There’s nothing routine about developing affordable housing, which is good for Melissa Fisher. The president of RISE Residential Construction likes the unique challenges that come with every new project.
“Not one day is the same,” she says. “There are new puzzles every day, new people every day. And I like the team environment that comes with development. Lucky for me, my team consists of a lot of really smart people. That’s the most important key—to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, right?”
Fortunately for Fisher, RISE is involved in a growing number of projects that require different skills and solutions. This year, her Dallas-based firm climbs to No. 2 on the AHF 50 list of top developers after starting construction on seven new developments with 1,632 affordable units last year. That’s the highest showing for RISE, which has regularly been among the Top 10 over the past five years. The company broke $250 million of active construction work as of the end of 2019 and is pushing hard again this year, expecting to start construction on another 1,250 units.
Most of the firm’s activities have been in its home state of Texas, which is projected to see its population and the need for housing explode in the coming years. RISE also has properties in New Mexico and Oklahoma, and it is expanding into Louisiana and Nevada.
The company recently transformed an abandoned building into mixed-income housing for residents in Garland, just outside of Dallas. RISE converted the six-story bank, the tallest building downtown, into 46 apartments and built 80 units of new construction as part of the development. Seventy percent of the units are affordable, and 30% are market rate.
Developed in collaboration with the Garland Housing Finance Corp. (GHFC), City Square Lofts is a centerpiece of the city’s community revitalization efforts and one of Fisher’s favorite projects among the 45 affordable housing communities that her firm has developed over its 17-year history.
“While I can’t speak for the entire city, I can say that my home is a couple of blocks from City Square, and the renovation of the old bank building has been wonderful,” says Dale Adams, president of GHFC. “The area feels cleaner and brighter than it ever has before. My wife and I walk past the buildings on a regular basis and are both so pleased with the design and quality of construction. It is perfectly located next to the DART light-rail system and the downtown Garland Square. The residents have easy access to public transportation as well as all of the great events that happen on the square like the farmers market and Urban Flea craft sale.”
Fisher began her career working as a tax associate at KPMG, but soon wanted to try something different, so she joined RISE, which had begun as Odyssey Residential. Her father, Bill Fisher, a veteran of the affordable housing industry, was part of the team that started Odyssey.
A few people had left the development company at the time, so Melissa stepped in, rolled up her sleeves, and started learning and working on projects.
“That was a turning point for RISE right there,” says Bill, noting that Melissa’s background in taxes and accounting carried over into working on low-income housing tax credit deals.
He’s moved on from the company and is now president of Sonoma Housing Advisors. Melissa stayed at RISE, becoming a partner and taking on a leadership position in 2013. Bill Fisher credits his daughter’s steady hand and foresight with growing the business, including introducing new technology to the firm, allowing it to better track construction projects and be more efficient.
Through the years, RISE has also shown its ability to weather upheaval in the housing and finance markets. A pivotal moment for the company came around 2007 when the markets crashed and many developers had to quit or hit pause when they could no longer secure needed financing.
Relying on the strong relationships it had built with lenders and investors, RISE was able to keep working on deals during the tough stretch. Around the same time, in 2008, Hurricane Ike blew across the Texas coast and created a need for affordable homes and other housing to help in the recovery. RISE was able to develop about 500 homes in Galveston.
“Between closing the deals that we had in the pipeline and working on the disaster-recovery deals, we didn’t lose any momentum during that time,” Melissa says. “We were so strong when others might not have been. It was that momentum that took us forward.”
The firm is also able to better oversee its developments by having its own construction and management arms. It recently expanded into third-party property management, often taking over troubled properties for other owners.
RISE has also been successful in moving affordable housing into upscale areas with great schools, which has historically been tough to do because of NIMBY resistance, according to Fisher, the mother of an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old.
“We overcome this mentality by involving the neighbors in the development process by giving them the ability to have input on design, amenities, traffic regulation, etc.,” she says, adding that it’s also meant working with local leaders to build a property. “It has opened up a world of opportunities to the families we serve.”
As an example, RISE is building a family development in the desirable Lakeway community outside of Austin.
For someone bored by routine, Fisher has found a good fit. There’s also satisfaction in building a development and seeing residents move in.
“When you walk the property and you see the families enjoying their homes, using the clubhouse, walking their dogs to the dog park, and the kids are playing on the playground, that’s when you feel like you created something that matters,” she says. “All that work went into something that’s good for the community, and that’s never boring.”