When Michael Gilliard visited a vacant lot in Brooklyn, N.Y., a man who lived next door confronted him, wanting to know who he was and what he was doing.
Gilliard is a senior real estate developer for Habitat for Humanity New York City, and he was thinking about building new affordable homes on the tiny lot, which had stood empty for decades.
In April, 12 new for-sale homes opened at the St. John’s Residences on the fringes of Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.
“All the people that are on the block are happy about this. This is perfect for everybody,” says Jerry Pinckney, the neighborhood leader who had confronted Gilliard. Over the years when the lot stood empty, Pinckney mowed the grass. Now he is the property superintendent.
For years, affordable housing developers had turned down the chance to build on the small, city-owned lot, despite the shortage of land in New York City. “It’s a tiny little piece of brain damage that no one else wanted to do,” says Gilliard.
But he has made a practice of turning around tough projects.
Gilliard, 34, got his start in real estate as a managing editor for GlobeSt.com, which he joined in 2001. Soon after, he enrolled in the Master of Science in Real Estate Development program at Columbia University.
By 2004, he was working for affordable housing developer The Bluestone Organization, where he managed the financing and development of more than 3,000 units, including Lenox Gardens, a 61-unit development in Harlem.
“When I got involved it didn’t work on paper,” he says. “The cost was too high, and the subsidy too low.” To make the numbers work, Bluestone reduced the amount of steel in the building by 30 percent. Gilliard helped negotiate with union construction workers to create one of the first project labor agreements.
He also participated in delicate negotiations with the local community board to get the project approved. “It was an opportunity to learn about consensus building,” Gilliard says.
He continued to build affordable housing at The Richman Group Development Corp. Another example of his perseverance is Claremont Gardens, a property in Ossining, N.Y., that had been neglected for more than 35 years. The plan to renovate the property was struggling, but Gilliard identified construction issues that had held the renovation back and saved The Richman Group from what could have been a major financial loss.
In 2008, he joined Habitat for Humanity New York City. Habitat had long struggled to build new housing in New York City and had completed just nine units of housing in 2006 and 2007.
Worldwide, Habitat for Humanity has built or repaired more than 500,000 homes, mostly single-family, with help from volunteers and the future home-owners. But the organization’s business model didn’t work as well in New York City, where most new construction is multifamily and construction costs are much higher. Those costs often require some kind of construction financing.
The New York City affiliate took out its first construction loan to build Atlantic Avenue Residences. Completed in 2009, the 41-unit community was the largest multifamily complex ever built by a U.S. Habitat affiliate.
In 2011, the developer completed more than 150 units of housing and is on track to complete more than 200 in 2012.
That includes Habitat’s 100 New Homes in Brooklyn initiative. The initiative, which includes St. John’s Residences, is financed with help from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Most of the properties are stalled, vandalized condominium conversions left behind by the real estate crash.