Ask a builder what he's most proud of after 33 years in the business, and you'd expect him to point to a massive project where he soothed angry NIMBY hordes, cobbled together nine sources of funds with nothing but a firm handshake, and came out the other side flush with cash and customer referrals.
Not so Bobby Rayburn, incoming president of the 211,000-member National Association of Home Builders, who says his greatest career achievement is an affordable housing project in Como, Miss.
Instead of appeasing NIMBY detractors, he and other builders were asked to solve an affordable housing problem. Instead of fat profit margins and happy customers, Rayburn got just the happy customers (and a little profit). And that was just fine with him.
Rayburn, 56, has made low-priced housing his mission. With a tally of 3,000 (and counting) units of affordable housing produced during his career at the helm of Rayburn and Associates, it seems more like a crusade.
"We want to help solve the affordable housing problem," says Rayburn, nutshelling the mission of his Jackson, Miss.&-based company. "Everything we build is affordable and targeted to the families who earn less than the median income and who currently live in deplorable housing conditions, as well as firemen, teachers, policemen, butchers, bakers ... all [the] people who are the heartbeat of communities."
The four-year-old Como project illustrates where Rayburn got his zeal for alliances as the key to affordable housing. Rayburn was tasked to take state-given seed money and supplement it with other sources of funding to remove a dilapidated project (a former motel that had been converted to 12 small rental duplexes) and create new rental houses with additional benefits.
"We put together funding sources and worked with a number of social service partner providers and built 12 multifamily rental units and two single-family homes just down the road from where the rundown units stood," says Rayburn.
But where that would be enough for some builders, Rayburn knew that these families needed services and education, too. "We included learning and day-care centers. Families had to sign an agreement that said they would take certain steps [to live there]. For example, we identified households where the mother or father didn't have a high school degree; they had to agree to participate in family case management that could hopefully lead to the attainment of a GED."
The builder and his partners offered the residents credit counseling and employment training to help them land better jobs and increase their sense of self-worth.
More than a feel-good story, Rayburn's account of helping the community and working with partners shows how he plans to run the NAHB during his tenure, under the banner "Housing America's Working Families."
"There are more partnerships in building today than ever," says Rayburn. "Builders and developers have realized that teamwork is the only way things will get done. [At the NAHB] we're going to help them see the opportunities--and the stumbling blocks."
Rayburn is the first to admit that putting together partnerships to build more affordable houses is difficult. "It's easy to get brain damage in the process," he confesses with a laugh. But he wants to make that better.
Rayburn cites two hurdles in the war for less-expensive product that must be cleared before affordability issues can be fixed: land and soft dollar availability. "Being able to find precious, economically priced 'soft dollars' for affordable projects is difficult," Rayburn says. Defined as forgivable or very- low-interest loans, soft dollars are important to Rayburn's mission of serving people earning a median family income or less.
While Rayburn plans to push builders to solve affordability issues in their own communities, he's also heading for Capitol Hill. "I'm meeting with members of Congress and working with regulators. The NAHB is working on the judicial cases [regarding stymied land development]--like the salmon situation in the Northwest and the pygmy owls in Arizona," he explains. "We estimate that we're freeing hundreds of thousands of acres to help develop housing--from affordable to high-end houses."
Rayburn is already team-building with groups that have common goals, such as the National Association of Counties and the Black Mayors Conference. "We won't be aligned on every issue," he points out, "but we'll be in lockstep on a number of them."
There's no "I" in "team," the saying goes. And once you've spent some time talking with Bobby Rayburn, you'd swear he had coined the phrase.
"I, as Bobby Rayburn, can't make it all happen," he says. "This isn't a story about me. It's a story about working together to solve problems in the community. Builders must take advantage of the tons of partnership opportunities out there. That right there is the story."
Cati O'Keefe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
* NAHB service: Served as president of the HBA of Greater Hattiesburg and as president of the HBA of Mississippi. Named Builder of the Year by the HBA of Greater Hattiesburg in 1979. Elected to the Mississippi Housing Hall of Fame in 1999. Has chaired numerous task forces and committees, including Build-PAC. Served as an NAHB national vice president, is a member of the NAHB Executive Committee, and is a Senior Life director.
* Education: Bachelor's degree in real estate from the University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg.
* Family: Wife Annette; five children and four grandchildren.
* Hobbies: Boating.