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Great People No. 3: Helping Others Through Affordable Housing With Ed Norton and Abby Sigal

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Ed Norton seems to be a man on a mission when it comes to helping others. I caught up with Ed and one of his best college friends, Abby Sigal, over coffee to discuss something near and dear to both of their hearts and minds: affordable housing. Ed's grandfather, the renowned real-estate developer James Rouse, started an organization called Enterprise Community Partners in 1982 to help deal with the challenges around inner city development of affordable housing for low income families. This organization has impacted millions of people's lives over the past 30 years and Abby is part of its executive team. Both Ed and Abby have come a long way since their friendship started at Yale and they share their insights into changing people's lives through affordable housing.

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Rob: How long have you guys known each other?

Ed: I would say we met the first week of our freshman year at Yale, in the fall of 1987.

Abby: It's 25 years, wow!

Ed: It seems impossible that it is 25 years, given how young we are. (smiles)

Abby: He lived below me in the dorm as a freshman.

Ed: She took pity on me because I had four roommates who were each in one way or another...

Abby: Wonderful and unique...

Ed: Wonderful and unique, and difficult to sleep around. So I would go upstairs to Abby's room to sleep on her couch.

Rob: So the basic need of shelter.

Ed: Yeah, exactly.

Rob: Well, that's the main topic of this interview, so it is fitting that you two met this way.

Ed: Exactly. I couldn't find a fit and affordable place to lay my head. And so, I would go up to Abby's room and that was sort of our theme.

Rob: So, how do you think we pick our friends? As a matter of fact, there were many rooms in the dorm, but you picked each other, so how do you think we actually pick our friends?

Abby: I think you go through a lot of people, right? And you filter. Over time, it's you probably pick people with shared values and interests the most.

Ed: Yeah. Although I do think we got very lucky in the sense that there was a tight-knit group of friends who all had wild lives and everything, but Abby and I had a core group who just happened to be in that freshman dorm and who have remained remarkably tight. I think it has a lot to do with two seemingly disparate elements: one is being really engaged in life and the other is a sense of humor.

Abby: Sense of humor and also exploration of wanting to try new things. So, I think we're all pretty adventuresome.

Ed: I've always thought Abby was really optimistic, which draws me to people... There's that fine line between what I call a "confident optimism" and "arrogance." And I think people who think like the old Hemingway line -- "The world is worth fighting for" -- are appealing.

Rob: And what do you think, Abby? What are the values that you see in Ed, that you see in yourself?

Abby: Well, I think Ed's touched on it in terms of engagement, but I also think that there's a zest for life, and trying to think about things deeply and being interested in things, like taking a Japanese class at 8 a.m.

Ed: Yeah, there was a betting pool amongst my friends of how quickly I would drop that class, given how rarely I saw 8:00 in the morning. I also think that, not to put a political value around it (because I don't think this should be a political word), but being "progressive" is a value judgment to some degree. It's the belief that things can get better through rational progressive thought. The idea that we can continue to learn from our mistakes and that we can refine our understanding of what makes the world function better. That is an underlying conviction you have to have.

Abby: Yes. So you have to be learning and constantly improving yourself.

Rob: Ed, is there a question that you've always wanted to ask Abby that she's never answered?

Ed: Yes, what's your definition of success?

Abby: To me, it's pretty clear. Success would be every person in safe and affordable housing. It's one of the reasons I focus on community development. For me personally, I'm really interested in how you actually deploy capital to create communities. I've been trying to focus on how we put that up higher on the agenda. The latest thing everyone wants to do is "impact investing."

Rob: What's "impact investing"?

Abby: Impact investing is aligning your investment strategy with a positive social change. This is great, and more people and corporations should do it, but at the end of the day, to address affordable housing you need philanthropic giving; you need to figure out how to layer that capital. So, my idea of success is being the go-to-person for how we take different capital sources and layer them strategically to really strengthen communities and provide housing for people.

Rob: So, Abby, what is a question that you've always wanted to ask Ed about his life?

Ed: Other than, "When are you having kids?" She asks me this pretty regularly.

Abby: Yeah...

Ed: She tends to say things like, "Where are you getting married, so I can plan my vacation?"

Abby: Yes, yes.

Rob: Okay, so it seems that you are a planner, Abby?

Abby: I am a planner. Well, first of all, we just went through the 30-year history of Enterprise and I've been telling the Enterprise story at a lot of events. Invariably, someone comes up to me and says, "Jim Rouse really touched me."

Abby: So my question is: what was it like having Jim Rouse as your granddad?

Ed: He was a really funny individual, which is strange for some people when I say it, because so many people consider him such a giant in his field. I will run into Dick Parsons, the former chairman of Citigroup, or Mayor Bloomberg, or whomever, and someone will make that connection and you can see these real captains of industry really go, "Your granddad was a real idol of mine." I met Warren Buffett one time and he said, "Your grandfather set a standard for a lot of us in terms of responsible business practice."

However, my relationship to him was that he was this very kooky guy who wore Madras pants with perhaps a Kelly green shirt and a yellow jacket and a fishing hat. He was very resistant to wearing suits. In a lot of ways, he was a very eccentric and proletariat kind of a guy since he came from really humble roots. He had a wry skepticism of people who tried make themselves seem overly important. When I got older, I realized that he actually had this religious sense of mission. He really, really worried about time and his life running out before he had accomplished something that would move the needle to improve the lives of other people.

Rob: My grandfather had a big impact on my life. He always said to me, "Don't be a follower." Did your grandfather ever impart a basic understanding of life?

Ed: Yeah, definitely. I remember when I got out of college; I went to see him, because I had this notion that I wanted to be an artist. My grandfather paid for my college and I went to see him because I felt this sense of responsibility to do something with my life and I felt like I needed his blessing if I was going to do something kind of...

Abby: Risky.

Ed: Yeah, risky. I wondered if he would say being an actor or a filmmaker was frivolous given my education. Many of my friends were taking jobs in Morgan Stanley or going to...

Abby: Well, I wasn't!

Ed: Abby was not, but I remember I went to see him and I remember, this is like 1991... And I remember him saying, "I will pay you not to take one of those jobs! You can serve other people in any field. " I think about that a lot because there is a lot of narcissism in my business and I think people get disconnected in our celebrity culture from the idea that even making films and telling stories, you should be theoretically doing this for other people. He was a very lighthearted and funny person, but he really did have a powerful commitment to service.

Rob: Abby, did you have somebody in your life like Ed's grandfather?

Abby: Of course Jim Rouse stands out. He gave everybody the "okay" to pursue his or her dreams. So, whether you're a low-income resident, it's okay to pursue your dreams. Or whether it's his grandson like Ed, "Go ahead, be an actor." For me, my parents had a huge impact. My mother is a sociologist, my father is a public finance attorney and during table conversations we're very robust around people and places. So, I think they were an incredibly guiding force.

Rob: We talked about this before Ed showed up. Did something happen when you were kid that changed your view on helping people?

Abby: What interests me is when I was about 12 or 13, I moved from the suburbs of New Jersey to New York City and that was a shock. It's really amazing how people live really differently from place to place. I went to a lovely private school in the Bronx, but we'd go past many neighborhoods that were just very bad. The contrast was a huge factor for me. The contrasts are still there, although the physical differences are less than they were 25 years ago.

Rob: This will bring us to you talking about the story of James Rouse, when he went to the Bronx and saw burned out housing and that gave him the idea to create Enterprise. So how did he start Enterprise?

Ed: It's funny because my grandfather did not have an Ivy League education. He grew up in the Depression. He was orphaned in the Depression.

Rob: He was an orphan?

Ed: Yeah, he was orphaned when he was age 15.

Rob: Wow!

Ed: He spent his adolescent and young adult life very much on his own. During the depression he made his own way, trying to find his way through schooling opportunities and things like that. He and his brother were the youngest two of eight children. But the others were all grown and they were young when their parents died. It has a certain Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn feel; they wandered on the Eastern shore of Maryland, around the Chesapeake Bay, a very rootless existence. However, the thing that's interesting is that he was very informed by his experience of the Depression.

I think just living in the period that he lived in, the world history, the Depression and then the war, he had a very acute sense that it's very dangerous for a society not to pay attention to people being left out of the upside of that social equation. He recognized that if you don't pay attention to what's happening at the bottom, you're risking everything. I actually think about that a lot these days because when you look at the Occupy movement, for instance, and the speed with which people dismiss it. They sort of dismiss it as an unformed protest. However, I think about my granddad a lot because I think he would say that it's a very poor reading of history not to take it very seriously when people, especially young people, are angry enough to be in the streets. Even if that hasn't articulated itself in its first moment, the level of discontent is an indicator of things that historically have lead to some very potent upheavals. He came from very humble roots, he experienced some very brutal times and he really believed that the social contract and the idea of the social safety net and the inclusiveness of opportunity for everybody was not a charitable mission. He thought it was a really important part of engineering a stable society.

Rob: So, he built all these planned communities. I mean, he did Columbia, Maryland and the South Street Seaport and all these amazing things. But then, he gets involved with Enterprise. What's its mission? Then also, I will ask you both, where do you think we are today in the social graph and people being poor? And how does this organization help that?

Abby: The mission of Enterprise is to provide opportunities for people to live in affordable housing in thriving communities. It is based on this belief that to succeed in life, to do well in life, you really need to have a stable home in a safe environment.

Ed: Enterprise is one of the largest (if not the largest) nonprofit developers of affordable housing in the country. Enterprise has invested now over $11 billion.

Abby: Yeah, we're approaching $12 billion. We directly financed or touched nearly 300,000 units over the past 30 years. If you actually take into account the role we have played in policy, then you get into millions of units quickly.

Ed: Just for a sense of scale, Enterprise will have invested over $200 million and developed over almost 10,000 units in the Gulf Coast since Katrina by the end of this year. It's one of the largest social service investments in the Gulf Coast.

Ed: Enterprise and my grandfather were very central to creating what was one of the original impact investment mechanisms, which is called the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. It was basically a federal tax credit incentive that encouraged or incentivized banks and investors to invest their money and get a good return. Now 90 percent of the affordable housing gets built through these tax credits, it's about a $6 to $9 billion market a year. Unfortunately, it doesn't solve all the problems and challenges given the crisis around housing and community development today. There still are a lot of people in need!

Rob: What are the statistics on people below the poverty line in our country?

Abby: One in six Americans lives in poverty.

Rob: So, one in six Americans. ...

Ed: I think according to the statistics done in the last decade, we've moved from 40 million people in poverty in the United States to now over 44 million.

Rob: 44 million?

Abby: Yeah, from one in five to one in six.

Ed: People have become a little bit blasé about the idea that so many Americans actually live in poverty. I think the danger is that people come to accept that a certain number of very poor people are an endemic part of capitalist culture. It stops being looked at as a problem. It starts being looked at as an intrinsic part of the way we live.

Rob: There was something you said before; I'll just point it out, for the readers. Maslow's hierarchy needs says food, shelter, and clothing are basic needs. Do you think that shelter is as important as, let's say, food for people to feel good about themselves?

Ed: Yes. I think one of the core principles of the Enterprise is that a functioning member of society relies on the platform of a decent home to live in. It's hard to achieve or be productive as a citizen if you don't have a place to live that you can afford.

Abby: Yeah. Think about, if you're a kid in school and you don't have a place to call home, it will be hard to do well in school and get a great education. There are studies that prove that the cost of educating a kid who doesn't have a stable home is huge.

Rob: So it does have an impact?

Abby: It has an economic impact and then, of course, it has a psychological and sociological impact as well. I think some people are asking us why we focus on housing. To me, it's like, you can't focus on anything else until a person gets housing.

Rob: So, in closing, is there a parable or some story that you tell sometimes to people that sort of sums up life for you, or life in general, or something important?

Ed: Well, I don't have a story, but every time I go to one of the Enterprise dinners, one of the things I really end up feeling is that Abby and this whole host of other people that she's now currently leading here in New York, are people who could have been making millions of dollars working for any Wall Street firm. It gives me a lot of optimism that friends of mine are foregoing the easy path and contributing to this larger sense of helping others.

Rob: And Abby? Is there a story you'd like to tell?

Abby: I think one story that really made a big impression on me is one of my first jobs. I was working at Hudson River Park for this visionary who had lots of great and crazy ideas. One of his crazy ideas was to take one of the piers and start a summer program fixing it up. When I first walked out onto Pier 62 myself, I walked out the end of it and came upon two unexpected things: The first is that it was 20 degrees cooler and the second was the view of the city. Going out on that pier changed my perspective and created a greater set of possibilities for me. Its very similar to the idea that if you can give people a home, they can start to see greater possibilities in their life that they just wouldn't otherwise be able to see. If we give people the opportunity to change how they live, I'm confident that people will move forward to do incredible things. That's the lesson I learned and it made me a huge impression on me.

Rob: That's a great story. Thank you both for sharing your friendship and ideas with us. Keep on helping others!