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Housing can really pay

Audit looks into nonprofit that brought its top executive $468,000 one year, and her husband a lucrative deal
by: , Saweuyer-Parks

A prominent local nonprofit executive is under scrutiny for her yearly pay as well as the hiring of her husband as a $9,000-a-month consultant for her agency.

But Deborah Saweuyer-Parks predicted that a state Department of Justice audit initiated earlier this month will find that her salary is not excessive and that her company's payments to her husband do not represent a conflict of interest.

Saweuyer-Parks, president and chief officer of the Portland-based Oregon Corp. for Affordable Housing, also known as Homestead Capital, previously handled the state's housing tax-credit program. She founded Homestead as a one-person operation in 1993.

Essentially the nonprofit serves as a tax-credit broker, trading investment money from banks and insurance companies for low-income housing tax credits secured by affordable-housing developers.

According to its Web site, home steadcap.com, the agency's mission is 'to relieve poverty and distress through the investment in and production of decent, safe, affordable housing in Oregon.'

According to the nonprofit's most recent public filing, Homestead paid Saweuyer-Parks $468,000 in compensation and benefits in fiscal 2004-05.

The year before she was paid $370,000. Homestead has not yet filed its 2005-06 tax return. However, spokeswoman Nancy Carter said Saweuyer-Parks' total compensation has dropped to $301,000.

Saweuyer-Parks said her compensation varies from year to year because her bonuses depend on her success. 'It's not willy-nilly,' she said, adding that in 2004-05, 'I raised a lot of money and did a lot of deals.'

Of her $468,000 in pay and benefits that year, she said with a laugh, 'You think that's a lot? I don't think that's a lot.'

Saweuyer-Parks sits on the boards of the Oregon Public Broadcasting Corp. as well as Mercy Housing Inc. In the past, she sat on the boards of the Oregon Symphony and the American Leadership Forum. In 2004, the national Business Journal chain named her its Women in Business Nonprofit Executive of the year.

The DOJ investigation was sparked by a complaint from a former employee, whose name the state declined to release.

Another former employee, however, echoed the basic sentiment concerning Saweuyer-Parks' management. Charles Park, a former vice president of underwriting for the nonprofit, told the Portland Tribune that in his opinion, 'She runs it for herself.'

Saweuyer-Parks does have defenders. 'Every (dealing) we've had has been very positive,' said developer Homer Williams, who built the Sitka Apartments in the Pearl District using funds provided by Homestead. 'She's a hard worker.'

'Homestead Capital has been a good partner for affordable housing,' said Michael Anderson of the Portland-based Community Development Network.

Goodwill exec's pay reduced

This is the second time in recent years that the state has reviewed a nonprofit executive's salary.

In 2005, Michael Miller of Goodwill Industries of the Columbia Willamette agreed to a 24 percent pay cut after a state audit found that his $831,000 in pay and benefits to oversee 1,800 employees was 'unreasonable.'

According to Saweuyer-Parks, Homestead has 26 employees. Its Web site says the organization has invested in nearly 5,500 units and raised more than $440 million since its inception.

Carter said the nonprofit does 'not perceive that there's going to be any problem' with Saweuyer-Parks' salary once the state realizes the sophisticated nature of Homestead's activities.

'Basically they are a financial services company that happens to have nonprofit status,' she said.

Saweuyer-Parks' last reported salary, however, raised eyebrows among executives of similar organizations, fellow members of the National Association of State and Local Equity Funds.

'What?! I'm sorry, you said what?' said Bernard Deasy, president and CEO of the Merrick Equity Fund, with a laugh. 'That's ridiculous … that seems a little bit over the top.'

He was echoed by Doris Schnider of the Delaware Community Investment Corp., who exhaled sharply and said, 'Oh, wow' when told of Saweuyer-Parks' last reported earnings.

Schnider, who earns about $200,000, runs an operation that's smaller than Homestead, though she said it has financed 'almost as many units.'

Saweuyer-Parks' past compensation is not unheard-of, however. According to the tax returns filed by the 15 members of the National Association of State and Local Equity Funds, two boast salaries comparable to that of Saweuyer-Parks'.

Joe Flatley, president and CEO of the Boston-based Massachusetts Housing Investment Corp., said he makes nearly $400,000 a year. His organization, which has 31 full-time employees, has financed about 11,500 rental units since 1990.

And Hal Keller, president of the Columbus-based Ohio Capital Corp. for Housing, earned $483,000 in 2005-06 to oversee 45 employees. Since 1989, his organization has raised more than $800 million and financed more than 14,000 units.

In 1998 before taking on the CEO job but while still the highest-paid staffer, Saweuyer-Parks was paid $135,000. In 1999, after becoming CEO, her compensation jumped to $205,000 and rose steadily thereafter.

Husband comes on board

Then there is the matter of the hiring of her husband, Ibn Saweuyer-Parks, through his personal business called Sawhorse Construction Management LLC.

His job: to report back on ongoing construction projects financed by the firm, for which he was paid 'roughly $70,000' between May and December 2006, said Carter, the Homestead spokeswoman.

No more recent or precise information was available. Carter said the hiring was proposed by board Chairman Michael C. Peters to replace an in-house construction manager who resigned.

Carter said the board reviewed 'comparable fees and expenses for both an in-house position and other outside contractors' and that Ibn Saweuyer-Parks provided 'the best combination of experience and value.'

It is unclear what Homestead paid Ibn Saweuyer-Parks' in-house predecessors. Although past tax returns of the organization purport to list the top five highest-paid staffers, ranging in pay between $55,000 and $79,000, they do not list the two construction managers who preceded Ibn Saweuyer-Parks.

The Saweuyer-Parkses share a home in Troutdale that has a market value of nearly $280,000, according to the Multnomah County assessor's office.

Asked about her husband's hiring, Saweuyer-Parks said she had no involvement in his hiring - and indeed, had had no inkling that it was in the works. 'I had no idea it was going to happen,' she said, while directing a reporter's queries to her board members.

Martha Peck Andrews, an architect who sits on the board, said she did not know much about the hiring of the CEO's husband, but that she was impressed with the quality of his work.

She hoped and expected the audit would return a clean bill of health. She said she did not know why Deborah Saweuyer-Parks' salary varied so much, but that she knew it was 'well into the six figures.'

It is unclear what prompted the complaint from a former employee. Saweuyer-Parks' former vice president, Park, said he did not file the complaint. But he pointed to a high turnover rate as evidence of management problems there.

'They have a lot of turnover up there,' said the Oakland-based Deasy, noting that his organization keeps records for the National Association of State and Local Equity Funds. 'We get many, many more notices of turnover from them than we get for comparable organizations.'

Saweuyer-Parks declined to discuss her organization's turnover rate or other management issues, saying they were not the subject of the audit.

The DOJ's letter informing the company of the audit, however, said it could expand to include other issues. State spokeswoman Cox said, 'We'll look at anything that's brought to our attention.'

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