Capital with Impact: Celia Smoot on how KeyBank envisions the future of affordable housing

February 2023

Celia:                   And so, I think we're going to end up as an industry, instead of it being an offshoot thing, like, "Oh, we had this one particular development has ability for someone to get better access to healthcare, better access to other types of financial, family income wealth building. I think that that's going to be the norm, and I think that we as an industry need to be very adamant that it becomes a norm, about the type of housing that we're providing. It needs to be housing plus.

Jeffrey:               Hello everyone, and welcome to this episode of The Thought Leadership Podcast series, hosted on, and presented by and in conversation with KeyBank. I'm Jeffrey Metz. In today's episode, we join Kelsi Maree Borland in conversation with Celia Smoot, SVP and Head of Fund Investments for KeyBank, who recently joined the organization with a steady background in the affordable housing space from previous positions at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and The National Affordable Housing Trust.

                             Here, she discusses what she's learned in that time, as well as what some of the challenges the sector faces, and what she hopes to do at KeyBank. Let's listen in.

Kelsi:                   Hi. This is Kelsi Maree Borland, a reporter with, and I'm here today with Celia Smoot, an affordable housing expert who recently joined KeyBank as Senior Vice President. Hi, Celia, it's great to talk with you.

Celia:                   Hi, Kelsi.

Kelsi:                   Thank you so much for joining us. So, you have had a really impressive career in the affordable housing sector. Your resume includes roles at organizations like The Department of Housing and Urban Development, and The National Affordable Housing Trust. You joined KeyBank six months ago as Senior Vice President. Tell me, to just kind of kick things off, why was this a good fit for you, and your kind of personal career goals?

Celia:                   I kind of look at my career as this kind of half and half thing, so to speak. So, I spent my first half of my career as a practicing attorney. I started off as a Legal Honors intern at HUD, working in the Philadelphia office, being very close to the legal side of HUD lending, HUD investment, HUD grants.

                             And then, representing developers in actually institutional banks, in different roles, from a legal perspective. And then at some point, a lot of ... When you think about it, 2008 kind of made everybody rethink what they wanted to do, and where they wanted to be as the economy free-falled, I switched over. I took a step back and really wanted to see how capital should work, you know, in communities.

                             Instead of capital being something that harmed communities, is there a way that we can use capital to help communities? And, I spent 10 years at LISC, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which was a CDFI, Community Development Financial Institution, which is, for lack of better way to describe it, a nonprofit bank. And I spent 10 years really focused on how to change, and think differently about capital deployment to support affordable housing.

                             And then, from there, I had really grounded myself in this role around looking at capital, and then, most of that was looking at loan capital in innovative ways - working with municipalities and finding better utilization of their capital to support community development affordable housing. And then, the switch to National Affordable Housing Trust that you mentioned was really about ways that we could make investments around low income housing tax credits work better….

                             You know, really work with some of the high profile nonprofit developers in the country who are really focused on this idea of deeper income targeting with their developments, and using that equity to be able to support families who are at the much lower end of the AMI scale - the Area Median Income scale. And so, when I look at that history of my entire career, at some point, I realized that I've done so much in this space of either working, representing financial institutions, working at somewhat of a financial institution, and raising capital from financial institutions, it just became... like, the perfect transition in my career to go work for a bank, to work for a financial institution who is really invested in this space around not only capital deployment in the form of tax credit equity, but also who's actually really committed to the idea of not only invested in bricks and mortars, but invested in communities and people.

                             So, there are a lot of financial institutions out there, but I felt like KeyBank was, if I'm going to make a transition to one, this is the place I would want to be at.

Kelsi:                   That's great. You know, it's so obvious that you've touched a lot of the different segments of affordable housing. You know, affordable housing is really a complicated sector because there are all these kind of different pieces and moving components, and different ways to really attack a project.

                             Because you have all of that experience that you're bringing with you into this role, tell me about how you're going to leverage that experience, and, and a little bit more about the role that you're going to have with this thing.

Celia:                   Yeah. So, I will say that there are two good things that are really great about KeyBank. One is, there is a... what I call, your every day bread and butter role, right? The thing that you have to do, the thing that we as a bank, you know, need this kind of core... competency core work to do.

                             And, and for me, that is managing our investment relationships with fund sponsors. [00:06:00] Whether through low income housing tax credit syndicators through multi funds, providing them tax credit equities for multi funds, looking and working with preservation fund sponsors who are really working outside of just a regular kind of low income housing tax credit execution, but really working the space to preserve those assets when they are on the back end of their kind of affordability compliance period.

                             And then a third, kind of tertiary role, which is this thing called SBICs, Small Business Investment Corporations, and which also are very important to just really making investments into the community fabric. I always say that housing is where jobs go to sleep, so the idea of investing in small businesses is really important if you want to make a full holistic response to an investment in a community.

                             So, those are the three investment buckets that I'm managing in this role. But on top of that, the really good thing about KeyBank... and I will say this…the really good thing about our equity group here, under leadership of Stacie and Rob - Stacie Nekus and Rob Likes - is that, you know, when I say, "Hey, I think that I would really like to pursue the opportunity to look at our overall equity strategy, and how do we... how do we do that in a more impactful way?" And the immediate response of, "Yes. Let’s look at that, and let's figure that out.", and that adding to my plate, was something that I wanted to do, and something that was really embraced by the Key leadership.

                             And I, again, one of the reasons why I'm kind of happy that this is the place that I picked in my career transition. And so, when I think more about, like, yes, we make these equity investments, yes there's this thing about tax credits, right? And really taking down tax credits so that you address the bank's tax liability as a financial institution, we care about and we have to think about The Community Reinvestment Act, obligations of, you know, around investing in the community due to regulatory reviews. But also, the idea of looking at our investment strategy and figuring out ways to expand that with more programmatic wraps to it, so that we are not only looking at actually making the investment in the brick and mortar, but also, what else can we do that we can support the residents in the communities in which the assets that we are investing in sit.

                             So, you're thinking about things, about what are the other type of programming, what other type of resident, and whatever type of resources can KeyBank bring to any building in which we invested in, and there are just so much energy, I think, at the bank around looking at that, and making this connectivity between not only, you know, what are we doing around helping the digital divide in the communities - what are we doing around the idea that we have populations within our footprint that are under-banked, what can we do to bring other type of programming, like financial literacy. As a financial institution there's a lot we can do and a lot we can bring to bear, and the idea of connecting all of that through our equity investment is one of the things that I'm kind of in charge with, and I'm really thankful that there's no hindrance, there's no obstacles.

                             If you think there's a way for us to do it, then let's think about how to do it, and let's just start it.

Kelsi:                   Well, I think that's what's so exciting about this match, is because you clearly have this very storied experience, in the affordable housing sector, but KeyBank is also known for, I think, like you said, really attacking the problem, really investing in affordable housing, and thinking of different solutions to really…

                             You know, we're in an affordable housing crisis, right? So, different solutions to really attack that problem. Curious, if there are any changes on the horizon that we can expect as you step into this role?

Celia:                   Well, one of the things we've been thinking a lot about, like, making... you know…There is the typical business that we do, and there's a typical business that all the banks do. Our industry will churn out housing, and churn out investment. I think that in terms of changes, since we ourselves are making a real commitment in the realm, like the impact of our capital - as we are working with partners, we want to understand their commitment to that impact as well. We want to have partners, and we want to bring partners to the table, whether that is other syndicators, whether or not it's other financial institutions where we can partner, or we can lead initiatives around making sure that all of the capital, not just ours, but other investors, and maybe they're end funds, are... that we're doing, we're striving, to be as impactful as possible with that capital, understanding, you know...

                             We are kind of talking to, and been invested in funds around racial equity in the affordable housing space, and really looking at our other, kind of, investor and bank constituency  to, you know... to understand, and to encourage them to also come to the table, in the same breath that we are also doing it. So, you will see more of that from KeyBank, trying to lead in that space, and definitely trying to bring others with us.

Kelsi:                   And do you have any kind of short term goals in terms of how you're attacking those changes?

Celia:                   Well, one is that we are really being very... [inaudible]  may be the best word, but we're definitely having  a lot of discussions, and being very intentional about the type of partners that we're working with across the board. We want to work with high capacity organizations, but we also are being intentional in working with organizations that are not the largest and the biggest, because they also need capital, they also need support - and an investment in an organization, or working with a partnership like that, you will see that we think our impact can be even bigger.

                             And so, we are being very intentional in the choices that we're making around our partnership.

Kelsi:                   And what is some of the criteria that you're looking in for a partner?

Celia:                   So, there's different roles within the industry. From us providing capital to a partner from, for perspective, of a tax credit syndicator, or a fund sponsor looking to preservation space, or SBIC fund - we really understand what are their impact commitments.

                             You know, what are they doing around ESG (environmental, social, and governance), and how is their capital impacting the residents? Is there more than just cash to buildings, cash for renovations and rehab. Where are the other things that are really being invested into the community around the buildings that they are either building or investing in?

                             And we're finding that we are not the only ones who want to understand that, and we're not the only ones who are really committed to that space, so we... although we like to say that we are definitely a leader in that space, we like the fact that, when we are saying these things, it's kind of being reverberated with other partners. And as we think about that, we're also looking for other investment partners as we ourselves are making these type of investments, and since we have the capacity, and the talent……

                             You know, we have the capital, the capacity, and the talent to really make those kinds of impactful choices, and do designs around our capital that include this community impact, and these kind of resident empowerment, looking at other kind of, other bank and investor partners who would want to partner with us, bringing capital  to the communities that we both care about.

Kelsi:                   That's great. I, I cannot let you go without asking you a market question because I have the opportunity to talk with you. I'm curious…we've seen the affordable housing sector really heat up a lot, I think, in the kind of post pandemic timeline, if we're calling it post pandemic, in this last year - I'm just curious what your outlook is on the affordable housing market, and particularly appetite for affordable housing today.

Celia:                   I always say that hiccups in people will only make issues around affordable housing even more acute. We saw that in the downturn '08, we saw that  around 2015, 2017. Between 2015 and 2017, this kind of increase in affordable housing, and for this need for affordable housing, and I don't see that need lowering.

                             I think that the need will only expand. I think that as an industry, we have to be thinking about not only how do we get the resources, and how do we actually deploy capital in a smart way, leverage more between all the different sources of capital so we can produce more affordable housing, we can preserve more affordable housing….

                             I also think that we have to be more intentional about providing more options, and more scalability opportunity, vis a vis residents who live in affordable housing. So, if I had to be Nostradamus and say, "Hey, this is where I think we're going to be in five years" - I would say that (1), we'll be in a space where we are adding a different type of capital deployment to try to do more affordable housing, 'cause I think the need is going to just expand.

                             And I also think that we're going to be thinking more about using affordable housing as more of a...not just like a roof over someone's head, not just, this is a habitat for you that's affordable, but how are we using that as really the first stop to kind of provide other types of resources to families.

                             You know, we think about that, in kind of a permanent support of housing space for anyone suffering from a disability, but we're not... I think that what we have learned is that housing is a nice place to help people connect to other things. And so I think we're gonna end up as an industry, instead of being like an offshoot thing, like, "Oh, we have this one particular development, has the ability for someone to get better access to healthcare, better access to other type of financial, family income wealth building.

                             I think that's going to be the norm, and I think that we as an industry need to be very adamant that it becomes a norm about the type of housing that we're providing. It needs to be housing plus, and I believe that it will become something that we as an industry, we'll just accept that that is the norm of what we are doing, and what we are focused on. Because the need will never go... the need is never going to be any less.

Kelsi:                   Right. That's not going away. And that's obviously the work that you're doing at KeyBank, but you also think the industry is moving in that direction?

Celia:                   Yes.

Kelsi:                   That's great to hear. That's great. Celia, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it. We have been talking with Celia Smoot. She is an affordable housing expert, and the Senior Vice President at KeyBank. Thank you so much again for your time.

Jeffrey:               Thank you for listening to this conversation with KeyBank, the Thought Leadership Podcast series, also presented by KeyBank, and hosted on, the latest news and insights in the commercial real estate industry. For the other episodes in this podcast series, and further insights from KeyBank, go to

What does it mean for the industry to have a housing-plus mindset? Celia Smoot, Senior Vice President, and affordable housing expert at KeyBank talks about leading with investment strategies that reach beyond brick & mortar to support surrounding communities. Using capital to support the residents in the communities in which the assets that we are investing in sit. Listen in.

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