Habitat a ministry for real-estate veteran

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Six months ago, Frank Spencer was sitting at his desk, translating Hebrew Scripture, when he received a call, literally and figuratively.

A recruiter had phoned to ask Spencer, retired CEO of Cogdell Spencer, a publicly-traded health-care real-estate investment trust, about taking the top job at Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte.

Spencer, who had spent most of his career in the real-estate business and in May 2011 enrolled in the master of divinity program at Union Presbyterian Seminary, interpreted the phone call as a spiritual calling as well as a professional one.

“I view this really as a ministry, not simply as a housing enterprise,” says Spencer, who joined Habitat in May, succeeding long-time CEO Bert Green, who has taken on the newly created role of director of strategic initiatives.

Formed in 1983, Habitat Charlotte has served 1,149 families with affordable housing, including 936 new homes it has built, 101 homes it has refurbished, and 112 critical repair projects it has handled.

Habitat provides families with “decent, safe and affordable housing,” says Spencer, whose career has focused on finance, real estate and construction.

The agency also serves as a ministry to its 12,000 volunteers, as well as other agencies, the city of Charlotte, the community, and its employees, all part of a larger effort to stabilize housing, Spencer says.

Habitat buys foreclosed houses, rehabilitates them and sells them in an effort to help stabilize neighborhoods, and it provides critical home repairs for homes, mainly owned by elderly families in financial need.

Now, it aims to develop more partnerships and serve as a more public advocate for affordable housing.

It is part of a larger effort in Reid Park to define neighborhood goals, has teamed with the Green Building Council so every house it builds will be LEED certified, and is partnering with Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont to provide job training for Goodwill clients.

And as an advocate, it aims to be “part of a broader solution” by providing a “leadership voice” on affordable housing options, Spencer says.

Operating with annual budget of $14 million, Habitat is self-sufficient, he says, with a $2 million operating margin that is recycled into housing.

The agency also raises $3 million, all of it used to create new housing.

Still, Spencer says, “we have to find more financial resources.”

The strategic initiatives Green oversees include developing partnerships among the eight Habitat affiliates in the region that have saved nearly $100,000 through joint servicing of mortgages, shared purchasing builders risk and liability insurance, joint grant proposals, and shared purchasing of construction materials.

Spencer, who started his career working for John Crosland at The Crosland Group, now works in the John Crosland Center for Housing, named for his former boss, who was the founding chairman of Habitat Charlotte and remains a mentor to Spencer.

“I’ve now come full circle,”  he says. “I couldn’t have conceived of a better fit.”

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