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Origin Stories: Kim Sisney Answered A Want Ad That Put Her On A Career Path In Affordable Housing

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

Habitat Affordable Group Vice President Kim Sisney has been in affordable housing almost all of her career, but she didn't start there. Her first job, while still taking night classes, was at a potato chip maker.

She answered an ad for a clerical position at a multifamily property manager and soon there was no looking back. She had found her calling — affordable housing —and now she manages more than 12,000 affordable units in Chicago and St. Louis. 

Kim Sisney

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?

Sisney: I was working during the day and attending college in the evening when I answered a blind ad for a real estate management company, Camco Inc., and was offered an administrative assistant position at Michigan Blvd. Garden Apartments in 1993.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?

Sisney: My role as administrative assistant at Camco-managed Michigan Blvd. Garden Apartments was my first job in the industry and definitely served as a springboard for my professional future. It was important for me to be conscious about what I learned and how I could apply it later when the stakes were higher.

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

Sisney: After being in the real estate world for six years, I knew it was time to take next steps. So, I began to explore opportunities with the Institute of Real Estate Management. In 2001, I received my Certified Property Manager designation from IREM, which is the gold standard for property managers and recognized internationally. The course was challenging; a high-stakes examination which I equate to a master’s degree in real estate.

Obtaining my CPM designation opened many doors for me. First, I was promoted to senior asset manager at Illinois Housing Development Authority, where I remained for the next three-and-a-half years.

Then I decided to return to the private sector, as I felt confident I could do more in that arena. For the next 11 years I worked at Urban Innovations Ltd., where I held the position of regional manager and subsequently, vice president of operations.

Paula Lewis, Angela Aeschliman and Kim Sisney at an IREM summit.

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

Sisney: I wish I had known more about the endless array of programs that are available to residents in need of affordable housing to ensure they have safe, well-maintained and healthy buildings to call home.

Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE? 

Sisney: I was an undergrad working as an accountant at Jay’s Potato Chips.

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?

Sisney: My entire career has been spent in the affordable multifamily housing industry, so I’ve always felt confident based on my knowledge and experience — of course my certification and networking relationships from IREM helped. Being overwhelmed by job responsibilities or my workload has never been a factor.

However, after I left Urban Innovations, I decided to open my own brokerage so I could help homebuyers find their dream homes, essentially putting commercial real estate behind me. About a year-and-a-half later, I knew it wasn’t the right path for me. Not only did I feel uninterested and uninspired, but I also missed the hustle-and-bustle of property management. And most importantly, I missed the gratification of helping those in need of affordable housing find quality homes, which ultimately led me to joining The Habitat Co. as vice president [of the] Habitat Affordable Group, the firm’s affordable housing division.

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

Sisney: At first, like most people when starting a position in a new industry, I had mixed emotions. I started my career in an underserved, blighted area of Chicago, which was challenging as gang activity was commonplace. But in spite of that, I recognized the positive effect we had on the residents we served; how much they appreciated our efforts; and how much the team cared about each resident.

We all go through periods where ‘the tide is in’ and there are other days where there is no water to be seen. Many times, I thought about entering another sector of the CRE industry, such as retail, office, condos or market-rate housing. But in the end, I am committed to affordable housing because that’s where my heart is. I feel so fortunate to have landed at a company that shares my passion for people. Habitat’s roots are in affordable housing, and today we have 12,000 affordable units in our management portfolio. Habitat is also the largest managing agent for the Chicago Housing Authority. My career motivation stems from the work we do and the impact we have on the lives of our residents. I’m here to stay!

Kim Sisney (second from the right) with Habitat Co. colleagues on her first day on the job.

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

Sisney: As a member of IREM, I’ve had many mentors. But, my first mentor was Lillian Howard, a co-worker at Illinois Housing Development Authority, and a past president of IREM Chicago Chapter 23. She introduced me to IREM and pushed me to obtain my CPM. With her guidance, I was able to complete my required coursework, management plan and exam in a little over a year and a half.

Lillian Howard shaped my future by encouraging me to not just be a member of IREM, but to be an active member. The organization has provided a platform for me to learn my craft, be mentored, become a mentor and contribute to the industry at large.

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

Sisney: Someone once told me, there is no perfect career — there’s only the perfectly imperfect journey of applying yourself to something you love and value. Initially, this didn’t sit well with me. By nature, I am a perfectionist. But I learned early on that with so many moving parts — residents, regulations, governmental agencies, owners, vendors and colleagues — things may not always be perfect. I soon found comfort in knowing that when all these moving pieces were combined, they actually challenged me and allowed me to fulfill my passion.

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

Sisney: I’m always brutally honest and tell the people I mentor that they need to have a tough skin to survive. Any industry veteran knows that property management can be a thankless industry. Doing our job with our residents’ best interests in mind can make you a very unpopular person. We have to be OK with this. Residents may not like it when we have to enforce rules that we know are good for them, their home and the community, but we do it because their health and wellness matters to us.

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

Sisney: I wouldn’t change a thing. Every experience, good or bad, has molded me to be the person I am today.