Origin Stories: Veronica Gonzalez On Being Part Of An All-Female Development Team, Learning CRE On The Job
When Veronica Gonzalez entered commercial real estate without any formal training, it was because she, now the director of Midwest Development for the NHP Foundation, couldn't see any better way to actually make affordable housing happen.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, affordable housing was losing funding as the need for it kept climbing. With the prospect of profiting from the development of affordable housing increasingly remote, nonprofits could assume a larger role in the space.
Focused as they are on creating social good, it is no surprise that nonprofit developers have a better record than those on the for-profit side when it comes to gender and racial representation, as the NHP Foundation's all-female development team attests. With the foundation's support, Gonzalez was able to gain the knowledge she needed to advance in the industry and do more good with her growing influence.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Gonzalez: My first job out of undergrad, I worked for the Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Organizations. We provided technical assistance to local community development corporations who were having redevelopment areas designated along their commercial corridors for the big Chicago “TIF-off, "which is what I later called that period of the 1990s when Chicago designated the most number of [tax increment financing] districts citywide.
I quickly learned why communities, especially communities of color, believed in TIFs and their potential, and the sales pitch was also based on the idea that developer incentives were needed to rebuild Chicago’s then-weakening commercial corridors. We were at the table when the city created and launched the Retail Chicago initiative and we ensured that our member organizations participated and could benefit from those marketing efforts for retail attraction.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Gonzalez: Working for CANDO, we were advocates for commercial real estate and investment to come to communities of color. As advocates, we were paid nonprofit salaries, so my salary was $25K. I loved being in the space, but I quickly learned that advocacy, whether through [the Community Reinvestment Act] or city incentives, would not be sufficient to direct investments in communities of color.
So even though CANDO was a dream job in so many respects, I then sought opportunities with developers capable of securing the funding needed to preserve and create the affordable housing I knew would make a real difference in underserved communities.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE?
Gonzalez: I don’t have any official certifications or a real estate license. I developed an understanding of financial feasibility from working on deals, negotiating redevelopment agreements and signing leases with tenants. All of my experience was learned on the job.
As Mecky Adnani, the head of our development team at NHPF often says, there’s no one degree for not-for-profit affordable housing development; it's an amalgam of soft skills including passion, relationship management and attitude as well as the requisite “head for numbers” type of knowledge. Though I’ve invested a lot in learning and growth, I’ve never made time to earn the corresponding certifications even for those which I’ve trained in (PMP, AICP, etc.) — that’s my bucket list! To get certified in everything I’m eligible for and see what the alphabet soup looks like on my signature line.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Gonzalez: Underwriting. I’ve found it’s not that hard to do so since I’ve gained the skill on the job, and now I am much better equipped to source deals.
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?
Gonzalez: I feel very proud of being a minority woman in a field that is only recently seeing an influx of women in the ranks. And while I have always had confidence in my abilities and benefited from mentors both male and female, I did sometimes question whether I would be recognized and be able to rise based on my accomplishments and hard work.
The good news is, I have. Joining NHPF last year has meant being part of an all-female development team, which shouldn’t need to be called out in the year 2021 but it does! We find a real collaborative spirit and respect from our peers, our financial partners and our vendors. It’s such a boost to work with these women and meet and exceed expectations.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Gonzalez: My early impressions were entirely based on work with retail and national chains/franchising. My impression was that in communities of color, many such businesses did not traditionally invest regardless of the disposable income we clearly spent building up many brands. In many respects, my impression of retailers hasn’t changed, but I do see pop-ups and the ability to independently brand as a minority-owned retailer or social enterprise as a way to do right by doing good.
Also, my impression has shifted to include in many ways positive impressions of the industry based on the multifamily development work I do at NHPF: soup-to-nuts work preserving and creating much-needed units of affordable housing. Especially now, during the pandemic wherein our own research recently showed just how worried renting families are about losing their homes, we take pride in sticking to our mission to keep people housed. That isn’t something I considered early on in my career.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Gonzalez: I am fortunate to have had several mentors along the way who helped shape my future. Every boss who took a chance on me being able to take a project from acquisition to lease-up essentially served as a mentor; their investment and trust in me, appointing me as lead on a project or initiative came with lots of mentoring.
I am particularly thankful to Mecky at NHPF. She has assembled a diverse, seven-person, all-woman development team in a male-dominated field and it really works. First, some of us are working mothers and there is so much sharing of our dual/triple roles and responsibilities in our lives. Secondly, in our team, lines of communication are pretty open and there is a lot of trust, support and flexibility when needed. Importantly, we do not compete with each other and truly enjoy working together on our various projects across the country.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Gonzalez: “You have to know your deal to own your deal,” meaning ownership is about accountability to the deal's risks. As a developer, we manage through a lot of professions — architects, environmental, market analysis, attorneys and lenders. I’ve learned so many different processes and trades to be able to anticipate risk and preemptively mitigate those risks. The goal is to mitigate as much as you can to get every person involved to say yes to supporting the deal to get to closing.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Gonzalez: This is not a 40-hour-workweek career. If you want that lifestyle where you turn off at 5 and don’t think of work after hours, this is not the industry for you.
In our business, this is doubly true: As developers, we’re always chasing our next deal and figuring out how to hone our craft. As mission-driven housing providers, we are always thinking about how to create the best quality, service-enriched housing for renters who are low-income or otherwise disadvantaged. It’s very gratifying to see how the residents of our properties achieve educational, financial and other successes.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Gonzalez: I’d have gotten my real estate license years back and finished out my certifications. Bucket List!