PHILADELPHIA—Four decades of building affordable housing boil down to a single lesson for Robert Greer.
“In this game, it's all about people,” says Greer, president of Marlton, N.J.–based Michaels Development Co.
Strong relationships with residents, development partners, and investors have made Greer's company one of the largest and most influential developers of affordable housing in the country, a leader in public housing redevelopment, and a powerful new force in bringing new investors into affordable housing.
Greer began his career as a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, who visited Greer's freshman architecture class at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, to share his vision that a building should fit into and grow from the landscape around it.
“I thought the whole world was about how to create a good design,” Greer says.
He quickly learned the limits of pure architecture. After graduating in 1959, Greer went to work as a young urban planner on the massive expansion of Cleveland State University, a plan that would require the demolition of many private houses.
“I remember the anguish of the people affected,” he says. “I remember thinking, ”˜What are they going to lose if this grand plan goes forward?' ”
In 1978, after years of working as an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, Greer joined Michaels Development Co., which at the time had just four full-time employees.
The company quickly grew as a developer of affordable housing with a reputation for building relationships and developments that last.
Take the Montgomery Townhouses, located in North Philadelphia. Nearly 30 years after Greer attended the ribbon cutting for the 135 apartments, the roofs are solid, the waiting list is full, and there's nearly $1 million in the property's reserve fund. A 2,500-square-foot community center offers award-winning job training and life skills classes to the surrounding neighborhood.
So while Greer began interested in architecture that fits into its natural landscape, he ended up developing apartment homes that fit into and lend strength to the neighborhoods around them.
HOPE VI leader
Creating communities means working with people. “It's a lot of grunt work, a lot of night meetings with the planning commission, with residents,” Greer says.
Greer quickly became the front man for the company—a kind of lead negotiator making presentations to community groups, potential development partners, and local officials.
Michaels Development has gone on to build more than 100 affordable housing communities in 29 states and rose to national prominence as a pioneering redeveloper of public housing through the federal HOPE VI program, with 19 separate redevelopments in cities from Philadelphia to Chicago to New Orleans.
HOPE VI once again put Greer in intense negotiations—often over how much public housing would be torn down and what mix of affordable and marketrate housing would replace it.
In the credit crisis, the company began to form new relationships with affordable housing investors by syndicating its own federal low-income housing tax credits.
Greer makes many of the presentations himself, including to new investors such as Commerce Bank, a regional bank that had never before bought tax credits.
“From Sec. 8 to low-income housing tax credits to the HOPE VI program, Bob and Michaels Development blazed a trail for other affordable housing developers to follow,” says Paul Chan, an attorney with Levine Staller, based in Atlantic City, N.J.