets complicated,” Mallory says as she pulls out a chart that quantifies the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s “rent and income limits.” The calculations to determine these limits begin with the area median income, which is the midpoint of a region’s income distribution, meaning half the families make more than the median, half make less. The area median income in Franklin County varies by the number of people living in a household. For an adult living alone, the median is $59,000. It’s $67,400 for a two-person household, jumps to $75,800 for three people, and is $84,200 for four people.

Here comes the complicated part. To qualify for a loan from the agency’s Housing Action Fund, “a developer has to commit to at least 51 percent of the units being affordable to families at 80 percent of the area median income,” Mallory says. “Rents on all of the units must be affordable to families at 120 percent of the area median income.”

This leads to a maximum allowable rent per bedroom for studio, one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments. For example, for a single person making the area median income of $59,000, the 30 percent housing rule would equal $17,700, or, $1,475 a month, for a studio apartment. Apply the Affordable Housing Trust’s 80 percent rule, and it drops to $1,180.

This Affordable Housing Trust requirement can reduce profitability for a developer. Developers, Mallory says, are willing to adhere to these requirements because some want to do what’s best for the region and also because they often need agency funds to make the math work.

What's next for Columbus housing?

“We’re not going to build our way out of this,” Mallory says of the affordable housing issue, adding that solving the problem is vital to the region’s continued economic growth. The 15-county Columbus region population was about 2.2 million in 2010, and it is expected to increase to 3 million by 2050. This would require the addition of about 14,000 new housing units a year for the next 10 years, and a total of 270,000 by 2050.

The region “needs to produce more units at a wider range of price points to keep up with the demand going forward,” according to a Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission report.

Mallory has a lot of ideas on how to move the region forward to create more affordable housing.

“The first thing we need is more resources,” Mallory says. And by resources, she, of course, means more money. “The hope is [the Biden Administration’s] Build Back Better will be an example of how we can get more money,” Mallory says.

It will take more than federal government funds. “It’s the commitment from the city and county and all the municipalities,” Mallory says. While there has been some positive movement in Columbus—the city recently set aside $50 million in bonds for affordable housing—there hasn’t been as much emphasis on affordable housing in the more affluent suburbs, Mallory says. “I’d like to see a comprehensive plan that would bring more people to the table and bring more creativity to solving the problem.”

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.

Lark Mallory

President and CEO, Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County

Age: 52

In position since: August 2021

Previous: General counsel and director of CDFI investments, Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County, 2016-2021; partner, Frost Brown Todd (Columbus), 2012-16; attorney, Chester Wilcox & Saxbe, 2004-12; associate attorney, Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., 2001-04

Education: BSBA-accounting, Ohio State University Fisher College of Business, 1991; JD, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, 1997; LLM-tax law, University of Florida Levin College of Law, 1998

Resides: Reynoldsburg

Family: Children, Tasia, 22, Micah, 19

Affordable Housing Trust CEO Lark Mallory photographed in her office on Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

Q&A: Lark Mallory shares the hopes she has for her role and Columbus

You started in this position in August. Describe your first few weeks on the job.

On my first day, I kicked off my listening tour. I met with all our board members, city council, developers. I had a zoom meeting with [several Huntington executives, including Stephen Steinour, the chairman, president and CEO]. He says, “Lark, go out there and be dynamic. If you make mistakes, that’s OK, get back up and keep trying. It’s going to take more people like you who are committed and can see the bigger issues and move the agenda forward.”

What are the bigger issues?

Affordable housing affects everyone, it’s not just impoverished people. It’s an economic development issue. It’s a feminist issue if a woman is in an abusive situation and can’t afford to leave. It’s an economic issue, a social justice issue, a crime issue. It affects everybody. We have to start elevating people, which can be through education that leads to better-paying jobs.

What’s an example of something new you’d like to do?

The development community isn’t very diverse [in terms of] women and people of color. My emerging developer program would address this. Let’s say a developer is doing a duplex or two. We can take them through the process and provide technical assistance, a training program over several weeks, and teach them about zoning and working with general contractors and financial institutions and putting together pro forma. This would help them move from a duplex or two to a 10-unit development. These developers will hire other small contractors and we’ll elevate more and more people and create more diversity.

What motivates you to do what you do?

I had an uncle who always told me I had brains and beauty and could do anything I wanted to do. Not everyone has someone who tells them that.