The Zarrow Foundations Expand Affordable Housing and Mental Health Services in Tulsa, Oklahoma
The Anne & Henry Zarrow Foundation and the Maxine & Jack Zarrow Family Foundation have been working with public and philanthropic organizations since the 1980s to lift residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, out of poverty. The foundations have funded housing, healthcare, social service, and food security providers, with a special focus on providers addressing mental health and homelessness. This focus was the impetus for the foundations to join the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma (MHAO) in establishing Building Tulsa, Building Lives (BTBL), a funding campaign to raise $30 million to end chronic homelessness in the city through affordable housing and supportive services. The five-year campaign ended in 2012 and ultimately raised $57 million, nearly double the initial goal. The campaign financed 514 affordable housing units and implemented numerous improvements to benefit Tulsa service providers and their clients. The first housing project that BTBL funded was the Yale Avenue Apartments, an experience that provided valuable lessons for later BTBL projects. In 2017, The Anne & Henry Zarrow Foundation received a HUD Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships in the category of Housing and Community Development in Action for its work on Building Tulsa, Building Lives.
A Safe Haven at the Yale Avenue Apartments
In 2007, concerned about the imminent closure of a 160-unit single-room-occupancy building in downtown Tulsa operated by the YMCA, two trustees of the Zarrow foundations saw the need for new housing for the building’s extremely low-income residents. With money raised by BTBL, the Tulsa Housing Authority and MHAO developed the Yale Avenue Apartments, a 76-unit supportive housing project that opened in 2010 and served as replacement housing for some of the YMCA building’s residents. Managed by MHAO as part of its Safe Haven program, Yale Avenue provides permanent, temporary, and transitional housing in a supportive environment for adults who are experiencing homelessness and are affected by serious mental illness. Single-room-occupancy and one-bedroom units are available, and the building features 24-hour staffing. The development cost for the apartments was $9.7 million. Federal funds issued through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $4 million for the project, and private money raised by BTBL covered the remaining $5.7 million.
BTBL had grown out of discussions that the two Zarrow trustees, Gail Richards and Judy Kishner, had with fellow members of the mayor’s Housing Task Force. Their discussions focused on ending chronic homelessness in Tulsa, which MHAO estimated would require $30 million to add approximately 550 affordable units to the city’s housing stock. To achieve these goals, BTBL’s two cofounders were joined by more than 30 partners. Richards and Kishner functioned as cochairs for the ambitious campaign.
Lessons Learned at the Yale Avenue Apartments
The development of the Yale Avenue Apartments was not an entirely smooth process, however, and these difficulties served as valuable lessons that informed the campaign’s subsequent strategy for obtaining housing projects. Although the supportive housing was sorely needed to help alleviate homelessness in the city, the development faced substantial opposition from its neighbors. Objections ranged from concerns about property values to a fear of crime. These negative effects did not materialize, and “the neighbors do love and embrace the apartments now,” says The Zarrow Family Foundations executive director Bill Major.
BTBL’s difficult experience with the Yale Avenue Apartments caused it to eschew new construction as a means of developing affordable housing. Instead, the organization adopted a new strategy of purchasing and renovating market-rate apartment buildings. By buying an existing building, BTBL avoided inconveniencing neighborhood residents — renovating an existing building is much less disruptive than a large construction project, which can generate considerable noise, traffic disruptions, and neighborhood change. In addition, MHAO continued renting a portion of the units at market rates to further reduce neighborhood opposition while also providing MHAO’s clients with economic and social integration. Ultimately, the campaign helped finance the acquisition of 12 buildings containing 157 market-rate and 405 affordable units.
MHAO’s goal for these mixed-income buildings is to eventually achieve a ratio of approximately one affordable program unit to every three market-rate units. The revenue generated by the larger proportion of market-rate renters sustains the supportive programs for formerly homeless and disabled tenants. Gregory Shinn, associate director and chief housing officer of MHAO, describes integrating low-income supportive housing into a large mixed portfolio with buildings across various neighborhoods as “bringing Housing First to scale.” Although the proportion of market-rate to affordable housing units varies over time, by building and by neighborhood, MHAO achieved a ratio of 75 percent market-rate housing to 25 percent program housing across its entire portfolio by spring 2019.
Ultimately, the BTBL campaign funded the acquisition or construction of 671 market-rate and affordable units in 16 buildings. The total cost of the units was $57 million, with an average per-unit cost of $43,800. BTBL raised $45 million in private money, and public money from various programs made up the remaining $12 million. In addition to funding MHAO’s housing, BTBL raised $900,000 for the Youth Services of Tulsa to purchase two apartment buildings. The service provider uses the combined 33 units to house youth coming out of the city’s foster care system, a group that is especially at risk of homelessness. The campaign also funded a free 30-stop transportation circuit between shelters, service locations, and other destinations useful to people experiencing homelessness.
The Zarrow Foundations Continue Work
The BTBL campaign far exceeded its goals for funds and constructed units. However, unexpected conditions such as the Great Recession prevented the effort from ending chronic homelessness in Tulsa. The Zarrow foundations have remained active in the city’s continuing efforts to end homelessness and have helped lead several new local initiatives, including the 100,000 Homes Campaign and the current Built for Zero program. In addition, The Anne & Henry Zarrow Foundation acquired and began work to reuse the vacant Dollar Thrifty commercial center in 2017. The foundation intends to convert the 13.3-acre property into Legacy Plaza, a hub of Tulsa service providers with affordable housing. When completed in 2020, Legacy Plaza will include office space for 7 major community service providers and residential units for approximately 70 low-income households.
The Zarrow Family Foundations. n.d. “The Anne & Henry Zarrow Foundation: Priority Funding Initiatives.” Accessed 20 March 2019; The Zarrow Family Foundations. n.d. “Maxine & Jack Zarrow Family Foundation: Funding Priorities.” Accessed 20 March 2019; Interview with Bill Major, executive director of The Zarrow Family Foundations, 4 April 2019; Correspondence from Bill Major, 22 April 2019; The Zarrow Family Foundations. n.d. “Home.” Accessed 20 March 2019; Department of Housing and Urban Development. 2017. “The Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships — Housing and Community Development in Action: The Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation/Zarrow Families Foundation.” Accessed 20 March 2019.×
Mental Health Association of Oklahoma. n.d. “Housing First Model.” Accessed 20 March 2019. Interview with Bill Major, executive director of The Zarrow Family Foundations, 4 April 2019; Michael Brose. 2010. “Local Philanthropists Lead Effort to End Chronic Homelessness in Tulsa,” Funders Together to End Homelessness blog, 10 March. Accessed 2 May 2019.×
Interview with Bill Major, executive director of The Zarrow Family Foundations, 4 April 2019.×
Interview with Bill Major, 4 April 2019.×
Interview with Bill Major, 4 April 2019; Correspondence from Gregory Shinn, associate director and chief housing officer of the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, 2–9 May 2019.×
Correspondence from Gregory Shinn, 2–9 May 2019.×
Interview with Bill Major, 4 April 2019.×
Interview with Bill Major, 4 April 2019; Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits. 2017. “Former Dollar Thrifty Headquarters Gets a New Purpose.” Accessed 21 March 2019.×