Merchants Capital’s Mathew Wambua Draws on Government Experience

The affordable housing lender was involved in some of the more transformative initiatives in New York City in the Bloomberg administration

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Mathew Wambua worked in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration nearly two decades ago. It was there that he learned the ins and outs of affordable housing deals. 

Wambua, vice chair and head of agency lending at lender Merchants Capital, was a senior policy adviser from 2004 to 2008 for Dan Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development who spurred major infrastructure projects such as the extension of the No. 7 subway line to Hudson Yards on a then-windswept Far West Side of Manhattan and the rezoning of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront to foster housing construction in Brooklyn.

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“Sometimes you do get caught up in obstacles, given all the different parties, but one of the things that Dan would always talk about is the game is long, which I always remember,” said the 52-year-old Wambua who, following his stint with Doctoroff, served as executive vice president of the New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC) from 2008 to 2011. “That was probably the best training ground I had in learning how to navigate through multiple agendas being superimposed on a project and cultivating the skill set that allows for finding the overlap of all interests with final execution.”

Prior to joining Merchants Capital in 2013, Wambua spent more than two years as commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the nation’s largest municipal housing agency. There he managed financing for roughly 47,000 units across the Big Apple. The momentum has carried over into the private sector at Carmel, Ind.-based Merchants, which has set company records for debt production the last two years with affordable housing paving the way. 

Merchants closed $8.95 billion debt production last year to surpass its previous record of $7 billion in 2021, with affordable housing transactions rising by 90 percent annually to $5.9 billion. The dramatic growth, which occurred in the midst of rising interest rates and market dislocation, included a 48 percent increase in Freddie Mac Targeted Affordable Housing transactions. 

The seeds were planted for Merchants’ record-breaking 2022 nearly a decade ago when Wambua arrived at The Richman Group just before it launched a debt platform called RICHMAC Funding. That platform was acquired by Merchants Capital (then called PR Mortgage & Investments) in 2017, and the two rebranded as Merchants Capital in November 2018.

Merchants Capital was founded in 1990 as a mortgage banking firm specializing in multifamily finance. While PR Mortgage had built up a “relatively robust” Federal Housing Administration lending practice, Wambua said, the firm drastically expanded its debt offerings when it joined forces with RICHMAC.

“We focus almost exclusively on mortgage lending, with a primary specialization in affordable housing and, in many respects, we’re small and boutiquey, but have a national presence and a wide set of offerings,” Wambua said. “Over the course of the last five years, we have continued to expand.”

The Mortgage Bankers Association recognized Merchants last year as the third-ranked multifamily affordable housing lender by volume. Merchants has also expanded its company reach, opening its sixth regional office last year in Boston to go along with locations in Chicago, Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and Washington, D.C. 

Wambua’s journey to the upper echelons of New York City government and now to affordable housing financing on a national scale began across the globe in Nairobi, Kenya, where he lived until he was 8, when he moved with family to Los Angeles. He stayed on the West Coast, graduating from the University of California at Berkeley before trekking east to earn a master’s in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Marc Jahr, president of the New York City Housing Development Corporation from 2008 to 2013, described Wambua as a “skilled negotiator” whose ability to find a “sweet spot” bringing different parties together stood out when he was leading the Bloomberg administration’s rezoning of 125th Street in Harlem to allow greater density. Jahr, who hired Wambua, said he especially shined during the end of his tenure with the city, after Superstorm Sandy inflicted widespread damage in October 2012. 

“That was a particularly traumatic period of time for the City of New York and its neighborhoods and affordable housing, and throughout that period of time he was remarkably poised and disciplined and strategic in his thinking,” said Jahr, who is now a senior adviser at affordable housing consulting firm Forsyth Street Advisors. 

“It was another example of Mat’s ability to lead not just under normal circumstances, but within the context of an incredibly stressful period for the City of New York and its citizens,” Jahr said.

While commercial real estate now faces new barriers to jump-starting projects with rising interest rates coupled with many banks stepping back on lending during the last year, the affordable housing sector is well positioned to weather the storm clouds, according to Wambua. He noted that multifamily properties have continued to experience healthy historical rent growth amid the credit pressures, which will only compound the demand for more affordable housing options given the lack of supply in the marketplace.

Wambua added that another factor benefiting affordable housing financing in the current climate is its reliance on multiple parties of support. These range from the capital markets to government entities and tax credit programs.

“Higher interest rates are affecting everybody, but affordable housing does have the benefit of being able to rely in part on counterparties, such as the GSEs and governmental counterparties like the HFA [Housing Finance Agency], which often helps fill gaps that otherwise are arising because of a higher interest rate environment,” Wambua said. “It does in many respects have some counter-cyclical advantages.”

Part of Wambua’s perspective on affordable housing’s ongoing potential comes from his commute from Nyack in New York’s Rockland County to Merchants’ Midtown Manhattan offices. (Wambua, who unwinds with workouts and by reading sci-fi graphic novels, lived in the Bronx for a number of years, before he and his wife — a psychotherapist he met in the city — and two sons decamped farther up the Hudson.)  

The New York City region where Wambua has called home for a quarter century is confronting major affordable housing challenges, which he is optimistic can be addressed despite the expiration last June of the state’s 421a tax abatement program.

“New York continues to be well positioned in that so many public counterparties here from New York City HFA to the HPD to the HDC have a depth of expertise or resources that allow them to be truly an integral part of creating affordable housing,” Wambua said. “That at least has allowed the affordable housing world to endure through ups and downs in New York in ways that aren’t always true in other parts of the United States.” 

Andrew Coen can be reached at acoen@commercialobserver.com