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After 44 years at Pittsburgh nonprofit developer ACTION Housing, Larry Swanson will step down

Matt Nemeth
90.5 WESA
Action Housing's Penn Mathilda apartments on Penn Avenue are shown in this file photo.

In June 1979, President Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the films “Alien” and “Rocky II” were box-office hits, the Pittsburgh Steelers had recently won their third Super Bowl championship, and Larry Swanson started working for Pittsburgh nonprofit housing developer Action Housing.

Swanson, now 75, will step down as the organization’s executive director later this year.

A native of Sharon, Pennsylvania, Swanson had initially not intended to stay long at Action Housing. He and his wife had planned to stay here for a few years, then move to the West Coast.

“But life happens,” Swanson said, speaking last week in an interview in the Action offices in the old Alcoa building. “And we never left Pittsburgh, and we're so glad we never did. So that's how I got involved in affordable housing.”

Swanson, a Penn State graduate, had studied urban planning and previously worked in New Jersey.

When he was hired at Action more than 40 years ago, he was the agency’s 13th employee. Action was founded in 1957 by then-Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence and businessman and philanthropist Richard King Mellon.

Swanson said when he was first hired, much of Action’s work involved engaging with the federal government and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and helping private developers build affordable housing. By the mid-1980s, Action started to develop its own properties.

Action Housing today boasts more than 140 employees, and the agency is the city’s largest nonprofit housing developer. It runs programs involving foreclosure prevention, home weatherization, property management and much more, and has developed thousands of affordable housing units in the region; many of its housing developments also include supportive services for tenants.

“It is not hyperbole to say that Larry Swanson is a regional legend when it comes to affordable housing in Pittsburgh,” said Susheela Nemani-Stanger, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh. She credits Swanson with raising broad political support for more housing funding.

Larry Swanson is the executive director of Action Housing. He will step down later this year.
Action Housing
Larry Swanson is the executive director of Action Housing. He will step down later this year.

Much of the agency’s growth and evolution in the past several decades can be attributed to Swanson’s vision and ability to advocate for more housing resources, said Linda Metropulos. She has worked with Action for about 20 years, both as a staff member and as a consultant.

She also praised Swanson’s leadership.

“Larry thinks of himself as a coach,” she said, from his time coaching youth baseball, softball, and hockey teams.

“He brings that same spirit to Action Housing and to the broader work that he's engaged in. He sees the team,” she said. “He sees that we're all part of the team, and the role that he plays so well is really helping people find the best part of themselves to bring to that team and to help them grow within that.”

Swanson has good relationships at all levels of government, said Lauri Fink, a senior program officer at the Hillman Family Foundation.

He “understands both the policy side of what needs to happen around affordable housing, as well as what actually needs to happen on the development side, getting the buildings up or getting them protected and preserved,” Fink said.

Larry Swanson, left, will step down from leading Action Housing later this year. Lena Andrews, right, will be CEO as of Oct. 1.
Action Housing
Larry Swanson, left, will step down from leading Action Housing later this year. Lena Andrews, right, will be CEO as of Oct. 1.

Reflecting on the changes since he started the job, affordable housing is now a more prominent issue politically, both locally and nationally, Swanson said.

“Affordable housing has become something that is relevant not to 10 or 15% of the people, but close to 50% of the people,” Swanson said. “Across the country, people are finding great challenges in buying their first home. They're having great challenges with rental rates that they can't afford.”

Swanson said he’s hopeful that will lead to more of a national political focus on making both home-buying and renting more affordable.

“What that's going to be, I'm not sure. But it's clear to me that when you talk to people around the country, housing affordability is now a top-line issue,” he said.

He will continue to stay involved in housing advocacy as a volunteer, Swanson said.

He said he is proudest of the partnerships Action has built with other organizations, such as social service agencies with which it works.

“We've done many, many: we've got many going on right now; and so many very talented people really doing great work. And we get to learn from them,” he said.

Lena Andrews, Action’s current vice president of real estate development, will take over as CEO on Oct. 1.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.