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After ten years and a whole lot of controversy, Hope Community’s Mark Alexander is stepping down as executive director. Alexander notified his staff about two weeks ago that he would be leaving, and the organization said this week that it has launched an executive search.

When Alexander took over the East Harlem community development group in 1994, Hope (already on the rise) managed 400 apartment units; today it holds a portfolio of over 1,300. Between 1998 and 2002, the organization’s budget more than doubled, to over $5 million in annual revenue.

Those working with Hope say Alexander’s unique vision drove that growth. To Alexander, who joined Hope and the community development world in 1977, the future of New York’s rundown neighborhoods lay not in government housing programs, but in the free market. In order for the communities he and his colleagues are rebuilding to be sustainable, he believes, the city’s nonprofit developers must eventually start working inside the real estate market to create housing for the middle class as well as the poor.

“Some select organizations are good at social service,” Alexander said, explaining his approach. “But where community development associations have been most spectacularly successful has been in their ability to be catalysts for the reemergence of the private marketplace.”

That perspective has rankled as many people as it has awed–including some of Hope’s low-income tenants. In an April 2002 City Limits profile, a number of Hope tenants charged that, under Alexander’s leadership, they got the same strong-arm treatment as they had endured under slumlords: Repairs went undone; evictions came quickly. And even Alexander’s biggest boosters say his approach may be more than the nonprofit sphere of development can bear.

“Mark is probably one of the smartest people I know,” said Denise Scott, managing director at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, one of Hope’s primary funders. “Perhaps for him, personally, the challenge has been: How far out of the box can you really go?” With the budget limitations inherent in “nonprofit world,” Scott added, Alexander’s market-style ventures were inherently limited. “On the other hand,” she adds, “his vision did push Hope to take on projects that they wouldn’t have done—and that they did very well with.”

Hope and Alexander both say their split is an amicable one, and that Alexander just wants to move on to new things. He says he’ll have “a very clean break” from Hope, and plans on starting his own real estate business focused on mixed-income developments.

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