Housing USA: Can the Affordable Housing Industry Attract and Retain Talent? 

6 min read

In order to build more affordable housing units, it’s crucial for firms in the industry to attract the next generation of developers, architects, project managers and other real estate professionals. This is challenging against an already daunting hiring backdrop that’s driven by a national labor shortage. According to Carlos A. Gonzalez, writing for Housing Finance, 48,000 real estate employees resigned in October 2021 alone, speaking to larger labor shortages in the industry. In May 2022, there were over 400,000 job openings in the construction industry, over ten percent of which went unfilled. 

The topic of attracting talent was central to a panel discussion at the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association’s Summer Institute, where several panelists discussed their own hiring experiences. They noted that the employment market was increasingly competitive and that employers may need to utilize unique strategies, namely when it comes to skilled managerial staff with lots of options. This includes tapping into the increasing number of university programs that try to establish a school-to-affordable housing-job pipeline. 

The Challenges of Finding Talent 
“Struggle number one is retaining who you already have,” said panelist Brian Swanton, president and CEO of Gorman & Co, a developer with a significant nationwide affordable and workforce housing portfolio. “We can’t really find enough talented knowledgeable people to keep up with the growth in our pipeline.”  

Swanton said he has struggled, in particular, to find architects, who also must go through significant additional licensing after leaving school.   

Another challenge is securing candidates or retaining workers after they’re hired, including interns. The offerings to interns must be competitive with other companies given that students have a wide variety of competitive options. Milton Pratt, executive vice president, of Michaels Development Company, and panel moderator stressed that it is critical to “get them while they’re young and be able to commit training to them.” 

The Housing Finance article by Gonzalez reiterates these points, citing two persisting issues with the hiring process. First is that affordable housing firms must be in a constant state of hiring and rehiring to address rapid turnover. The second is for firms to keep up with what is often the same heavy workload, all while keeping the same post-pandemic short staff. As panelists noted, this is particularly challenging for nonprofits and state agencies, which have less capacity for such competitive salaries. 

Mary Jane Jagodzinski, with Community HousingWorks, a San Diego-based nonprofit affordable developer, stressed a loss of capacity within her organization. “There are bidding wars in localities among different developers,” she said, and often this bidding must be done against better-capitalized firms that build market-rate luxury housing.  

Another topic discussed was different expectations around in-person work. It seems that work-from-home is here to stay; a recent survey of human resources leaders from the Conference Board found that only four percent of companies surveyed were requiring a return to the office. And 90 percent of those surveyed were allowing the hybrid option.  

Affordable Housing Programs 
Panelists all agree that collaboration with nearby universities is key. “In a couple of instances, local universities have become feeders for our programs,” claimed Jeff Mosley, a director for Capital Impact Partners, a congressionally chartered DC-based nonprofit that aims to build more equitable communities. “I see them also as invaluable for networking.”  

Swanton added that Gorman & Company’s board recently brought on an instructor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “That’s been a complete game changer,” he said, highlighting that they can also reach students in construction- and finance-related programs. 

There do exist some programs specifically focused on training students to work in affordable housing. One example is UCLA’s Howard and Irene Levine Affordable Housing Development Program. It instructs students in financing methods, including tax credits and project management, among other areas. Swanton said UW-Madison is offering an Affordable Housing and Sustainable Development degree starting in 2023.  

The University at Buffalo offers a graduate certification program in affordable housing and received a substantial donation to launch additional student training within its architecture and planning school, to be focused on affordable housing.  

“By addressing new ways to lower the cost of housing planning, design and development, the graduate Affordable Housing Advanced Certificate (AdvCrt) aims to test innovative solutions to existing challenges and educate students who ensure future housing is made affordable and inclusive for all,” the school’s website states.  

Hamline University in Minnesota offers a similar program, as does Rutgers University in New Jersey. The Rutgers program includes certification by the Affordable Housing Providers of New Jersey, as well as coursework regarding government procedures and records. Virginia Tech’s Virginia Center for Housing Research conducts studies on affordable housing and has also been involved with a 3D printing home project. 

The University of Southern California has a program that specifically intends to increase minority hiring in real estate, and it has received donations with the goal to increase training in affordable housing. Mosley mentioned that his firm has undertaken a program called the National Equitable Development Initiative. It tries to increase hiring diversity for developers who are having difficulty attracting workers. 

Most of the developers that the Capital Impact Partners initiative has supported specialize in affordable housing, and projects have been based in Dallas; Detroit; Washington, DC; and the San Francisco Bay Area. These developers “have very low liquidity…but now they’re being capitalized.”  

The California Coalition of Rural Housing also has a formal internship program, according to Jagodzinski, where full-time interns drawn from colleges go through lengthy affordable housing training, including “students who may not know what they want to do.” Wells Fargo also has, in conjunction with Capital Impact Partners, a financing program targeting funding for hiring. It allows affordable housing firms hoping for diversity hires to “grow their businesses…to invest in their back-office operations,” Mosley said. 

For his part, Carlos Gonzales, the Housing Finance writer, is also senior vice president for asset management at The NHP Foundation, a nonprofit that has invested nearly $1.2 billion in the preservation of affordable housing. So, he has struggled with hiring and diversity too, and writes that critical measures to increase and retain talent include cross-focus mentoring.  

“For example, a manager in finance will mentor someone in external affairs, and both participants’ knowledge is broadened.”  

Swanton noted that his firm has similar practices to encourage interdisciplinary interaction. 

Affordable housing developers face a competitive hiring environment like anyone else. It is worth monitoring the work of other firms, nonprofits and academic institutions, which strive to provide training in this specific field. 

“We’re trying to meet our next generation of leaders where they are and where they want to be,” Jagodzinski concluded.   

This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content manager Ethan Finlan.