The new regional administrator for federal housing funding programs hopes to encourage more small developers, particularly developers of color, to see the affordable housing dollars her office controls as a way to grow their businesses while giving back to their communities. iStock photo illustration

Housing policy wasn’t Juana Matias’ first career.

But an early stint as a child-specific social worker in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley trying to help neglected and abused children pick up the pieces of their lives after public policies failed them spurred her to get her law degree at Suffolk University and make a career in policy work.

She ousted the longtime incumbent representing her home of Lawrence, Massachusetts in the state in 2016, becoming one of the first Latinas elected to the Massachusetts State House.

There, she was introduced to housing issues – a thread she followed to jobs as chief operating officer at nonprofit think-tank MassINC and now the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, where the 36-year-old is the regional administrator overseeing affordable housing funds and programs serving all six New England states.

She recently organized a forum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston for developers of color from across New England to meet and share their successes and obstacles with each other and with elected officials and bankers from across the region.

Q: What was your journey to housing issues in particular? And why did this HUD role appeal to you?
I think my personal trajectory has a lot to do with it. As new immigrants to this country, my parents benefited from income-restricted housing when we first arrived in the United States. And I saw how critical it was for us to be able to leverage that resource for us to be able to get ahead and achieve our version of the American dream. Housing is a pillar, anything and everything.

So, to have the opportunity to lead the region and ensure that the system that worked for me continues to work for working-class families was just an ideal opportunity to continue my public service. Housing is the issue nationally. It’s important for our economic competitiveness: you can’t ensure that you have access to housing, you can’t ensure access to jobs.

There are a lot of our funding streams at HUD that are supporting housing production, all of these resources are making projects feasible across New England. Like, you’ll show up to a ribbon-cutting, and someone will say “HOME dollars helped make this possible” all the time – that’s HUD money at work.

Q: Where did the idea for the recent developers of color summit come from?
A lot of developers of color had reached out to me and we’re wondering, how do you guys play a role in housing development, and what are your resources, and how can I learn about them?

Getting those calls, because I have different social network, and then also seeing how we’re investing billions of dollars in this community, I asked: Are we making sure that developers of color can leverage HUD grants and housing vouchers in the same way that their white counterparts can?

In one day, we wanted them to be able to learn as best as possible that these are the players, these are their programs and give them access to the people that control those dollars, with the hope that we’ll start seeing these agencies engaging in a more meaningful way with developers of color and that developers of color feel like they how to contact them.

Q: Speaking of barriers, halfway through the forum you asked attendees to volunteer their experiences and obstacles they were facing. What were your biggest takeaways from that?
I think one of the really incredible points – and I forget who made this in the summit, but it impacted me greatly – someone said, you have to show a track record, right? Because sometimes to leverage these dollars, you have to show that you’ve engaged in this business, that you’re a trustworthy partner. But you’ve never been given an opportunity to do so.

Hopefully, we weren’t in the way like that [at HUD]. I think we need our institutions – our public institutions or private institutions or nonprofit institutions – to say, “Hold on. Does this make sense? Do these practices really yield greater inclusivity?”

Sometimes the things that I would hear [from some members of the real estate finance sector] would be “Oh, I don’t know if many developers of color exist,” or “Do they have the capacity?”

They absolutely do. And I wanted to fill the room with them so people can see that they exist.

They’re doing market-rate and luxury units across the region, but they just need an opportunity, and they need meaningful engagement from you. And so hopefully we accomplished that.

You heard the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston talk at the summit about how they have a program that’s trying to be intentional.

You heard that from [Massachusetts-based] Reading Cooperative Bank, underwriting deals in the city of Lawrence with Black and Brown developers that otherwise would not be underwritten.

It’s also important that the media and journalists highlight these stories, because it is possible. It’s being done as we speak.

Q: How do you see federal funds playing a role in creating more opportunities for developers of color?
Part of the event was talking about our housing choice vouchers – you can become a landlord. And we need them. Vacancy rates are less than 2 percent. [Section 8 voucher-holders] can’t find a unit.

How do we bring in multifamily landlords that are Black and Brown, who don’t know that this product even exists? Get them to understand that it’s worthy renting to our tenant, that, the stigma tied with Housing Choice Voucher isn’t accurate, that we have incentives for them to join us whether that’s for the security deposit or making sure that we’re providing additional assistance to ensure that there’s stability with this tenant.

My question would be if you’re a community that gets HUD housing production funds, or you’re the state, how are you making sure that dollars are being leveraged, equitably and inclusively? Is there a way for you to engage Black and Brown developers so they can leverage public dollars to make some of their deals work?

We’re not micromanaging who’s getting HUD funds and who’s not, so long as their project meets statutory regulations. But if you’re a developer, you need to get that meeting with the mayor or the economic director of a city to leverage these funds. And Black and Brown people have not historically had that access in the same way.

Q: Do these efforts connect to other larger efforts to resuscitate housing production?
Across New England, there’s a housing shortage. The calls I get are devastating. The unsheltered encampment situations are serious, and it has been exacerbated by a migrant situation. It’s really complex and difficult.

We can’t think that we’re going to meet our housing shortage needs by us doing what we traditionally did over the last 10 years – that got us to where we are today. And so, this is not just an opportunity to do development inclusively and allow for additional generational wealth-building, it’s really to ease the burden of housing.

We need all players at the table who can assist in housing production and affordable housing production. This is an opportunity to leverage an underused segment of our real estate industry in a really meaningful way. You’re going to build generational wealth, you’re going to drive economic growth, you’re going to create jobs.