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Origin Stories: Asian Community Development Corp.'s Angie Liou On Building For The Marginalized

This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.

Angie Liou has become a prominent voice for Boston's Chinatown community after rising in the ranks of affordable housing efforts across the East Coast.

After moving from Taiwan to Philadelphia in 1997 at 17 to study sociology, she graduated and found her calling as an urban planner after briefly dabbling in law.

As executive director of the Asian Community Development Corp., Liou has served as lead on more than $150M in projects and asset management of more than 300 units, advancing affordable housing efforts with the community's marginalized voices in mind. Liou helped secure city approval last year for a 350-foot-tall mixed-use tower at a long-awaited parcel with up to 168 affordable for-sale and rental housing units, a joint venture with development titan Millennium Partners.

From leading project teams of all older White men as an Asian woman in her 20s, Liou has transitioned from the day-to-day management to guiding policy to protect ACDC's residents and overseeing its efforts to provide affordable housing in a community sorely lacking housing stock

Angie Liou, center, with current and former Asian Community Development Corp. staff at the grand opening of Chinatown Backyard in Boston.

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?

Liou: I went to graduate school for urban planning, and that was my first introduction to real estate development. Before I started planning school, I thought this would lead to a career as a planner, but once I got exposed to real estate development, I was excited about the prospect of working on concrete projects you could see and feel and have a tangible impact on communities. Planning is essential to municipalities and communities having a road map of where they want to go, but plans require stewards and stakeholders to see that those goals are implemented.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?

Liou: My first entry into the field was actually on the public side — I worked at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, where I got to look at all kinds of different housing deals and learned about various financing tools. I left after a year to get more experience on the development side since at the agency, we could only review projects that sought funding from us, but we did not initiate projects. I wanted more hands-on experience in development.

Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role? 

Liou: My graduate degree in urban planning gave me a good general base, and I also took a real estate development class and Finance 101. Both of those classes were incredibly helpful in providing me real skills I could use later on. However, education and financial skills are just that: a base. I find that a big part of any job is actually learning how to work with other people and leading a team to accomplish a common goal and how to build consensus and find agreeable solutions even when there is conflict. That is something I had to learn on the job and from mentors.

Angie Liou and her husband on a trip to Taiwan.

Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?

Liou: Learning to listen to community voices is really important. A development has such a long-lasting impact on the community it sits in that developers wield tremendous power, and neighbors are the ones who will have to live with it for years. One thing at ACDC I’ve learned is that the most marginalized voices are not even at the table because they may be low-income families working multiple jobs and have no time to attend community meetings, or because they have limited English proficiency and there is inadequate outreach in their languages. 

Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE? If you changed careers, did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE, or, on the flip side, anything you had to unlearn in order to succeed here?

Liou: I worked as an immigration paralegal for a year and realized I had no interest in law, which prompted me to go back to school for urban planning. 

Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed?

Liou: I had a significant role change when I became the executive director of Asian Community Development Corp., a promotion from my previous role as the director of real estate. This meant more responsibilities, but I also knew it meant I would not get to do as much day-to-day hands-on project management, which I very much enjoyed and miss sometimes. However, I do appreciate that my current role allows me a more holistic view of community development and development in the region, and I have more time to think about development and housing policies and how they shape our communities. 

Asian Community Development Corp. Executive Director Angie Liou at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Boston.

Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?

Liou: Early on, it definitely felt like a very older White male industry, and in some ways it still is. Starting out in my 20s as a young Asian woman and having to lead projects with all older White-male development teams was challenging, and I was also self-conscious of my relative lack of experience. Now, I have a lot more experience under my belt, but I also sit comfortably with the fact that my current role is really about advocating for our community’s needs during the development process and thinking holistically about what will ensure the health and viability of Chinatown, whether that is affordable housing, open spaces, resident engagement or preservation of small businesses. 

Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?

Liou: I was very fortunate that one of my early bosses, Roy Diamond in Philadelphia, was a great role model and mentor. He treated everyone with respect and valued their opinions. After meetings, we used to debrief about the interpersonal interactions among people, which was just as important as the content of the meetings. 

Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?

Liou: Building and maintaining relationships and don’t burn any bridges. This is a small field in that people talk to each other and word gets around, so treat others how you would like to be treated.

Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?

Liou: I think many people get into development for the same reason that I did — that excitement to see projects take shape from a mere idea to an actual building or neighborhood. Patience is key; even the smoothest development process can take a long time, and sometimes projects die through no one’s fault.

Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?

Liou: Earlier in my career, I did not focus much on networking, and I do wish that I was smarter and started building my network much sooner.