CRE's Next Generation: IHDA's Lilian Yool On The Passion It Takes To Solve Housing Inequalities
This series asks rising stars in commercial real estate about their thoughts on some of the biggest issues facing the industry, such as inequality, climate change and technology.
Lilian Yool considers commercial real estate a mission. It is her way of helping secure safe and affordable housing for those who struggle to put a roof over their heads, a struggle she knew at a very young age after her mother fled war-torn Guatemala with her children in the 1980s.
“We came to the U.S. when I was 3 years old, and at first we stayed with friends, but while my mom was working at two to three factory jobs, she was able to find an apartment we could afford,” Yool said.
The family’s new home was in Pilsen, a neighborhood just southwest of Chicago’s downtown, heavily populated by immigrants from Latin America. But it wasn’t exactly the American dream.
“It was in deplorable condition,” Yool said. “The linoleum was ripped up, and I don’t often tell people this, but the apartment was infested with rats and cockroaches.”
A recent graduate of the master’s program at Roosevelt University’s Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate, Yool now works as a development officer at the Illinois Housing Development Authority, underwriting affordable apartment projects for nonprofit and for-profit developers.
What her family went through after their arrival in the U.S. is not forgotten.
“That is what drives me to the work,” she said.
There is great need for more affordable housing in Chicago, and the region slid backward in the last decade. Two- to four-unit buildings are a critical part of the affordable housing stock, but between 2012 and 2018, Cook County lost 29,212 such rental units, a 9.8% reduction, according to DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies, which used 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
The decline came about for a variety of reasons, IHS found. In weak markets, including ones on Chicago’s South and West sides, homes fell into disrepair, vacancy and then demolition. In stronger markets, many buildings that once housed multiple families were converted into single-family homes.
IHS found that the gap between the supply and demand for affordable units in Cook County widened to about 180,000 in 2017, up from 176,000 in 2012.
Yool said her work lining up financing for affordable housing has great value because funded developments often house the disabled, people in danger of becoming homeless and other high-risk populations, such as those recently released from state correctional facilities.
But she also wants to see change in the industry.
“We don’t see a lot of minority or female developers come in and ask for resources,” she said. “I don’t see many people like me in the industry, even when it comes to affordable housing.”
The last time an industry group did a comprehensive study on diversity within the ranks of commercial real estate, including property managers, developers and appraisers, the data wasn’t encouraging. According to NAIOP, in 2013 77% of senior executives were White men, 14% were White women, 3% were Latino men and 1.3% were Black. Non-White women were at less than 1%. A survey of middle managers found similar inequality.
There is even a lack of diversity in Yool's own office.
“That makes it difficult to see a broader perspective,” she said.
Yool hopes to strengthen Black and Latinx communities through community development, but she said change will only happen when industrywide guidelines are modified to allow emerging Black and Latinx leaders to develop housing in underserved neighborhoods.
That could include new guidelines to allow developers with fewer years of experience to tackle new projects or providing minority developers with more technical assistance, pre-development funds or additional training, Yool said.
“For emerging developers, getting past that first hurdle is difficult,” she said.
Before going back to school for her master’s degree, Yool worked for more than seven years as a loan officer and consultant at LaSalle Bank, later acquired by Bank of America, helping first-time homebuyers secure financing. The housing market crash dried up much of that business, and she switched careers to start working for nonprofits. But affordable housing remained a passion.
“I still felt like I needed to continue my work helping people out,” she said.
Yool eventually joined IHDA as an analyst, assisting people who suffered job loss, unexpected medical emergencies, bankruptcy or other catastrophic losses of income. But joining Roosevelt’s two-year graduate program shortly after that was the key to her future, she said.
Not only did it give Yool a more broad-based understanding of commercial real estate fundamentals, but she was also introduced to a cadre of teachers and institute board members eager to provide mentorship, advice and contacts. Above all, having that graduate degree gives Yool status within the real estate community, she said, which sometimes doesn’t come easy for someone with her background.
“It can be hard to break into the tight niche business unless you know someone in commercial real estate,” she said. “My mom never said, ‘You should go into commercial real estate.’ We didn’t even know that existed.”
Yool received her master’s degree earlier this year. Completing the program also set a good example for her two teenaged children, she added.
“It was inspiring for them to see me go through the program, even though they are a bit tired of hearing me talk about commercial real estate.”
Yool and her family are back living in Pilsen, decades after enduring the conditions of that first apartment.
“Obviously, we’re not living in the same apartment, but it still feels like home to me, and I wanted my kids to experience the neighborhood feel,” she said.
The neighborhood has been a flashpoint for debates about gentrification. Higher-income residents have started moving in, and Yool said the area is a great example of how badly affordable housing is needed. She pointed out that The Resurrection Project, one of the neighborhood’s most prolific developers, in more than 30 years created several hundred affordable units there, but that's a tiny proportion of the local housing stock, as Pilsen comprises about 13,000 homes.
With massive new developments like The 78 set to start rising nearby, along with the addition of new neighborhood amenities such as El Paseo, a bike and walking path that will wind through the area to neighboring Little Village, demand from higher-income renters will probably increase.
That keeps Yool focused on the mission.
“It may take some time for industrywide guidelines to change, but I’m committed to the work I do in affordable housing," she said. "There is still some stigma attached to affordable housing, but it’s what makes communities safe and viable, and it promotes economic development.”