Meet Margaret Miller, vice president of development at The John Stewart Co. (JSCo), a leading affordable and market-rate development, management, and consulting firm headquartered in San Francisco.

Margaret Miller
Margaret Miller

Miller, who has risen up the ranks at the company, discusses the big development that’s keeping her busy, the top amenity she would like to add to a project, and what’s in her office.

What was your path into working in affordable housing?
I grew up wanting to be a developer, but like any good liberal arts major, I took the scenic route getting there. After a few jobs post college, I decided it was time to get serious, and I went back graduate school to get my master’s in real estate development at Columbia University. From there, I was selected for a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania through the Center for Redevelopment Excellence (CUREX) and was placed as part of that fellowship as a project manager at JSCo in San Francisco. I was planning to stay for two years, but that was 13 years ago.

Share with us a pivotal moment in your career.
In retrospect, it was joining the CUREX fellowship. I was on my way to becoming a developer, but the fellowship, and the placement at JSCo, put me on the path of affordable housing and community development. I remember sitting in that interview for the fellowship and talking the talk and believing every word I said. I realized in that moment that my heart and mind were moved by more than just building housing. I was compelled, and continue to be compelled, by the notion that the benefits of providing housing to someone can and should extend well beyond the roof over their head. I am grateful to have landed at a place that shares those values, and to work for a person (president and CEO Jack Gardner) who has taught me how to successfully turn that inspiration into action.

What did you learn from your last development?
The same thing that I have learned from each of my projects, which is that they are each hard and they each have challenges, but in all different ways. This job is more about learning how to problem solve than it is any other skillset. The good news is that with experience comes greater confidence that those problems can be solved.

Tell us about a project that you are working on now.
Hunters View, which is San Francisco’s first HOPE SF project, is a transformative public housing revitalization project that when completed will replace 267 existing public housing units and include up to 550 additional affordable and market-rate units on 22 acres. We started it in 2004, the year after I joined JSCo, and we likely will not complete it for another five to 10 years. To be honest, I was in way over my head when I started this project. But I feel really good about what we have been able to accomplish. There are lots of people and partners who deserve credit for what we have achieved, but every once in a while, I make a point of getting out from behind my desk and going up to the site to remind myself of what is possible. There is nothing more motivating to me than seeing the existing residents who were living in dilapidated public housing now living in new high-quality housing with supportive services and community amenities that help them achieve their highest quality of life possible.

If you could add any amenity or program to a development, what would it be?
Without doubt, child care. I have two young children, and I could not believe how difficult and expensive it was to find quality child-care options for them here in San Francisco when it was time for me to return to work. I truly believe that high-quality, affordable child care is critical to the success of women and their families, and I am committed to doing my part to provide more options.

When you visit an affordable housing development, what do you look for?
I look for a community that has been designed and planned in such a way that it can be well maintained and successfully managed over the long term. It is not enough to have a project that looks good on day one but cannot be successfully sustained over time. It is all about the people at the end of the day, and if they are not being served, then the project was not successful.

Best advice received:
Start by keeping your head down, doing the job, and proving yourself. It takes years, but developing a competency can open a lot of doors along the way.

If you could take a crash course on any subject, what would it be and why?
Services. Supporting the people in our developments is such an important element to success. But the language of services is so different than how we think as developers. They are two different worlds, but both are critical, and I would love to be able to better bridge the two.

Besides the usual work items, what’s in your office?
Pictures drawn by my children. I’d love to say they’ve actually been hung on my wall, but in reality, they’re sitting next to my computer. But they make me smile every time I look at them.

What’s next for Margaret Miller?
I feel like I am just beginning. I have never felt more optimistic or excited. I have spent the last 13 years learning and getting my arms around the fundamentals of this business. I still have so much to learn, but I would like to think that the next 13-plus years will be spent leveraging all of that experience to help more people, more effectively, and more expeditiously.