Foundation seeks housing for the poor

FINDING SHELTER

October 15, 1990|By Edward Gunts

When Rick Cohen talks about providing decent and affordable housing for everyone who needs it, he isn't just speaking from a theoretical perspective.

The newest vice president of James Rouse's Enterprise Foundation, Mr. Cohen, 39, grew up in public housing in Boston. He knows firsthand what it's like to need basic shelter.

Actually, the government-subsidized housing project where he lived as a child, Orient Heights, was a step up from the Roxbury tenement where his family had lived before. That has instilled in him a belief that subsidized housing can be part of the solution, not the problem, in addressing the nation's housing needs.

"People often think of public housing as something to be avoided," he said. "My memory is: what a beautiful building that was. For people who are on the street and can't afford anything else, public housing is clearly a resource."

Mr. Cohen's family left public housing when he was 12, after his father saved enough from working two jobs to rent a small house. At the non-profit Enterprise Foundation, Mr. Cohen will now help others find better housing.

He is overseeing the Columbia-based foundation's plan to expand its low- and moderate-income housing programs to 230 more cities in five years -- nearly a city a week. The goal is part of Enterprise founder James Rouse's mission to provide affordable housing for all Americans within a generation.

It also suits Mr. Cohen, an expert on the financing and development of low- and moderate-income housing. A former housing director for Jersey City, N.J., he was the architect of one of the original "linkage" programs tying private development with the financing of low-income housing.

Enterprise recently received a $2 million federal grant to help 24 cities create low-income housing by establishing public-private partnerships to carry out the work. For the most part, Mr. Cohen said, the effort will be a process of "institution building" -- bringing together the public sector, the banks, the charitable sector, private developers, non-profit service providers and builders.

Enterprise will be involved in most cities for two to three years -- assessing the community's needs, developing a strategy for action, and providing the technical assistance needed to get programs up and running.

"I remember what it was like to live on the edge," Mr. Cohen said. "I remember where I was from, and that's a very strong personal motivation for me -- that I came out of public housing, that I could have gone in a different direction. My approach is: That's where I came from, and I'm going to make it better."

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