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President: Thomas Bledsoe
Grade: A-
Winner's Statement

Tom Bledsoe's vision was collapsing. Bledsoe, president of the Housing Partnership Network, a Boston-based community-development advocate, was set to pitch a crew of bankers on seeding a real estate development fund with $2 million. The night before the meeting, though, his primary lending partner backed out.

The retreat sapped enthusiasm for Bledsoe's plan—until Michael A. Solomon, director of Merrill Lynch Community Development Co., agreed to shepherd the deal. "Here was a group that was willing to put up its own money to make something work, and it had all these financial institutions around the table," Solomon recalls. "I just felt it would be a waste if it didn't happen."

That was in 2000. Bledsoe's Housing Partnership Fund, which makes acquisition loans at below-market rates, launched soon thereafter—the first in a string of initiatives with Merrill Lynch that brought creativity and speed to the layered work of affordable housing. With Merrill's support, HPN has created an insurance company and a securities firm, and started up an informal venture fund. These services have helped the network's 87 member organizations create 11,000 affordable homes, insure 37,000 rental units, and improve the lives of 150,000 people.

They are people like Stephen Winden, a developmentally disabled 41-year-old who, for the first time in 12 years, has a place of his own—a one-bedroom rental at Pepperwood, an affordable-housing complex in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Nonprofit LINC Housing Corp., which owns the building, took out an $8.3 million mortgage from HP Securities, using the proceeds to install energy-efficient appliances and double-pane windows.

For Merrill, such transactions help it meet obligations under the Community Reinvestment Act. But its involvement has also helped HPN experiment with new approaches to community-building. Take Bledsoe's response last year to Hurricane Katrina: With a $500,000 loan from the venture fund, he launched a nonprofit to spearhead development in New Orleans. Last April, that new organization bought Venus Gardens, a historic multiuse building with office space and 30 apartments.

And it invited one tenant—Ashé Cultural Arts Center—to buy the space it had rented for eight years. Instead of being out on the street, says Carol Bebelle, Ashé's codirector, "owning our own space means we can be self-determining." Which is, ultimately, HPN's very democratic goal.

Data Point

Number of people Housing Partnership Network's members have served since 1995: 334,000

A version of this article appeared in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.