Michael Levitt, founder of The Michaels Organization.
Eda Akaltun Michael Levitt, founder of The Michaels Organization.

Michael Levitt’s first foray into real estate was in the early 1950s when he worked at his father’s company during college. He sold a house with a $300 commission. That small achievement was the start of a longtime career as one of the nation’s largest affordable housing owners, developers, and property managers.

Levitt started by buying and selling homes to buyers with Federal Housing Administration and GI Bill financing in the 1950s and then moved into multifamily housing in the 1960s when the Department of Housing and Urban Development became a cabinet-level department and new programs were created to subsidize affordable housing.

In 1973, he founded Marlton, N.J.-based Michaels Development Co. and Interstate Realty Management, the first two companies that ultimately would become The Michaels Organization.

“There were only four of us. Mike, me, a secretary, and one guy in the field doing zoning work,” says Robert Greer, president of Michaels Development.

Over the past four decades, CEO Levitt has grown The Michaels Organization into a company of 1,800 people; has diversified into military and student housing; and has spawned six more divisions, including a mortgage company and an equity syndicator.

Michaels has developed more than 55,000 units in 33 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands and has been a trailblazer in creating affordable and mixed-income housing in the early days of the Sec. 8, HOPE VI, and the low-income housing tax credit programs. The company ranked No. 1 on the AHF 50 list of top affordable housing owners in 2012.

“My strategy to the top is hire the best people, and you’re going to get there,” Levitt says.

Michaels prides itself on the services it provides for residents, including on-site child care, health and wellness programs, after-school tutoring programs, and financial and job skills training. Levitt points to the success of the computer learning centers included in Michaels’ projects; 14,000 residents have graduated from the program and gotten jobs.

“In the beginning we only had bricks and sticks,” says Greer. “But over all these years we’ve brought in more supportive services, education programs, and job programs. Mike has been the one who has said we’ve got to do more for our residents if we want them to have an improved life.”

In addition to providing a host of supportive services, Levitt established a scholarship program in 1991 for residents. Since then, The Michaels Organization Educational Foundation has awarded more than $3.1 million to more than 1,500 students. Levitt and his wife, Patricia, match $2 for every $1 that is donated to the foundation. Two years ago, the Levitts created a similar grant program, which they fund themselves, for the children of Michaels’ employees.

“My company is really a family,” Levitt says. “Being in the affordable housing business is the best that can happen to you. You can make a good living and give back to society.”