The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

Alum spotlight: Mike Handzo ’11 works to create affordable housing in Lehigh Valley

Mike Handzo ’11 worked with the Landis Center for Community Engagement during his time at Lafayette. (Photo courtesy of Mike Handzo on LinkedIn)

During his time at Lafayette, Mike Handzo ‘11 developed a passion for the Easton community.

“I figured if I’m going to college somewhere, I didn’t want to just stay up on the hill the whole time, or I didn’t just want to feel like I was stuck in a bubble,” Handzo said. “I wanted to feel like I really had a connection to the place where I was, to the broader community that Lafayette was a part of.”

Handzo was heavily involved in the Landis Center for Community Outreach where he made it “a point with some of the connections and resources provided just to get to know as many community members as possible.”

These connections inspired Handzo to make the post-grad move from Massachusetts to the Lehigh Valley to advocate for the Easton community. He joined the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley in 2015.

There, he became a proponent of the Community Land Trust Model, which shields certain real estate from the fluctuations of the market in order to sustain affordable housing when that house goes to market. Handzo’s program protects this affordable housing model on homes for 99 years.

By chance, Handzo ended up on the phone with Emanuel Santa-Donato ‘10, a fellow Lafayette alum who was trying to form a partnership of his mortgage brokerage, Tomo Real Estate, within the Lehigh Valley to develop affordable housing.

“That is once again one of the beauties of Lafayette, that since it’s such a small school that the degrees of separation are so few, that once you find that alumni connection it instantly establishes a bond right away and provides some common ground,” Handzo said.

“I’m kind of an incidental player in this whole thing,” Santa-Donato said. “I called [Handzo] and made a good connection about financing his home buyers, but he’s the hero in all of this.”

Santa-Donato’s pursuit of financing affordable housing, paired with fond memories from his college career, brought him back to the Lehigh Valley.

“My goal is to create appropriate and accessible financial products to meet customers where they are based on how they’re earning money or what type of home they’re looking to buy,” Santa-Donato said. “I do have plans to take this nationwide, but if I can support somebody that kind of came from the same roots, that’s extra special.”

Santo-Donato hopes to move the mortgage industry forward, specifically citing issues with irregular income and multi-generational households impacting a person’s eligibility for housing loans and disproportionately affecting BIPOC communities. 

“The problem with affordability is there’s not enough supply — we’re three to five million units under-built,” Santo-Donato said. “So my affordable lending plan within Tomo is to go empower creators of affordable housing supply and Community Land Trust is one of those.”

These townhouses are currently being constructed in Glendon with longevity at the forefront. The new homeowners will go through pre-ownership seminars and receive continued support as they navigate through first-time homeownership.

“We’ll construct homes that will be in a turnkey shape that a homeowner will be proud to call their own right away and that will be able to last them for many years to come before heavy maintenance needs to start piling up so hopefully when that time hits, they have a little bit more money in their pocket to be able to afford the repairs,” Handzo said.

Handzo and Santa-Donato’s advocacy reflects the goals of the Landis Center in emphasizing continued engagement and understanding of the community.

“We talk about a lot in the Landis Center, what engagement goes beyond just going into a community and doing a one-time opportunity, and then leaving that community,” said Jodi Fowler, associate director of civic leadership programs. “We root everything in education, direct service and reflection. All three of those really have to be integrated in order for true engagement to happen.”

Fowler believes that engaging through Landis is an important way students can get involved with the Easton community.

“Our students come here from all over the United States, some international, and Easton welcomes them for four years into their community and so it’s really important for our students to understand the community,” Fowler said.

Handzo echoed this sentiment.

“Any community always has something to teach you, just keep yourself open to the experiences,” Handzo said.

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Isabella Gaglione, Editor-in-Chief

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    Chuck Weis Associate Executive Director of Housing CALVFeb 16, 2024 at 4:02 pm

    As Mike Handzo’s Direct Report at Community Action Lehigh Valley, I was happy to see that he was being recognized by Lafayette for his on going role in the community and the Lehigh Valley at large. Mike has proven to be a great asset to our agency and was awarded the Employee of the year award for 2023. Mike’s commitment to our housing participants is inspiring. He has been a keypart of building a comprehensive Housing Division in our agency that serves close to 1000 homes a year. He is always willing to go the extra mile in the fight against poverty!