Origin Stories: Bright Power's Caitlin Rood On The Hard Work Of Blending Affordable Housing And Sustainability
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
When Caitlin Rood entered the affordable housing industry in 2013 as an experienced sustainability professional, she had a plan. She would start with low-hanging fruit, accumulate savings, reinvest in deeper opportunities and repeat across the portfolio of Mercy Housing, which she ended up serving as national director of sustainability.
It was a strategy that worked for her in other industries. But she soon learned affordable housing is a little different.
Rood doubled down on learning the intricacies of her new industry and started making inroads in Mercy Housing's portfolio, eventually guiding it in 2020 to become the first national multifamily housing organization recognized in the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Housing and Urban Development's Better Buildings Challenge for achieving energy savings of 24%. She is now the chair of the Multifamily Sector Steering Committee for that same Better Buildings Challenge.
This year, Rood left Mercy for Bright Power where she will continue to focus on decreasing operating expenses and lowering energy and water consumption at affordable and supportive housing.
Rood said she is seeing increased attention to environmental sustainability and hopes that indicates the world community is starting to move in a different, greener direction.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Rood: I took a position as the national director of sustainability for Mercy Housing, one of the largest affordable housing nonprofit organizations in the U.S. My introduction to CRE was all on the job.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Rood: I am a career sustainability professional. I have worked as a consultant across industries, including metal finishing, fleet maintenance and auto repair, ski resorts, golf courses, dental offices and surface coating. I took a position as the national director of sustainability for Mercy Housing and saw the position as another industry in which I could apply my sustainability experience.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Rood: I don’t have any specific education, certification or official training in CRE, but I do have a bachelor's and master's degree in engineering. My background and engineering education have been important in all phases of my career.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Rood: Throughout my career, I have primarily been a project and program manager. Because of where I got started, I never had the opportunity to formally develop deep building systems knowledge and expertise the way that an energy engineer or architect might have had while seeking a degree. But I gained a significant amount of knowledge about multifamily buildings while on the job at Mercy Housing.
Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE?
Rood: I am a career sustainability professional. For most of my career, before bringing my sustainability focus to CRE, I worked as a sustainability consultant. Based on the needs of our clients, my sector focus changed regularly and included industries such as: metal finishing, fleet maintenance and auto repair, ski resorts, golf courses, dental offices, surface coating and more.
Bisnow: 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?
Rood: While my focus has always been sustainability, I moved into CRE. Because I worked in so many different sectors, I have a breadth and depth of knowledge for applying sustainability concepts in different ways. I also have a strong desire to see projects through implementation, which has allowed me to see the impact of my work. That said, I did have to unlearn my expectations of how things should work. Instead, I have become adept at finding solutions to make things work within financial and technical constraints, as well as within the limits of the personalities of the organizations I work with.
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?
Rood: When I first started in CRE, it became immediately clear many of the concepts I had planned to bring to bear (start with low hanging fruit, accumulate savings, reinvest in deeper opportunities, repeat, expand across the portfolio) were not going to work the way I envisioned in multifamily affordable housing. Budgets were annual, so savings could not accumulate. Available funds were extremely limited. Savings could not be shared between properties for reinvestment. Split incentives were abound, and add to that a number of other challenges. The path to deep efficiency was elusive. That was a scary moment. Quitting is not something that really crosses my mind, but I was not at all clear about what I was going to do. From that point, I dove deeper into the problems. I worked to get to the point that I understood the barriers and used that knowledge to develop approaches to implement efficiency and renewable energy projects that could work in affordable housing. Eventually, that got our organization to achieve the environmental goals we had set for ourselves and win awards for projects we had implemented with our partners. One of those awards was through the Better Buildings Challenge where Mercy Housing received recognition from the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for achieving energy savings of 24% across the portfolio in 2020. Mercy Housing was the first national multifamily housing organization to achieve that goal with the Better Buildings Challenge.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Rood: My focus in CRE has always been on the affordable housing side. My impressions of the industry were positive — being able to bring my sustainability experience to bear in a sector that is so desperately important felt good. Did you know that there is not a single county in the U.S. that has enough affordable housing to meet the needs of its county? So many of the people who work in the industry are personally passionate about the importance of quality affordable housing. I was pleased and proud to be a part of that professional community. My impression has not changed very much except that it has expanded to encompass the scope of the problems in affordable housing, climate change and the continued barriers to implementation. I continue to be impressed by the professionals in the field and their dedication.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Rood: I’ve had a few mentors in my career. The one who stands out the most has always pushed me to be clear on what I want professionally and then make that happen. I find that when I am clear about outcomes, the details work themselves out.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Rood: I think all learning comes with struggle as a part of the process. I thought that, especially as a female engineer, one needed to be strong and outspoken and even brash until someone pointed out that you get more bees with honey than vinegar.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Rood: You have to be resilient, tenacious and an eternal optimist.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Rood: Not a thing.