Ava Goldman takes the reins of one of the nation’s most prolific affordable housing development firms this year.
The new president of Marlton, N.J.-based The Michaels Development Co., she leads an organization that has built more than 50,000 housing units since 1973 and is the largest private-sector owner of affordable housing in the country.
Goldman is in exclusive company, becoming just the third president in the firm’s 40-year history, following founder Michael J. Levitt and Robert Greer, who recently retired.
She joined Michaels in 1993 and served as senior vice president since 2000. In just the past six years, Goldman and her team have developed more than 3,000 units valued at nearly $600 million and has overseen HOPE VI and other mixed-income developments across the nation.
What will you bring to the table in your new role?
To some degree, I would like it to be a continuation of what Bob Greer brought to the table, which includes an ability to speak in public. He was a terrific spokesman for our organization and for the affordable housing industry in general. And, certainly something that he was good at and I hope follow in his footsteps is to be a mentor not only to our own staff but also through speaking engagements and attending conferences to be a mentor to the younger generation and others in the industry.What changes do you plan to make?
The emphasis over the next couple of years will be really thinking more and more about mixed-use development. Originally, we were pretty much strictly affordable housing developers, and over the years we have gotten more comfortable with mixed-income housing. I think the next step is mixed-use development that combines residential with commercial. We now have in our organization a student housing division. The idea is that we start talking about and start developing projects that include not only residential but educational facilities and commercial facilities so that we are really creating new communities.
What do you think you will be spending most of your time on?
We have so many developments in our pipeline. Certainly, a portion of my job is to help our developers get to the finish line. We have more than 40 developments in our pipeline.
Is there a part of the job that you like the most?
It’s exciting when you are getting close to the finishing line and you’re in a closing mode. One of the things that I love about being a developer is you are never doing one thing. On any given day you are working with architects and engineers to help design a community. You are working with housing authorities and residents to get their input. You’re talking with bankers and tax credit equity providers to figure out how to finance a community. It’s never boring.
The firm has only had three presidents. What do you attribute that to?
We are a very stable, family-oriented organization. I have been with the organization since 1993. That’s not unusual here. We have many employees who have been with us for that period of time. That explains how stable we are. I attribute it to Mike Levitt, the founder of the organization. He is still very much involved in the decision-making and brings such knowledge and stability to the organization.
What is one of the more unusual or interesting deals you are working on?
In a few different communities, including Washington, D.C., Jersey City, and Los Angeles, we are working with the housing authorities to build mixed-use developments. On the other hand, we also know that other models work. What we have done for years and years is acquisition-rehab, what we call preservation developments. We did take one on in the past year and a half that was the most challenging that we have done. It’s a development in Honolulu called Kuhio Park Terrace, two 16-story buildings containing 555 units. We purchased those towers from the housing authority. It was a daunting experience. Can we really purchase, own, renovate, and manage a development of that size? We closed on the financing in May 2011 and are in the process of completing all the renovations. All the units are occupied. So far, it’s a great success. The towers are occupied by families of many, many nationalities. One of our social service partners did a survey and learned that more than 22 different languages are spoken in the development. We translated our relocation brochure into different languages, including Chuukese and Samoan.
How did you get interested in affordable housing and urban planning?
I grew up in Philadelphia, and I was always interested in city planning. I have a master’s degree in city planning, and I was working as a city planner. Some city planners get to the point where they say, ‘Gee, I would really like to be responsible for actually building something,’ so that’s what happened. I like city planning, and I still get a chance to do a little bit of it. But what’s even more exciting is building new communities.
What industry issue is keeping you up at night?
The whole state of the federal budget and the national economy. We are also concerned about the future of the low-income housing tax credit program. Although signs are that it is going to continue, it is an extremely valuable tool. The economy has never gotten back to that pre-2008 level. In so many of the states that we are working in, the states are supportive of affordable housing and have programs to help finance affordable housing, but the funding has dried up and hasn’t come back.
What’s a recent lesson that you have learned?
The one that I’m constantly reminded of is that perseverance pays off. It’s very, very hard to be an affordable housing developer. We sort of like to joke that either we are working in communities where there is not a lot of affordable housing and no one wants it or we’re working in communities where there is affordable housing and no one wants more. Perseverance pays off. The Michaels Organization never walks away. We may step away temporarily because there are issues that do not allow us to move forward at the time, but I’ve seen time and time again that we end up in those communities building the developments we originally anticipated building.
It was a nonpaying job. I come from a family of small-business people. My aunt and uncle had a shoe store. Every Christmas, the busy time of year, I would be recruited to help my aunt and uncle. I can tell you I was the worst shoe salesman of all time.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I love to travel. About a month or so ago, I went with a friend to Nantucket. We took a little prop plane and spent a couple of days. I absolutely loved it.
Who would you most like to meet?
Because I like history, I am inclined to name someone who is no longer living—Robert Moses, the power broker from New York. He was responsible for many things that he was admired for and some things he was not admired for. You can name practically any kind of public works project in New York City and New York state, Robert Moses was responsible for it.