Chris Foster is president of The Hampstead Cos., a longtime affordable housing developer and owner.

Over the years, his firm has consolidated its interests around its San Diego headquarters as well as its offices in Charleston, S.C., and the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area. Hampstead, an expert in preserving and repositioning older developments, holds about 40 properties.

Foster discusses his latest project, key resident services, and what inspires him.

What was your path into affordable housing, or what was your first job in affordable housing?

After I graduated from college with a degree in real estate finance I went to work for a friend that started a small company actually moving houses and smaller apartment buildings from their locations in gentrifying West Los Angeles neighborhoods to new lots in East L.A. We would set them back up, complete a major rehab, and very often get Sec. 8 vouchers for new residents.

At the time, most of my peers were entering management training programs or starting careers in banking. Meanwhile, I was driving a pickup truck with a lumber rack and a load of drywall in the back in charge of rehabilitation efforts and collecting rents.

I was known all over the area as “The Apartment Man.” One of the things that I am most proud of is that we made a real effort to hire youths from the neighborhoods and got many of them started in the construction trades.

Tell us about the first affordable housing project you worked on.

We were setting up and rehabilitating a small house just across and down the street from the Watts Towers in Compton that we had moved from Redondo Beach. After several months of work on the house I was proud to point to my first completed project and made ready for the new tenants to move in the next day. That same night a group of guys came by and ripped out every single fixture, piece of copper, and carpeting. They even stole the garage door and a chain-link fence that we had installed that day.

Looking back, what advice would you give to yourself back then?

The same that I would give to anyone who is just starting a working career: It is too easy to get caught up comparing one’s self to contemporaries. Concentrate on doing good work, adding value, and being the best you can be. With that, money and recognition will come on its own soon enough. (I didn’t come to realize this until years later and wasted much time and energy worrying about it.)

Tell us about a development you’re working on now.

Hampstead is just finishing a 428-unit mixed-income redevelopment effort on the west side of Charleston involving three adjacent sites; one being Sec. 8, another with tax credits and no rental subsidy, and the last an upscale market-rate property. The properties share amenities and staff.

If you could add any feature or amenity to a development, what would it be and why?

Hampstead and firms like it are very lucky to be involved in the affordable housing industry. We are doing good and providing an important basic necessity for our residents. Not to take anything away from that (without decent housing success is almost impossible), however, If the industry is to continue to remain competitive in attracting limited financial resources, we must focus more holistically on the people that we serve and all of their needs. Providing the real estate is not enough.

For example, I believe that one of the biggest impediments for single mothers at our affordable properties in terms of integrating into the workforce successfully is a lack of affordable child care. We have initiated some very successful after-school programs at several of our properties and others are located adjacent to Head Start schools. Still, funding for child care is very limited, and there are many obstacles to overcome. We need to do more, both as a company and as an industry.

What’s a recent mistake that you’ve learned from?

Hampstead has long been in the business of preserving and rehabilitating older Department of Housing and Urban Development–regulated properties, most of which were originally constructed in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. That inventory is of course growing older every day, and thus the list of needs at the properties is growing. This is leading to the occurrence of problems that we used to rarely see such as more pervasive plumbing failures. We will be investigating the feasibility of replacing plumbing stacks and other internal system components in new projects downstream.

What or who inspires you?

I really enjoy hearing about someone with a new take on an old line, tried-and-true business and turning it into something new and successful. A perfect example might be In-N-Out Burger. There is nothing new about the product or concept, the company is simply doing it better than anyone else and has taken the concept to a whole new level. Almost every location has a line around the block. Who would have ever thought it could be such a success in such a competitive business?

People often ask me if I would rather do new construction projects or rehabs. New construction provides an opportunity for a complete “do-over,” which is nice, however my first love is rehabs. There is nothing like transforming and renewing an older property, especially if it is comprehensive and a part of a major neighborhood revitalization effort.

If you could take a crash course in any subject, what would it be and why?

Believe it or not, every time that I go to the dentist I marvel at how satisfying that profession must be. In a matter of hours, a dentist can completely change how a person looks and feels about him or herself. Real estate development is great, but everything takes so much time. I often long for more short-term gratification.

Besides the usual work items, what’s in your office?

Dogs of every shape and size.

What websites do you have bookmarked?

Dwell and other publications and blogs related to urban renewal and architecture.

What’s next for Chris Foster?

You mean, what will I do when (and if) I ever grow up? I guess a couple of things come to mind at this point in my life:
I am starting to slow down a bit and to spend more time on the water (I love fishing and boating), but have a real desire to make sure that Hampstead can stand on its own, without me, as an ongoing concern continuing to thrive and do good. I am blessed here at Hampstead to have some really great young partners and an excellent staff. They are ready for their time in the sun.

Beyond that, I would love to have the luxury to devote almost full time without the day-to-day distractions of running a business to fully immerse myself in a development project at the ground floor and to perfect it. I guess maybe I have come full circle.