Hal's Story: Q&A With Our 'Voice & Vision' Honoree

OCCH President shares roots and keys to success 

Hal Keller

Hal Keller

For 25 years Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing (OCCH) has invested in excess of $100 million in over 30 Homeport communities, resulting in the creation of more than 2,000 affordable apartments and homes. OCCH, through its subsidiaries, has also funded out of school programming and educational scholarships for Homeport residents.

On October 13th, Homeport will honor longtime OCCH President Hal Keller at its second annual Voice & Vision program. Recently, staff from Homeport sat down with Hal to find out what drives him and the organization that in Ohio and four other states has $3.75 billion in private corporate equity investment, 42,500 units of affordable housing and 750 developments and partnerships.

Homeport:

What is the core of who you are? What guides you in and outside of work?

Hal Keller: “What is the meaning of your life anyway? Is it, ‘Have fun all the time’? First of all it’s about raising kids and building for the next generation. It’s about impact and leaving the world better. I am Jewish and there is an important concept called ‘Tikun Olam’ which means to repair the world. I feel like that’s why we’re here: to repair the world.”

Homeport:

What were the seeds of your work today?

HK: “Working in low income neighborhoods, first as a community organizer in Cleveland on the near West Side. Then I worked at the Columbus Tenants Union working with low-income tenants who were being evicted or had trouble with their landlord. I was answering a hotline six hours a day and organizing tenants at night. It was like, ‘There must be a better way to change things.

“So I went to work in a housing rehabilitation program at Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission during and after graduate school. I then went to the Ohio Department of Development and worked around the state in housing programs and after that as a housing consultant to rural and small cities as well as the Ohio Department of Mental Health on permanent supportive housing.

“Then Joe Hagan, the first OCCH president and my friend, came up with the idea to start Ohio Capital Corporation. We opened the office in 1989. My previous jobs had taught the importance of financing and the critical role of capital. Capital is a means not an end. At OCCH we use capital to produce affordable housing and change lives.”

Homeport:

If you had to teach your new hires, where do you start?

HK: “One thing we stress here at OCCH is remembering our purpose. OCCH is a financial intermediary. If it weren’t for our investors and development partners we wouldn’t be around. Every time we have a staff retreat I repeat, ‘If we stop delivering projected returns to our investors, if we stop adding value and providing competitive pricing of equity capital to our developers, and if we aren’t nice to deal with, we are out of business.’ It is about helping our investor and development partners achieve their goals, not about us. This is referred to as the ‘Humility Speech.’”

Homeport:

An example of impact you are proud of?

HK: In 1993, taking on stalled plans to renovate the historic YMCA at 40 West Long Street and creating safe, affordable housing for 400 low-income individuals. “They came to us and said, ‘We lost our financing. What are we going to do?’ I became very involved in this important project with a very vulnerable tenant population. The project got done and I remain active with the YMCA to this day.”

Homeport:

What excites you at work?

Hal Keller at recent groundbreaking for Homeport's Hamilton Crossing senior community in Whitehall.

Hal Keller at recent groundbreaking for Homeport's Hamilton Crossing senior community in Whitehall.

HK: “I really like the idea of a challenge. Something new. In 2003 in cooperation with OSU we created Community Properties of Ohio (CPO), headed by Isabel Toth, to take control of 250 dilapidated buildings scattered in seven neighborhoods. We took these building through a multi-year renovation effort. And now CPO manages over 2,700 affordable housing units, including many developed by Homeport.”

Homeport:

What’s advice you might give to someone?

HK: Be willing to go the distance on a project, and put your values into action.

“We’ve had some challenges at OCCH. When we were new and our underwriting wasn’t as strong as it should be, we financed a lot of development in Over-the-Rhine (in Cincinnati). It was a different Over-the-Rhine neighborhood than it is now. Riots occurred about four years after we began our investments. But I’ll tell you we have never lost a project. It’s simply finding the right partners, committing the resources and saying we can’t lose this because it’s our investors’ money and our mission.”

“In another example, OCCH invested in a hotel in the downtown of Galion, Ohio. Everyone loves it. Ten years after the renovation we discovered significant structural defects. We realized there were things done during construction that were illegal, unethical and the building was ready to fall down. So we emptied the building and are putting $1 million each from the city, our investors and us. To not do it would have devastated that downtown and the community would never have recovered. My board backed me entirely. We have an amazing board of directors at OCCH.”

Homeport:

First job ever?

HK: “My first job was at McDonalds my freshman year in high school. It’s teamwork. You do all of the jobs. I loved the adrenaline of the lunch and dinner rushes. That was a lot of fun.”

Homeport:

Worst job you ever had?

HK: “While I loved working at the state I was frustrated by the bureaucracy.” Also troubling, a summer job in the suburbs of New York City assembling food for a summer lunch program. “The lunches were supposed to be taken to the city and handed out to poor kids. Two years later the company was indicted because they would take the lunches into the city and just dump them. It’s like you think you’re doing a good job but then the forces above you were not sharing your values and you had no idea of the end result. It was an important lesson.”

Homeport:

What keeps you in Columbus?

HK: “Columbus is a great town. Columbus always takes a collaborative approach to solving community problems. People work together and build creative solutions.”

Homeport:

Why did you create a strong philanthropic component at OCCH?

HK: “Our early focus had been accumulation of capital for organizational stability and at some point the lines crossed where we are now able to take our excess revenues and distribute them. We also leverage substantial funds from our investors. We have programs focused on senior citizens, youth summer camp programs, college scholarships and community development projects like neighborhood gardens and pocket parks close to our investments. This is just another way to help our partners help their residents and the broader community.”

Homeport:

What is it that makes you happy?

HK: “Spending time with my kids. They’re grown and live out of town now but we have great vacations and love it when they are home. My wife and I go to movies every week. We enjoy hiking, bird watching -- spending time together. It’s an escape.”

Homeport:   

How did you get to Columbus and how did you meet your wife?

HK: “I grew up in Chappaqua in Westchester County, New York. A lot of kids from my area go to Ohio for college. I went to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. My sister, who also lives in Columbus, went to Ohio Wesleyan. My first job in Columbus was at Southwest Mental Health Center, working in Franklinton. My wife is a nurse by training but was a mental health counselor at the time. Our offices were next to each other and a mutual friend did a little matchmaking. Next year we will be celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary."

Tickets for Homeport's Voice & Vision Award Celebration are on Thursday, October 13th are available for purchase here.