ULI Colorado Needs 'To Be Out In Front' Of Tough Issues, Says New Executive Director
It has been fewer than six months since Rodney Milton took over as executive director of Urban Land Institute Colorado, but the organization’s first Black leader has his sights set on big goals and solving problems by creating connections between communities and sectors.
Milton talked to Bisnow about how his early career days shape his perspective now and how he’ll use his background to tackle Denver’s affordability problem. He also shared his thoughts on the findings of a new ULI study aimed at improving diversity in commercial real estate, where 85% of senior-level management is White, according to ULI’s Global Real Estate DEI Survey from 2021.
The following has been edited for style, grammar and brevity.
Bisnow: What was the career trajectory that led you to planning and urban development?
Milton: I went to elementary and middle school right here in Denver, grew up in Montbello, then went to Florida, the Tampa area, for high school, and college at Florida A&M and Florida State University. I taught social studies, history and geography for a while. I didn’t know there was such a thing as planning, but learned about it and ended up going to school for it. I graduated in the middle of the housing crisis. I became a comprehensive development planner in Atlanta, then had an opportunity to go after a Choice Neighborhoods Grant and learned to co-locate resources into one place. We figured out how to leverage the public housing component and create a whole neighborhood around that. My wife wanted to move here and got a job in Denver, so we moved back and I administered housing strategy in Aurora. I quickly got involved in ULI and now here I am.
Bisnow: Housing prices were rising quickly in the Denver area even before the pandemic, and it has only gotten worse. How do you plan to leverage your background working on affordable development to help find solutions to the affordability problem?
Milton: I feel like each stage of my career was predicated on influence and the understanding of impact. ULI is a very unique player because it can lay a foundation for a common understanding of a problem. We can do education, put a spotlight on understanding how we got here and suggest best practices for where we’re about to go based on the current trajectory. We can influence the design of policy. In terms of affordability, having worked on the policy side and the creation of supply side, I recognize the levers. I can highlight for all members and the outside public what the housing spectrum looks like and what are the levers that influence it. I can use my teaching background to present information to influence the choices of policymakers and developers as well. Developers are the tip of the spear, and we need to bring everyone along.
Bisnow: With a background on the public side of development, how would you characterize your outreach to private developers?
Milton: The bulk of my membership is developers. Having them in the room to explain what their constraints are and how they make decisions is key to understanding what the other pieces of the puzzle are, whether they’re challenges or enablers. Cost escalation is the No. 1 problem right now. We’re listening to our development membership to understand what the pain points are, find out how to address them and create connections between the public and the private side.
Bisnow: What other challenges for the development community do you want to make a priority in your first year?
Milton: Climate change. How the built environment will impact the climate reality. The irony of our business is that the industry both contains solutions and contributes to the challenge. We can build net-zero buildings, or work toward decarbonization. My members are focused on how what they build impacts the world. I want to be at the forefront, hearing from the development community as to what it looks like on the ground. That’s a space that ULI can take part in, as well as pulling best practices from all over the world. We recently had a speaker from Fayetteville, Arkansas, who had just completed a net-zero building. The team went through the numbers, allocations, certifications and the process for them and the city. It was a great opportunity, a smaller infill project in their downtown area. We brought that to our team to digest, deconstruct and ask questions.
Diversity, equity and inclusion are a priority as well, but most importantly what those ideas mean in practice. We do programs exploring hard questions like reparations. We manage programs that bring more diversity into our industry.
Bisnow: ULI’s national chapter recently released a research report outlining the 10 principles for embedding racial equity in real estate development. Is that document meant to provide best practices for developers, or act as a guide for ULI itself? What parts of it do you find the most meaningful?
Milton: Well most of the study effort that led to the principles predates me at ULI, but I applaud the fact that ULI is taking the lead on saying that we need to be active in that space, that we need to commit to building knowledge and optimizing institutional power. One of the best examples of living in those practices was hiring me. It allowed me to go into my community, Montbello, and talk to them about an industry that hasn’t historically looked like me. As for the principles in the study, as a former history teacher, one that stands out to me is “understand and address current and historical context,” because understanding how we got to where we are is important, and it’s different everywhere. Also, “recognize the power of language.” Residents with low income versus low-income residents. Homeless or people experiencing homelessness. That’s language. It shapes how you see people.
Bisnow: What kinds of conversations did you have when you went to talk to your neighbors in Montbello about real estate?
Milton: It started personally. Because I grew up there, I still have friends who live there. We talk casually in the front yard about what we want to accomplish. I have a friend who owns a home and wants to do more of that, to invest in real estate, but doesn’t know how. I talked about the market and the reality of making that happen and his eyes just lit up. There are opportunities there. Another friend is a master plumber with a son who just graduated and became a plumber himself. There’s an immediate connection to training, and to the trades where we’re seeing such a labor shortage.
Bisnow: What kind of leadership philosophy do you bring to your role at ULI Colorado?
Milton: My philosophy of leadership is that it’s not a title, it’s an action. As long as I’ve established and communicated with the vision and objectives of ULI, and those values show up in our execution, that’s leadership. Leadership is embodied in the ability to move us closer to our goals. It doesn’t just start and stop with me. Leadership is also about risk. Most organizations tend to be conservative because they don’t want to take the risk of getting out ahead. I don’t think ULI can afford to be conservative right now. We need to be out in front.