It's been eight years since John McIlwain graced the cover of MULTIFAMILY EXECUTIVE. But the experience is always fresh in McIlwain's mind. Each time he steps into his office at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., he catches a glimpse of the framed issue that hangs proudly above his desk.
The September 1997 cover story highlights McIlwain's rise to the top at mortgage finance giant Fannie Mae. It was a busy few years for him: In 1996, McIlwain left a successful Washington law practice to help launch the American Communities Fund, a $100 million community development venture established by Fannie Mae. Just a year later, he became president and CEO of the Fannie Mae Foundation. Then in 1998, McIlwain returned to a top spot at the American Communities Fund.
Three years later, McIlwain was ready for a new adventure. The fund's entrepreneurial phase was over, and so was much of the excitement. “The fun from my point of view—which is really finding deals, putting them together, creating a new organization, building it up—was now past,” he says. “I had the opportunity to take early retirement, and I said this is a good time to think about what would be the next fun thing to do.”
But McIlwain didn't have too much time to think. Much to his surprise, he was approached by ULI, which wanted to hire him for a newly endowed chair for a senior resident fellow in housing. McIlwain, a self-described “deal junkie,” couldn't imagine why ULI—a nonprofit education and research institute dedicated to responsible land use—would want a “deal guy” to fill the position.
ULI was drawn to McIlwain's extensive workforce housing background, says ULI President Richard M. Rosan. As ULI finds ways to fix the affordable housing crunch, “John's insights are extremely valuable,” he says.
McIlwain was equally interested in the job. “All those books I have been reading about cities and housing and all of that, I could actually put to use instead of just bedside reading,” he says.
Nearly four years later, McIlwain is still knee-deep in encyclopedia-sized books and research materials in his modest office at ULI—and he's loving every minute of it. “What I have had at ULI is a chance to step back and look at the larger, underlying picture, the problems that we are facing, what's driving those problems,” McIlwain says.
So what exactly does a senior resident fellow at ULI do? That's a question the seven senior fellows (who study everything from urban policy and finance to transportation and retail) often ask each other, jokes McIlwain.
The fellows' long-debated answer: to serve as a thought leader, communicator, and advocate. “It's not research like the really smart people, the folks at the Urban Institute or at the Fannie Mae Foundation or the Brookings Institute,” McIlwain explains. “A large part of what I do is what I call intellectual arbitrage—which is a fancy term for plagiarism. I take other people's ideas and repackage them, sort through them and communicate them out to both our ULI members and to other housing groups and organizations.”
To Eugene Ford, chairman of Community Preservation and Development Corp., a Washington-based nonprofit, the job is a perfect fit for longtime friend McIlwain. “He works pretty independently, and it gives him a chance to write what he wants to write and say what he wants to say,” Ford says.
“He has not retreated to some musty, dusty, academic tower somewhere,” agrees Conrad Egan, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference, who's worked with McIlwain for years. “He's really very, very active in the public arena.”
The cover shot of him in a hay field is still a fitting symbol for his line of work, McIlwain says. “Picking up on the field image in the picture, sometimes I feel very much like a bumble bee, just going around and taking nectar from ideas from one city to another city.”