Built With Purpose

There’s a mighty dose of immigrant grit sprinkled into the business plans and housing developments of Comunidad Partners.

Antonio Marquez started the real estate investment firm at his kitchen table 17 years ago, but he’ll tell you that its roots go back even further with his own family. His father, a Mexican immigrant, was a farmworker before scraping together enough money to start his own business out of his garage importing and distributing Hispanic groceries, such as beans and peppers, to small markets in California.

“Growing up, I was cut from the same cloth,” says Marquez. “I worked in the family business, worked with my dad. I started from the bottom sweeping factory floors to picking up ethnic products at the border to distribute to grocery stores and had to earn everything, which was the best gift my family could have ever given to me because it gave me the grit, perseverance, and character to make me who I am today.”

His father, Juan, who had a fifth-grade education, was able to grow his importing business into a major distributer of Hispanic goods, but it wasn’t easy. The large national stores regularly turned the elder Marquez away, saying there was no demand for his items before becoming some of his biggest customers years later. The hardships that his family endured drive Marquez’s work today.

“What we’re trying to do at Comunidad is provide an easier life, better opportunities, and better equity ultimately,” he says. “That is the vision we’ve had since the beginning.”

Marquez knew he wanted to get into real estate but didn’t want to be part of just another investment firm. Eager to make a difference, he gravitated toward affordable and workforce housing.

“We look at housing as more than shelter,” he says. “We look at it as a vehicle for change, a vehicle of opportunity for our residents and the communities we serve.”

A Growing Portfolio

Today, Comunidad owns more than 6,000 units in 26 properties, across the fast-growing Sun Belt. The Austin, Texas-based firm has expanded from just Marquez and his wife, Rachel, to 125 employees. It’s a for-profit company but is mission-based in its investment approach.

It has come a long way from the days when Marquez was learning the business. He chalks up his affordable housing education to humility. To him, that means “always asking questions, even stupid ones. Stupid questions can be the most profound. Build relationships. Respect people. Ask for help.”

In the early days, few people would take a meeting with Marquez. It was reminiscent of when his father was beginning his business. Eventually, Thrive FP, a private real estate investment firm, believed in Marquez’s vision, and they’ve since partnered on 22 deals.

“With Antonio, what you see is what you get. He puts his money where his mouth is,” says JP Newman, CEO of Thrive FP. “Some people do marketing campaigns around social impact or workforce housing. Antonio embodies it.”

He cites Marquez’s operational expertise and attention to detail, right down to making sure the food at holiday parties is right for a development’s population. “There was precision in everything,” Newman says.

Over the years, Comunidad has also worked with a number of other lenders and equity partners from institutional to family offices with a diverse base of thoughtful and like-minded partners.

The firm’s model is to acquire, renovate, and operate multifamily properties, specifically workforce and affordable housing. These developments serve residents earning between 30% and 120% of the area median income (AMI), with most in the 60% to 80% AMI range.

Marquez, the firm’s managing partner, pursues projects that have about 150 or more units with space to deliver key resident programs. While acquisitions have been the company’s bread and butter, it has developed a 260-unit property in San Antonio and is eyeing a 200-unit new construction project in Miami.

With workforce housing developments that typically do not qualify for affordable housing financing programs like low-income housing tax credits, Comunidad has had to be creative, utilizing property tax exemptions, density bonuses, grants, and any other innovative program it can utilize to generate a market-rate return on the preservation and creation of affordable housing.

Making an Impact

Proudly 100% minority- and women-owned, Comunidad Partners has integrated environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices in its work from the beginning. “It’s in our DNA,” Marquez says. “It’s not something we’re doing to check a box. It’s part of us.”

Comunidad Partners' Villas del Zocalo in Dallas
Comunidad Partners’ Villas del Zocalo in Dallas

This has helped put the company in the spotlight today as more investors and companies look to support businesses with strong social justice and sustainability programs. “For us, it’s less about getting attention and more about sharing a message,” Marquez says. “The message is that it works, and we’ve had success with it. Hopefully, that inspires other organizations, other multifamily firms, and capital partners to do more of it. “

As part of its work, Comunidad has been mindful of creating culturally relevant communities. For example, tennis courts that were sitting largely unused at properties get converted into soccer fields. Clubhouses and offices are reimagined into spaces to host classes and other activities.

Like many other affordable housing owners, Comunidad brings in meaningful resident services to help families improve their lives. The three pillars of its social programming are health and wellness, education, and economic advancement.

The health programs have included biometric screenings that can help determine a person’s risk for certain diseases, says Marquez, noting that diabetes is a significant issue in the Hispanic community and cancer is a major issue in African-American communities so partnering with Susan G. Komen for cancer education and American Diabetes Association for healthy eating tips and support have been valuable to mitigating health risks for its residents.

During the COVID-19 pandemic as many Americans lost their jobs and their health insurance, Comunidad and Veritas Impact Partners, a nonprofit cofounded by Marquez, rolled out a free virtual health care program for residents. It’s meant that people didn’t have to rely on a job for medical coverage or drain their savings to seek assistance. So far, the telehealth program has been available to about 2,000 households, impacting 6,000 people, and growing.

With its partners, Comunidad has also helped provide 4,500 meals to kids, after-school programs, financial literacy classes, and employment assistance. The team is also in talks with the world’s largest industrial real estate firm and its workforce solutions nonprofit to establish a jobs program that will provide durable and, typically, higher-paying jobs for its residents with large, well-known employers.

In February, Comunidad Partners was named Freddie Mac’s inaugural Impact Sponsor of the Year, an award that recognizes Freddie Mac borrowers that preserve or create affordable rental housing that feature unique initiatives for residents.

“It’s hard to overstate the pioneering work that Comunidad has undertaken to both address the affordable housing crisis while also developing unique programs that advance tenants’ interests,” said Lauren Garren, Freddie Mac’s vice president of business management, in a statement. “We applaud the work of Antonio Marquez and the entire Comunidad team, which has proved itself a leader. Freddie Mac is recognizing their efforts in the hope that it will encourage other operators to similarly innovate.”

Last year, Comunidad Partners secured a $300 million financing commitment that will support affordable workforce housing through Bellwether Enterprise and Freddie Mac. The initiative is backed by Freddie Mac’s Tenant Advancement Commitment, which offers competitive financing to borrowers who agree to maintain or enhance affordability for the duration of a loan purchased by the government-sponsored enterprise at properties without regulatory rent restrictions.

As part of the arrangement, Comunidad will provide social services, including health and wellness, youth and adult education, and economic advancement programming, at each of the properties financed.

The resident programs are not just impact for impact’s sake, notes Marquez.

It’s also about creating a bond and a relationship with residents and investing in them, which is good for Comunidad and its bottom line. “If you make their dreams a reality and create opportunities to improve their outcomes not only do residents become loyal and ‘sticky’ to the community, but that translates into better property performance,” he says. “It’s a positive symbiotic relationship of driving value for all stakeholders in the value chain.”

Source: Affordable Housing Finance: https://www.housingfinance.com/management-operations/built-with-purpose_o