Few have had as successful a real estate career as J. Ronald Terwilliger.

During his tenure as CEO of Trammell Crow Residential, the company was one of the largest developers of multifamily housing in the nation. While much of his career focused on building market-rate apartments, Terwilliger has made a strong personal commitment to increasing affordable and workforce housing.

“The most important thing that I can suggest is the U.S. government policy on subsidizing housing be redirected toward those who really need the help instead of subsidizing homeowners,” he says. “The average income for a homeowner is $64,000 a year. The average income for a renter is $31,000. Yet, 75 percent of federal housing subsidy goes to homeowners, and that’s mistargeting the scarce resources we have in this country.” He is past chairman of the international board of directors of Habitat for Humanity and holds board leadership positions with Enterprise Community Partners and Enterprise Community Investment.

Philanthropically, Terwilliger made a major gift to establish the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Terwilliger Center for Housing in 2007.

He will deliver the keynote address at AHF Live: The Affordable Housing Developers Summit, Nov.19-21, in Chicago.

What’s the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing working on?

We’ve been working on two projects. One is how to build housing cheaper. We did that in partnership with Enterprise. We’re also working on guidelines for states, to try to give them information about what they can do to help facilitate more affordable workforce housing in their states. A lot of the action is at the federal government with tax incentives like the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC), but we think the states can do more.

What demographic shift or trend do you think will be the most critical for multifamily housing in the next 10 years?

There are two engines for growth. One is demographic change, and the other is jobs. The key to the future, both near and intermediate term, is the economy creating decent jobs.

Second, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, about 70 percent of our household growth currently and as far into the future that Harvard was projecting is minority. A higher percentage of minorities rent than own. The demand for affordable rental housing is going to continue.

At the Bipartisan Policy Center, where I served on the Housing Commission, we recommend increasing the LIHTC. A paper I wrote with ULI proposed we double it, and the Bipartisan Policy Center said we ought to increase it by 50 percent. That’s a way of getting more affordable rental housing built for the workforce.

Looking back on your real estate career, what was the secret ingredient to your success?

One is I was in a partnership format thanks to the Trammell Crow family. Trammell when he started his business back in the ‘50s had a real vision for partnership. I was blessed to have benefited from that. Partnership and mutuality of interest among the people working was very important.

Second, I learned early on in my career that a severe recession could destroy a company. Back in 1974, we had a severe recession in this country. Interest rates were pushed very high, and the market shut down. I learned that if you are going to be CEO of a development company you had to organize in a way that could survive a recession. That meant in part that you could not overload your projects. We had a modest leveraging approach to building rental apartments, and that really got really us through not only the ’91, ’92, ‘93 recession but the 2009-2010 recession in this country.

What is your outlook for real estate for the next couple of years?

Today, my investments in real estate are largely in the apartment space. I’m very bullish on the outlook for rental apartments. It all depends on jobs. Presuming the economic recovery, which is supposedly in the fifth or sixth year but it hasn’t been a robust recovery, continues for another three or four years, I think the outlook for all real estate product, but particularly for apartments, is good. Fewer people are buying homes. There are fewer first-time homebuyers than there have been in a long time. Some markets may get overbuilt for a year or two. But with transparency greater than ever and investors more aware of the number of (apartment) starts and the rent growth, there ought to be a self-correction where people stop building new product in those markets, and with continued job growth, any overbuilding will be absorbed.

The dilemma is you have to realize this economy is cyclical. You have to believe that you won’t see the next downturn coming. You have to operate your business day to day on the assumption there’s going to be a downturn and you won’t see it coming. You’ve got to be prepared to survive it.

What have you learned from Habitat for Humanity?

Housing is an essential ingredient to a family’s growth and stability. There is not a lot of philanthropy that focuses on housing. It’s not practical for a family to prosper without an affordable home in a decent community where their kids can have educational opportunities.