Bob Greer isn’t thinking about his legacy just yet. At 75, the longtime president of Michaels Development Co. is still a busy man. He’s been advocating on Capitol Hill almost every week for the past two years for the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program. But if he had to stop and share one piece of advice from his nearly 40 years in the multifamily industry, he would tell people that learning to foster relationships is the key to his success. “When I first got into the housing development part of this business, just getting financing was the goal,” he says. “But I’ve learned over the years, there’s a lot more to it than that, what we as developers do.”
Relationships Are Key
Greer, a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, started out his career as an architect in Pennsylvania. But he felt limited in what he could accomplish in the profession. So he took on the role of head of development for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.
“The more I learned about state agencies and programs, I realized what an overwhelming need there was for affordable housing in Pennsylvania, and it really was an eye opener,” he says. “But working with consulting firms, and even state agencies, there was a limit to how far I could go for what I wanted to accomplish.”
Then he met Michael Levitt, who in 1973 had founded The Michaels Organization, which comprises several companies, including Michaels Development Co., of which Greer is president. After that day, Greer says, everything changed. “[Levitt] told me, ‘There’s no limit to how far you can go, depending on how hard you want to work.’?”
The two began their work together after Greer became vice president of Michaels Development in 1977. At the time, the company had four employees. Today, the Marlton, N.J.–based firm has more than 1,800 employees nationwide and has worked on the revitalization of more than 20 public housing communities into mixed-income sustainable developments. The firm has also developed more than 70 affordable properties for families using the LIHTC. To this day, Greer still calls Levitt his mentor, coach, and inspiration.
To list all of the affordable housing projects Greer has seen through endless red tape to development over the years would be exhaustive. But the buildings themselves are not what he’s proud of; he says improving the way of life for the families who live in the community is more important than anything else.
For example, a lot of companies do programs similar to Michaels’ to try to improve the lives of residents in affordable housing. These might include after-school programs, renter-to-homeowner initiatives, and other family and community programs. But Greer is proud of the relationships he develops with each community, which he knows are unique. “In every deal we do, I go find a local nonprofit organization to be a part of it,” he says. “They participate with us, and it instantly gives us neighborhood acceptance and helps us identify with local government officials. In the end, that gives us a better product.”
Greer also started offering computer training programs to adults who live in his communities, and he ensures they have a job if they complete the program. Michaels is also one of the only developers to offer privately funded college scholarships to qualified residents.
These personal relationships make all the difference. “You can’t establish a relationship with a community over the phone or e-mail; you’ve got to go there,” Greer says. “This is a tough business, and if you don’t have that relationship when tough times come—and they will come—it’s hard to get over obstacles. Take the time to get to know your resident groups and investors and everyone on the team, and that will help you be a success.”
man of influence
Relationships are also a key part of Greer’s advocacy work in Washington. He personally meets with any new members of the Cabinet to bring them up to speed on the LIHTC program. Those individual relationships have gained him the respect of many colleagues.
“I’ve always admired Bob’s ability to present his case in a reasoned, respected manner,” says Patrick Sheridan, senior vice president of housing development for the Volunteers of America. “That ability to be influential anywhere he needs to for Michaels, or affordable housing, is one of his strongest points. I’ve witnessed his effectiveness in persuading Congress and other elected officials of the importance of having a place for affordable housing in their community plans.”
The expansion of larger-scale affordable housing projects really blossomed for Michaels with the development of the Hope VI program in 1992 by the departments of Veteran Affairs and Housing and Urban Development. Greer cites Hope VI as the beginning of his many years advocating for affordable housing in Washington, D.C. “We’d done 70-unit deals, but never 2,000-unit deals,” he says. “But doing mixed-income and mixed-development deals, we started to see signs of change for whole neighborhoods, and we got into it in a big way.”
Greer’s first experience with Hope VI was with the Kansas City Housing Authority in 1998. But the biggest challenge came as he spearheaded the revitalization of Desire, a former housing project in New Orleans, a city he calls “politically tight.” The community was under construction and two new stages were already built when it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. So Greer and Michaels had to start over from the ground up. Today, the community is completely reconstructed into The Estates at New Desire, a multi-phase, 425-unit Hope VI project located in the city’s Ninth Ward. “This maybe was our hardest project,” Greer recalls. “But I thought, ‘Wow, we did it. And it’s a success.’?”
Since 1998, Greer has collaborated with housing authorities in the revitalization of more than 20 public housing communities, including in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Chicago, and Los Angeles. For his prodigious achievements, Greer was inducted into multifamily executive sister publication affordable housing finance’s Affordable Housing Hall of Fame in 2010.
Over the past three years, Michaels has grown its ownership profile by more than 100 properties, mostly through acquisition; expanded to California and Hawaii; and begun using rural housing programs and subsidies offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first time to finance new construction. During this time, Greer has been at the forefront of protecting the tax credit program while continuing to serve as company president.
But that all hangs in the balance now. Greer knows his upcoming retirement at the end of the year is coinciding with a critical time in Washington. The fall elections could have a large impact on the programs Greer cares about most. He thinks if President Obama is re-elected and the political numbers in the Senate and House remain the same, the country will experience continued gridlock in what he calls a “difficult atmosphere.”
Still, Greer knows the LIHTC is going to be a point of continued contention regardless of who takes office come January. “Democrats primarily favor raising taxes and continued government spending, while Republicans reduce spending and eliminate tax loopholes. Those two visions are worlds apart, and this will be an interesting tale to tell.”
But whatever happens in the next election, Greer plans to continue to give advice and advocate with elected officials and state agencies, as he has since he started working with Michaels 35 years ago. That’s because those who know him best say retirement means little to a man who does so much. “Bob has single-handedly overseen the development of projects in cities all across the U.S., with no community or region out of reach,” says Peter Bell, president and CEO of the National Housing and Rehabilitation Association. “His willingness to share his wisdom and insight has propelled the affordable housing industry forward, and the impact can be witnessed far beyond the wide-flung profile he has built.”
Greer need not be concerned about his legacy. For the many whose lives he’s touched, it’s long been established.