This winter, Doug Bibby will preside over his last National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) Annual Meeting. At the helm of the national organization for 21 years, Bibby has elevated the multifamily industry in the world of real estate, educated legislators and the media about the sector’s importance, and tackled some of the membership’s most pressing challenges.
According to industry insiders, Bibby has been the ultimate leader and a steady hand from the start, with the first meeting he ran falling on Sept. 11, 2001, in Washington, D.C., through the postponement of his stepping down from the organization due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In between these two events was the great financial crisis and housing meltdown. He managed to do what very few other trade associations did during those national crises—he kept NMHC financially stable and prioritized retaining all of NMHC’s staff,” says Ken Valach, CEO of Trammell Crow Residential and the current NMHC chair. “I believe that leadership is about when the times are tough. Time and again, Doug faced adversity front on.”
Multifamily Executive recently talked with Bibby about how the industry has evolved over the past two decades, the lessons he has learned from the nation’s crises, his greatest accomplishments, and what’s ahead for his next chapter.
MFE: Reflecting on the past 21 years, what legacy are you leaving with the multifamily industry?
Bibby: I hope that I have had some influence over the sector being recognized as one of the top-performing asset classes in all of real estate but also for the vital role that apartments play in creating not only healthy housing communities but overall communities in the economic and social structures of municipalities.
MFE: What has been most rewarding for you during this time?
Bibby: When I took this job, apartments were seen as one of two things: One is it was housing for the poor, or it was a way station for people on their way to homeownership, and that was basically it. Today, there’s a growing number of people who are renters by choice. It’s a lifestyle choice that they’re making, and I think it’s changed dramatically over the last 21 years. Also, when I came in, multifamily housing was seen as the stepchild in real estate. Office and retail and hotel were the darlings, and you had to pay a premium to invest in multifamily, and it was a couple of hundred basis points at least. Look at it today, you talk about rewarding. That has flipped completely on its head. We are the darling, we are the capital magnet for the world. Investors from all over the world and obviously domestic investors are drawn to multifamily. Those two things stand out to me as the most meaningful.
MFE: What stand out as your biggest accomplishments over the years?
Bibby: I think one of my biggest accomplishments, I would say, is I built a really strong staff that has stayed together. We just lost, at the end of March, Eileen Lee after 27 years at the Council; she retired. But we have the whole team intact that I have built over the past couple of decades, but most notably over the past 10 to 12 years strengthening the staff.
The second thing is we have earned a seat at the table with policymakers. When the White House is putting together a conference or when a key senator or House committee or subcommittee is calling a hearing, they come to us. We have earned a seat at the table, and we have earned the respect of the media for being a reliable, reputable source of information and resources.
I think the last thing, and certainly not the least, is the important studies and works that we have done to educate and enlighten—our apartment demand research documenting how many apartments we need to build each year just to keep up with demand, the cost of regulation study, the affordable housing toolkit, and our study on indoor air quality. The creation of the research foundation has enabled us to fund some very important studies. That is part of my legacy as well.
MFE: How has the organization evolved during your time at the helm?
Bibby: What we’ve done is add real depth to each of the key departments—communications, government affairs, and research. It isn’t the growth, it’s the quality that we put in place. The second thing is our PAC now is the second largest fro real estate in terms of contributions made. It puts us in a very different place than we used to be. We have also created some important events, whether it’s student housing, OPTECH, or the research forum. Last would be walking the talk on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). We have over the past 15 years, whether it’s the diversity forums or our work in opening the doors to membership to firms led by women and minorities. We have about 150 companies that have joined on that basis. That’s another way we have evolved over time.
MFE: Are you leaving the multifamily industry in a better place than when you started?
Bibby: I challenge you to take any metric or any KPI associated with multifamily and not find that we’re in a better place—just the quality of the housing that we have, the information we’re getting out to people and their understanding. The media have a much better understanding of what we do. On any bases you can pick, I feel very confident that we’re in a better place. It’s what all the people have done—the staff and the members themselves—it’s not about me.
MFE: You’ve been a voice for the industry during both the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. What have been the biggest lessons learned from these events?
Bibby: Two very distinctly different lessons. On the first one with the Great Recession, because of the fact that our members couldn’t get access to capital, had not overleveraged themselves, hadn’t overbuilt, and had strong balance sheets, they were well positioned as opposed to the frenzy that went into the single-family sector with the over-leveraging and overbuilding. While cap rates escalated, interest rates fell down, and some of our members started locking in some very favorable 10-year debt at that point so their balance sheets were very strong. As you recall, in 2010, we came screaming out of the gate and looked around and there was no one else in real estate beside us. We were very well-positioned to lead the recovery, which we did.
On the other hand, with the pandemic, it was really a combination of two things. One is we convinced policymakers that the best solution they could make would be to get direct assistance to households. The CARES Act came out, and two subsequent bills came out that really helped us by getting direct assistance to both the residents and the owners. The other was the lesson of caring about your customer and compassion. Our members reached out—by the way, I heard this repeated by even smaller owners—touching every one of their customers about how they could help them. It was smothering the residents with care and concern—that really was important in our ability to withstand this. If you think about 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, our industry had the best year in its history—best year. I think a lot of it was that we pulled together in all the good ways to really make it happen. It’s amazing how well we did last year.
MFE: The nation has an affordability crisis. How are we going to solve it?
Bibby: It’s going to take a holistic solution. It’s going to take all levels of government, nonprofits, advocacy groups, and the private sector all working together. If we just continue to point fingers or try one-off solutions, we’re not going to get there. Those of us who have been in this industry a long time—I’m talking about housing and housing finance—know what needs to be done. We know exactly what to do. It’s having the will among lawmakers and policymakers to do what needs to be done, and it’s not incredibly expensive. But you need supply solutions, which you can’t build your way out of this situation. You can’t build enough affordable housing. Moreover, you can’t build affordable housing anyway today.
What we need are solutions like an increase in the low-income housing tax credit funding. That costs us about $9 billion a year. It’s a pimple on an elephant in terms of cost. We need exit tax relief to get properties preserved into affordable housing. We need redevelopment incentives. We need redeployment strategies. It’s new building, it’s rehab, it’s preservation, and it’s repurposing on the supply side.
On the demand side, we also know what to do. We need to reform the Section 8 voucher program. We know exactly how to reform it. We have been working on this for 21 years. We need to make it seamless for an apartment owner to use the program, and then we need to double the funding.
If you do all those things, millions of more units will come into play, and the more that you have in play, the more affordable choices you can create. It’s not rocket science. We know exactly what to do. But it is daunting when you look at all the different challenges—not only at the federal level but at the state and local levels as well.
MFE: What are your other pressing concerns related to the multifamily industry?
Bibby: What I worry about the most, it’s actually not stuff that is as easy for me to deal with the way that we are structured. We are a national organization that advocates before the houses of Congress and the regulatory bodies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. We are not set up with regional offices and we’re not in state capitals, but the big issues are rent control, the occasional eviction moratoriums still coming up, and the creative way NIMBYs are trying to block any form of housing coming into their neighborhoods. Those kinds of things trouble me, and it’s a communications challenge as well.
If you think about those three areas—rent control, eviction moratoriums, and NIMBYs—they all relate to the ignorance of who owns apartments, who lives in them, and what their impact on the local community is. Because people don’t understand that, their first fear is apartments will bring all the poor people in, will flood schools, will cause crime, and will create massive traffic jams—all negative stuff. These all relate to ignorance in my opinion.
MFE: What would you like to see from NMHC and the multifamily industry in the next five years?
Bibby: What I’m most proud of is just the way we have built the factual bases. I would like us to continue to build on the factual bases that really related to what have ended up being effective solutions. That’s the most important thing going forward.
MFE: What’s your biggest piece of advice for the next NMHC president?
Bibby: I have several. The first two are connected. The first is respect the culture. We have created a really good culture of respect and professionalism, and people everyday surprise me with their initiatives.
The second thing, and this is something I’ve seen people make mistakes with: Don’t come in and think you have all the answers, don’t come in and think that your strategies are going to work from day one. Listen, study, and learn first, and then set your course. That’s what I tried to do. When I first talked with the staff, I said, ‘I want to understand what you’re doing and I want to learn, and then I will set the course. I want to do it from an informed basis.’
The third is some of the issues that we deal with are tough and lingering, and they require staying the course. Don’t get distracted too much, and don’t get discouraged too much. Some of these strategies take time, so stay the course with these.
Continue to challenge the staff. We have 47 people, it’s not like I can give them all different jobs each year. But challenge them in different ways, give them new assignments, and help them grow. The last piece of advice, because a new person coming in is an unknown, would be to communicate to excess. Really communicate so that staff really knows what’s ahead of them and what their roles are.
MFE: What’s your next chapter?
Bibby: I have three passions that I have to try figure out how I can play a role. I don’t know yet and haven’t really engaged in any serious conversations with anyone, but I want to stay in this industry in different capacities because I love this industry and really love these issues.
My passions are affordable housing, this whole NIMBY movement and what it has meant and how we can deal with it, and just a pipeline of talent—how do we ensure a rich, diverse pool of talent that we can attract into the industry. So those are the three passions that I have, and I have to figure out what to do about them.
I’m not retiring, I’m just stepping down from this responsibility. I’m too full of beans, I don’t like sitting around, I don’t like sitting on the beach, and I can’t imagine golfing every day. I’m going to have some things where I can help contribute to this industry. I’ll slow down, and I’ll smell the roses along the way.
MFE: Parting piece of advice for the industry?
Bibby: This sector is endlessly fascinating and fun and meaningful. Don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s a noble calling to put people into homes, to put roofs over their heads. There are very few options you have in working where you can say what we do is so meaningful to millions of people’s lives. It’s been the capstone of my career to be in this industry and to be in this job. I can’t even begin to tell you what an honor it has been.