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Changing 'real lives' is goal for bank chief

Jose R. Gonzalez and other VIPs had wrapped up an event at Hope Gardens, which provides housing for homeless women, when an unscheduled speaker stepped to the microphone. She was a resident of the East Side complex, and she tearfully thanked everyone who had helped give her a stable place to live.

Gonzalez cherishes moments like that. He is the president and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, whose mission is to support housing opportunity and local community development. But he enjoys seeing the true impact of its work, beyond the dollars spent and housing units built.

The Federal Home Loan Bank of New York may not be familiar to people outside of the banking world, but it serves more than 300 member financial institutions in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Each year, the bank, which is chartered by Congress, allocates 10 percent of its net income as grants to affordable housing initiatives. Projects apply for the funds through a competitive process, and must be sponsored by a member bank. In Hope Gardens' case, M&T secured a $280,000 grant on behalf of the nonprofit responsible for the $5.6 million complex.

Gonzalez began his banking career in the 1980s and was named the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York's leader in April 2014. He reflected on the lasting impact of its work, why Western New York lands so many of its affordable housing projects and how a banker's bank keeps its focus on helping people's lives improve.

Q: How competitive are these affordable housing grants?

A: It is quite competitive. There's an annual cycle. We get over 100 applications every year. We can award maybe a third of the applicants. They come in from throughout the district. ... You are fortunate up here [in Western New York] -- M&T is the most successful proponent of these projects, and the most active in terms of volume and of submitting projects. ... You wind up in Western New York with an almost disproportionate share of the awards and the projects, because it all hinges on being a good project.

We score it on many points: on the affordability, on the population it serves, on the value per unit. We provide absolute grants -- it's not a loan, it is not a tax credit, it is not anything that has to be reimbursed or repaid. Oftentimes, our grant is what makes the whole package work, because in essence it comes in as free equity, as additional equity that is essentially uncommitted in the project and brings every other piece together.

It's everything from senior housing to homeless housing to assisted housing. It is multi-family, it is sometimes single family. If you don't make it one year [with an application], you can come back another year and try to compete again. It's not a once-or-never situation.

Q: What is it like to see projects like Hope Gardens become a reality?

A: I'd never been to a particular project that focused specifically on the homeless and homeless women. It is striking to actually see a real resident who is living in a quality project like this, who was living on the street. Normally it's families in low-income situations, it is assisted housing for seniors. But it's always striking when you go beyond the numbers and look at the real lives that you have changed, that you have improved, when you see these projects. ... We look at the numbers, we look at the projects, we look at the blueprints. But in the end, it's all about people. It's all about making people's lives better by providing affordable quality housing alternatives for them.

The other groups that really strike always are the nonprofits that work on these projects: the volunteers, the people who devote their lives. ... Ten percent of our earnings go into [affordable housing grants], but it's the most rewarding part of our activities. I try to come out when we inaugurate a project -- if not me, a senior officer of the bank is present, to keep ourselves grounded in the fact that this is a critical part of our mission, it is built into the law that created us, and it's something we can never forget and must keep very close to, even as we serve as a banker's bank.

Q: How have the requests for these types of grants changed over time?

A: What is a little frustrating to some extent, even if it makes us even more important, is that over the years, the sources of assistance -- federal or state -- for these kinds of projects has actually decreased. There are not many sources of assistance, other than some tax credits.

What I see over the years is fewer options, which makes us more critical, and which makes us focus even harder on trying to be fair to accommodate as many projects as we can, and pick the best ones that are ready for development. I also see over the years as housing has become less affordable in many areas of our region -- less so in upstate New York, but clearly in the metropolitan New York City area, Northern New Jersey and Long Island -- even for middle income families, to say nothing of low-income families, you realize how the options are fewer and we make a bigger difference. ... I wish there were more sources of funding to supplement this. I wish there were less affordability issues.

It's enormously satisfying to be able to be (at Hope Gardens) and see what was on paper in 2012 is now a real project serving real people, and succeeding like they are. It's what we're here for in this program.

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