Careers in Development

8 min read

The stairway to the top is in-house 

Like many complex industries, companies in affordable housing development encompass many functions and many moving parts. This suggests a great diversity of career opportunities.

Speaking with executives from three accomplished NH&RA member companies admired throughout the field, some key consistencies emerge. For one, most companies are driven by a dedicated mission in the affordable housing field, so corporate culture is important to them and it is important for any employee or potential hire to understand it. In keeping with that culture, when possible they like to grow their own talent and promote from within. Each has somewhat different needs and different balances of necessary skills, but they are similar in the types of people they look for.

“I view us as a real estate company,” states Pam Goodman, Chief Executive Officer of Beacon Communities of Boston. “So our key functions are development, asset management, property management, resident services, human resources and accounting. We think corporate culture is very important, along, obviously, with smarts, so we like to promote from within and we have a lot of movement within our company.” At Beacon, all of the current senior vice presidents came up through the management ranks.

“Internal promotion is very important to us,” agrees Rick Wishcamper of the Wishcamper Companies of Portland, Maine. “We really like to build talent from within.”

“We have a strong retention record,” says Vince Bennett, President of McCormack Baron Salazar of St. Louis, Missouri. “We do a lot of coaching and training and we team up seasoned individuals with newer people to mentor. We have a great mentoring program, so that each employee is coached on job performance and career advancement within the company.”

All three executives articulated some form of a “triple bottom line” philosophy, involving profit, human values for both clients and employees, and sustainability. As Wishcamper put it, “We believe in the old saying, ‘Character is what you do when no one is looking.’ Our culture’s values are critical—not only in terms of the mission, but also not stepping on someone else’s toes to get ahead. It’s easy to teach Section 8 regulations, for example. It’s a much bigger task to teach a newcomer or outsider our values.” This collectively expressed attitude is clearly in line with each company’s approach to hiring.

Job Options
“Because a real estate organization is so diverse, it offers tremendous career opportunities across the board,” says Goodman.

For nearly every affordable housing company, development—or what is often called deal origination—is the central and most dynamic function. “What we call our development associates often come right out of undergraduate or graduate school,” she explains. As they learn the business, they take on more and more responsibility. And someone who is motivated and increasingly skilled can work her or his way up to development director, where you take the deal the whole way.”

“Here at McCormack Baron, an associate project manager can work all the way up to a managing director,” says Bennett. “Our vice president of communications started out as an intern. She displayed very strong writing and communications skills and convinced us she was the right person to head that department. She helped us in organizing our grant writing, marketing and visual communications.”

McCormack Baron makes a great effort to keep abreast of each employee’s progress. “We take great care to give and get good feedback on an annual basis. We train on the ‘science’ of real estate development, but also on our cultural values, which amounts to an oral history of the company.”

“We have 25 in our development division and four have just been promoted,” Wishcamper notes. “We are about finding and originating deals where there is an opportunity to create value. So we always look for creative, tenacious, experienced people for our operations team, because deals these days are so complicated. We complete about eight to ten deals a year. The simplest capital stack is four or five layers and the most complex is eight or nine. Bryan Shumway, our Director of Development, is an incredible dealmaker.”

While deal making and financing are critical functions, Bennett believes that success in the affordable housing arena requires a larger skill set. “We get a lot of resumes from people with impressive real estate backgrounds. But in both development and finance, we want individuals who can work well with community stakeholders, who have the passion for consensus building and community cooperation.” Before joining McCormack Baron, Bennett worked for a community development corporation in Pittsburgh, where he was responsible for facilitating communication with local organizations and elected officials, neighborhood residents, lenders, foundations and local, state and federal agencies.

“Communications, empathy and consensus building are really the keys to a successful project,” he says. “So we are looking for people with interest and a willingness in dealing with urban complications and have a passion for that kind of real estate calculus. We are finding there is a group that could be working for the government or nonprofit sector that is interested in large-scale community transformation. We are always looking for people who want to share the mission, to participate in that.”

In-house vs. Farmed Out
Depending on each firm’s manpower, priorities and such factors as geographical footprint, some functions are performed by employees and some are farmed out. Beacon and McCormack Baron place great emphasis on property management—in addition to its own 20,000 units, McCormack Baron manages a large number for others. “We look for property managers with local experience,” says Bennett. This dovetails with Urban Strategies, a now-national program founded by McCormack Baron CEO Richard Baron, dedicated to empowering residents of distressed urban core areas to learn and develop marketable skills.

Wishcamper no longer has in-house property management. “Our portfolio is so geographically diverse that it isn’t practical,” Rick Wishcamper explains. Nor does he have need of a deep marketing department, since the business is mostly Section 8 contracts rather than tax credit- backed developments. McCormack Baron outsources most of its marketing, but many other companies have in-house marketing departments that look for specialists in the field.

Asset management, on the other hand, generally tends to be an internal function. “It is really important to us, because that is what maintains our reputation,” Wishcamper declares. “It’s about keeping our promises to state agencies and tenants, and reporting to investors and syndicators. Our Director of Asset Management, Kevin Rose, is rock solid. Syndicators have a ton of confidence in him.”

He has the same regard for the importance of the sustainability department, cutting energy consumption and undertaking retrofits in energy and water, and “adding a ton of value to all of our new projects.”

All three companies stress not only career advancement, but flexibility as well. “Resident services is a very important part of our operation,” says Goodman. For companies, like Beacon, with an important presence in senior housing and wellness programs for residents, on-site services present a wide variety of career opportunities. Resident services coordinators act in many ways like social workers, assisting residents to address lease compliance challenges, providing on-site programming and community- building activities to enhance resident quality of life and to promote resident well-being, and developing partnerships with local service agencies. Beacon’s website states, “We believe that providing excellent resident services is not only the right thing to do but also a necessary component of ensuring our properties’ financial success and ongoing regulatory compliance.”

“Someone from resident services can certainly come over into management,” says Goodman. “So can someone from accounting if he or she wants a broader set of responsibilities and shows the aptitude. A maintenance person can move up to property management or even other operational divisions,” a career path Bennett echoes.

“Leasing agent to property manager is a normal route with us,” he states. “We focus on finding strengths, which is also about identifying weaknesses, and working with them. We try to provide and encourage a lot of opportunities: public speaking, financial training, design exposure. We like our finance people to learn something about design and construction, and vice versa. If we find someone who is good, we will look for the best fit.”

One of the most important considerations for Goodman is bringing together complimentary skill sets into a working team structure. For example, in top management, she says that she, with a background in project management, is focused on development and organization, while CEO Howard Cohen, whose background is in law, concentrates on finance and deal structuring. “I’m more into ‘How do we get this done?’” she says. “And you need both types to lead an organization.”

Beyond that, it should be clear how many different skill sets, backgrounds and experiences are necessary to manage and operate a successful affordable housing development organization. Whatever your professional focus and interest, if accompanied by dedication and passion, there is probably a place for you.