Lexey Swall

Sharon Wilson Géno says she joined the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) at the right time. At the beginning of February, she took over as president of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, which brings together owners, managers, and developers that provide apartment homes for 38.9 million Americans.

“Housing is now a kitchen table issue. Everyone is talking about it, no one knows what to do about it, and no one really knows what it is,” she says. “We have an opportunity as housers to step up here and help create fundamental change and real housing policy in this country, which we haven’t really had here before. It’s been in bits and pieces at different times in different places.”

Wilson Géno, who took the helm from longtime leader Doug Bibby, says one of her priorities is to use the lessons learned from NMHC’s membership and to move all of the expertise that’s in the private sector forward to help solve what is a public problem and to rethink what the public-private partnership should look like to house residents in all places at all different price points at different times of their lives.

“This moment in time is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly make change in how housing is viewed and the kinds of investments that the private market can make with public participation and support to provide roofs over people’s heads in every different point in their lives,” she says. “That’s what I’m really excited about.”

Wilson Géno brings a lot to the table that she can tap into in her new role, calling her three-decade career a smorgasbord. As a veteran in the housing industry, she most recently served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Volunteers of America National Services, one of the nation’s largest owners of affordable and mixed-income housing. She also previously served the nonprofit as its senior vice president of legal affairs.

“I have been a practitioner on the ground talking with residents, I have been a lawyer inside and outside of deals. I have had the opportunity to be on the legislative and advocacy side, and I’ve had the opportunity to be an operator. And I’ve also taught housing law and housing policy as well,” she says.

Policy at all levels of government will be a major focus this year. Shortly before she officially became NMHC president, the White House announced a series of actions to increase fairness in the rental market and further fair housing principles.

“From a 30,000-foot-level, the thing that concerns me the most is the way it was framed and that we need tenant protections like somehow residents who are the clients of the multifamily industry need to be protected from the very people that are helping to support and provide that roof over their heads,” says Wilson Géno. “It perpetuates this old myth of this incredible tension between landlords and tenants. We have come a long way. We have some of the highest housing quality in the world, based in large part because of the type of housing we provide here and that the private market principles really dictate and ensure that we maintain that quality.”

She adds that a host of state and local laws have created systems to ensure a fair relationship and can better deal with situations if there are bad actors.

“Housing is very local at its heart and soul, and it’s best addressed in that framework,” she explains. “The idea that somehow the federal government needs to play a role on top of that system undermines how housing works best, which is that it meets the needs of the particular market, and states and localities have the opportunity to make those adjustments.”

In addition, the NMHC, which was formed in 1978 to fight rent control, continues to address issues around that hot-button topic across the nation.

“Rather than take the long view and do the hard work of making policy changes that will help us develop and create supply, which we all know is the long-term answer, local politicians and others have suggested that rent stabilization-type policies are a quick-fix political answer,” explains Wilson Géno. “You can understand why politicians go that route; however, it’s detrimental to the long-term problem, which is housing supply.”

She adds that by going down the rent stabilization path, those locations will struggle to get that private market investment that is needed to fix the supply problem.

“As a nation, we have invested very well in defense, we have invested very well in transportation, and we have invested very little in housing in terms of direct subsidy. We have just done small incentives relatively speaking and relied on private market capital. If that private market capital sees these kinds of disruptions, like rent stabilization and some of these tenant protection initiatives, that private capital will choose to go elsewhere, and that includes domestic capital as well as foreign capital,” she says.

She adds that private market capital is necessary for supply and worries about what the future could hold if it disappears. “We have the opportunity to fix this problem by leveraging private capital and creating a stable market environment to do so,” she says. “If that gets upended, we won’t have the money to do it, and I don’t have any delusions that the federal government is going to suddenly step up and start putting billions and trillions of dollars into the housing supply. Private market capital is absolutely necessary, and I am worried that if we’re not careful, we will upend the very thing we need the most.”

Another priority for Wilson Géno is to elevate the impact that NMHC members’ housing has on residents.

“We talk about the work we do often in terms of numbers, and those are easy measurements and important. But we don’t talk about the impact of what we do and who we do it for and what housing means to the people served by the housing we provide,” she says. “I’m hoping that we can start to elevate that conversation more and not just talk about what we do and how that’s measured, but measure it more by the impacts we’re having on people’s lives, which are enormous. Data shows the impact housing has on health, education, and well-being, and we really need to start to measure ourselves in a different way.”

She also will continue driving the NMHC’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“The commitment to DEI has been something that Doug started and shepherded well before it was a buzzword in looking for ways to bring more diverse voices into this industry,” she says. “We can talk about it and educate about it, but if you’re not showing real numbers, real action, and real economic activity around that and sharing that with people who have not traditionally had access to that, then you’re missing the boat.”

The NMHC in February partnered with six other real estate trade associations as part of the Commercial Real Estate Diverse Supplier Consortium to foster diversity in the industry’s supply chain and expand economic opportunities for minority and women-owned business enterprises.

The organization also maintains a strong women’s initiative. Its annual NMHC Women’s Event earlier this year drew around 730 women. In addition, a video series continues those conversations from the event, and NMHC hosted several networking events in different cities in the past year.

“It’s a great opportunity for women to develop those relationships and generate business opportunities for themselves in the localities where they are,” says Wilson Géno.