For Noel Khalil, his career in real estate and a strong work ethic started at an early age. His parents were immigrants from Jamaica, and, when they came to the U.S., they purchased a duplex in the Bronx. His family lived in the downstairs unit while they rented the second level for income. His family eventually moved to a different Bronx neighborhood and then rented both units.

“That was my first introduction to income-producing real estate,” says the chairman and founder of Atlanta-based Columbia Residential. “My mother would send me on the train to the old duplex. I would shovel the snow, sweep the leaves, collect rent, and my mother made a tough rental officer. I couldn’t come home without the money.”

After leaving law school, he decided to stay on the real estate course. He began in Houston as a developer with the U.S. Home Corp., finding and entitling land. In 1983, prominent Atlanta real estate developer H.J. Russell offered him an entrepreneurial opportunity to run his development arm at half the salary he had been earning but with the chance for even more compensation as the business grew.

“Although I took a pay cut when I joined H.J. Russell & Co., it was an enlightening experience creating an entrepreneurial drive in me,” he says. “That’s when I began to realize that the benefit of what I had in New York with my parents was going to pay off for the long term.”

However, when the recession of the early 1990s hit, he was broke and hit reset. He saved up $15,000 through consulting and put a project in Atlanta under contract and rehabbed it in 1991. That project was named Columbia Heights, and that was the start of Columbia Residential. “The first project was affordable,” he says. “I was learning on the job. My view of affordable housing was that I was not going to lower the standards or quality just because it was affordable. It was a common perspective at the time to do a cheap product. I thought there would be a residual value to the property long term, and it made sense to build to market-rate standards.”

He says he also had a conversation with God at that time that has shaped the past three decades of his career. “I was broke and starting all over again. I said, ‘if you choose to restore me to the mountaintop, I will praise you in my work,’ and that’s why I build to high standards—cathedrals for God’s children. It’s proven to be beneficial financially as well as emotionally. People are coming to beautiful homes that are well landscaped, and very attractive products with functional floor plans that are managed at a high level. We build high-quality housing that happens to be affordable,” he says.

Collaborative Housing Solutions president Richelle Patton, who has worked with Khalil and Columbia Residential as a joint-venture partner as well as a consultant over the years, says when she thinks of best in class in terms of development firms, she puts Columbia at the top of the list.

“Much of Columbia’s success stems from the vision and the tenacity of Noel,” Patton says. “He’s a very wise businessman with a big heart for this work. I’ve always appreciated his high standard for design, both in the buildings and the grounds. He and his team build beautiful housing developments that residents and the local communities can be proud of.”

While instrumental in changing the mindset around the design, quality, and presentation of affordable housing, Khalil and Columbia Residential also have been leaders in “the substantial effort of revitalization of public housing,” says Jim Grauley, president and COO. “Developing mixed-income communities in scale through public-private partnerships has been a big part of Columbia’s growth and impact.”

Renee Glover, who served as president and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority for almost two decades and is founder and managing member of The Catalyst Group, praises Khalil for bringing his vision to life. “It was really a partnership, and I think the ability for public-private partnerships to work is there has to be a line of interest of both parties in order to stay in active problem-solving mode so that the vision can be actualized. We have had an extraordinary partnership, and you can see it in the quality of the communities,” she says. “In terms of innovation, creativity, execution, excellence, and integrity, Noel Khalil and Columbia Residential are right there at the top.”

One of Khalil’s proudest accomplishments is the mixed-income Columbia Parc at the Bayou District in New Orleans. In the midst of another recession, Columbia Residential overcame many obstacles to redevelop the St. Bernard public housing development, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

“We took a property that was one of the worst public housing projects in the Southeast and made it one of the most desirable places to live,” he says.

Columbia Residential, which has grown to become one of the nation’s largest affordable housing developers, has had an active presence in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, creating 9,000 affordable and mixed-income units.

For Khalil, he not only has pride in the housing but also in the Columbia team. “The company started with me, and now we have around 325 employees. That makes me very proud,” he says. “We have the best-in-class professionals that we recruited, and the leadership team is as strong as ever.”

While he refers to himself as not very organized and a bit dysfunctional, he credits his success to hiring people who are better at certain skill sets. “I have a great vision, but that vision only gets executed by surrounding myself with detailed people.”

Grauley adds that Khalil has been a guide and inspiration to many, including himself. “The inspiration of a personalized example of an American child of immigrants, African-American entrepreneur, business owner, and industry leader cannot be underestimated; and is manifested in staff, colleagues of our company, and in the many young people that Noel has influenced.”

Khalil, who enjoys traveling with his family, has five children—three sons and two daughters.