Fifteen years and two months ago, he was the new CEO of an Ulster County organization with 15 employees providing a limited range of services within a modest geographic territory. Since then, the organization has expanded its areas of competence, has initiated more development projects, and has become involved in a much larger geographic area.
Widely recognized in its industry for innovative practices and effective leadership, the Kingston-headquartered agency now employs four times as many people (62), and has been providing more projects and an expanded range of services in more localities. Seeing continued community-development needs, a challenging political environment and a changing pattern of partnerships, the CEO is looking forward in 2018 to working with his highly engaged local board of directors and senior staff to come up with a new five-year strategic plan for his organization.
Who is this CEO of this dynamic organization?
Kevin O’Connor of Rupco has been working in the non-profit affordable housing and community development field for more than 30 years. Aware that community needs change, O’Connor has evolved an increasingly more responsive outlook toward how to serve them. Aware of the complex connections among community problems, he has emphasized the importance of starting with the problems rather than pulling out his toolbox of solutions. “I can’t be just an affordable housing advocate,” he said in an interview last week.
O’Connor sees the links between the lack of affordable housing and the prevalence of other social problems. He likes to mention a recent Kingston hospital study that documented how a small number of distressed seniors with behavioral health issues are responsible for a disproportionate number of very expensive visits to the emergency room and for emergency county social services. Might it not be a better investment for the community simply to provide them decent shelter? “You’re gonna pay for it one way or another,” the Rupco CEO argues. Supportive housing for vulnerable elders saves taxpayer money, he insists.
Though O’Connor is not without a stubborn streak, he is flexible and entrepreneurial in defining and attacking problems through out-of-the-box solutions and partnerships. These qualities have been useful in Rupco’s search for funding sources for its projects. Under its CEO’s leadership, the agency has proved flexible enough to avoid the cognitive bias involved in over-reliance on familiar tools: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Many if not most not-for-profits are over-reliant on one or a few funding sources. They find themselves needing to follow the money wherever the money wants to go. Not Rupco, says its CEO. “We don’t chase money to chase money,” he insists. “There has to be an organic local need before we will get involved.”
Rupco doesn’t keep all its eggs in one basket. It earns revenue while pursuing its missionary work in housing and community development. It has five “business lines,” real-estate development, property management, rental assistance, community development and home ownership.
Rupco’s revenue sources are diversified. On its IRS Form 990 for 2016, for instance, Rupco listed program service revenues as $3.6 million (consisting of $1,224,152 in administrative fees, $1,077,529 in rental income, $723,830 in management fees, $227,055 in cost of project repayments, $167,828 in program income, and $200,333 in other program service revenues). In addition, it obtained $3,826,190 in government grants.
The wide variety of income sources gives the organization financial stability. “We carefully maintain a positive cash flow within our annual and capital budgets, allowing us the agility to address new opportunities and respond to community needs,” the Rupco website explains. IRS filings for the past five years have shown steady and growing financial support. Net assets at the end of 2016 amounted to $11,554,019.
Rupco hopes to begin construction soon on two major Kingston projects, the 66-unit Landmark Place for low-income seniors at the former county alms house on Flatbush Avenue and the 57-apartment mixed-use Energy Square project on Cedar Street. The former had been delayed by a zoning dispute, the latter by the unavailability for the project of state low-income tax credits. Construction on the energy-efficient Energy Square, which has been awarded $4.8 million in state grants, is expected in spring. Landmark Place may take longer, requiring final approval from the local planning board and placement of the financing.
Rupco’s Kingston presence has been consequential at other community locations. Over the years, it has redeveloped the Stuyvesant and Kirkland hotels, rehabbed a brick building on Hunter Street in the Rondout, fixed up the now owner-occupied four-unit Pettit House on Clinton Avenue, and brought the Lace Mill on Cornell Street back to life against formidable odds as 55 units of artists’ housing. In development for film and business use is The Metro, a former storage facility on South Prospect Street.
O’Connor counts the 53-unit Woodstock Commons housing campus, completed in 2013 for seniors, working families and artists, as perhaps the most transformative for his agency. Rupco stuck with the project against fierce opposition. For him, the experience proved an educational experience as well as a rite of passage. He persisted through thick and thin, and eventually prevailed. “Today, nobody complains about it,” he says.
Rupco’s portfolio continues to expand. With a lot in the housing pipeline, the Rupco CEO expects soon to be adding to his development project staff. There’s a significant 15-building project under construction in Newburgh and a partnership with new construction under way in Prattsville. Rupco also has offices in Walden and Catskill.
O’Connor sees potential throughout the entire region for what Rupco does. “People are moving here, there’s interest again here, and all of the river cities have to come back,” he told video journalist J’nelle Agee last year, “Any time we have the opportunity to repurpose abandoned buildings, to treat things with historic respect, or to build new to create affordable mixed housing, then we are fulfilling our mission.”