Weekend Interview: New NMHC President Sharon Wilson Géno On Rent Control, Affordable Housing
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Sharon Wilson Géno always had a passion for the creation and preservation of affordable housing, even before it became a hot-button issue on the hill.
In her 30-year career, Wilson Géno has worn many hats in the multifamily industry: from a lawyer who worked on government-assisted housing to a property manager to a professor of housing policy and law to her newest role as head of the National Multifamily Housing Council.
Wilson Géno officially became president of NMHC on Feb. 1 after being named in September to replace longtime head Doug Bibby, who stepped down after leading the organization for 21 years. She steps into the role as the multifamily industry faces a series of economic challenges and political battles across the country.
As cities like Boston and Philadelphia, as well as Maryland's D.C. suburbs, look to enact rent control policies, Wilson Géno says she wants to "arm state and local officials with solutions" to bring more affordable housing without the need for policies like rent control that she said may act quickly but harm tenants in the long run.
In her four months as acting president, Wilson Géno told Bisnow that she has prioritized affordable housing, something that she considers a crisis across the nation that needs to be acted on now. She said she hopes that she can educate national, state and local officials about what policies will be the most beneficial in addressing the problem.
The following has been edited for style, clarity and length.
Bisnow: I saw that you previously worked as the chief operating officer at Volunteers of America National Services before being named to the role of president at NMHC in September. What appealed to you about this role? And why did you decide to make the move?
Wilson Géno: That's a great question, and I really loved what I was doing at VOANS. It’s both a senior care and an affordable housing platform. They’re both issues I care very deeply about, and I was working with a great team, doing what I thought was really interesting work at that intersection of housing and healthcare. But what appealed to me about this position is really this moment in time. Having worked in housing for 30-plus years and doing some advocacy work and trying to get people interested in housing as an issue, it's been tough. We knock on doors in congressional offices, of state and local officials, and people were not that interested. But now everyone's interested. While there are some pluses and minuses to that, it really is an opportunity, I think, and hope to make a change for housing policy for the better, and to be a part of that opportunity was really just too juicy to pass up.
Bisnow: There's been a lot of roles that you've held in your time and your 30-plus years, like a government-assisted-housing attorney and then you were also an adjunct professor of housing law and policy. How do you hope to incorporate this experience into your new role?
Wilson Géno: This position, for me, is really like a capstone. To me, it combines little pieces of a lot of different things that I've done in the past. Having the experience of being a transactional lawyer, I can relate to a lot of our members and some of the frustrations and the pause in opportunities of trying to develop housing.
I think the background in housing law and policy is particularly important, particularly at this moment in time. A lot of people don't understand really where the little housing policy we have on the federal level really came from. It was really opportunistic and came in different times since about the 1930s and all to address one small or one particular aspect of the housing world or a particular problem in the economy. In many cases, housing policy was not about housing at all; it was about a jobs program.
So having that background I think is really helpful in thinking through how we advocate for what I hope is a more robust and a less complicated and a stronger housing policy moving forward. And then I also had an experience with being an operator too. I’ve had the responsibility of being sure that the buildings are performing and meeting the needs of our residents and that they also are meeting their bottom line. So, all those different pieces, I think, come together and NMHC is a big umbrella. It includes operators, owners and managers, but it also includes people to finance housing, it includes people that supply those that build housing. It includes the tech community that supports housing. So, having had some experiences in a little bit of all that I think will help me in this role.
Bisnow: When you first stepped into the role and there was that transitional period before officially becoming president in February, you said in a statement that you had the opportunity to shadow and learn from Doug Bibby, who had led NMHC for more than 20 years. What did you learn from him?
Wilson Géno: Well, first and foremost, we had a lot of fun. It was really a good time. He was incredibly generous, both in terms of time and his perspective, but also the importance, in this role, of building relationships with our members in all aspects of the big NMHC umbrella. Doug has done that brilliantly and flawlessly. If I can do a fraction of what he's done, that would be a good day.
He's got a really good big-picture perspective and just watching him listen to people, understand what they're saying and try to put it all together and frame it in initiatives that will be impactful. He's done a lot of that here. He's really started and had a long-term commitment to increasing women and minorities and elevating them in the real estate industry and housing equity and affordability, back when those were not as hot-button issues as they are today. It's been nice to learn a lot about where he's coming from on those issues and understand that sometimes you'd have to pursue something that you see as an emerging trend, even when it's not cool yet. He certainly did that and positioned the organization very well when those issues were coming to the fore.
Bisnow: Now that you have been with NMHC for several months and president for over a month, how are you liking it?
Wilson Géno: I’m really enjoying it. The staff here is truly wonderful, amazing, smart, thoughtful, committed, committed, committed. I really like to work with committed people. There's a lot going on in the housing rules today. We just had some announcements from the White House about some initiatives they're going to start on the federal level. There's legislation pending before a variety of committees in both the House and the Senate, and we expect more to be introduced. There are discussions about rent control and other initiatives on the state and local level in many, many states. Not unlike your hometown of Boston, which we're watching very carefully. We know that those policies are not effective [and], in fact, hurt the very people they're designed to help. So there's a lot going on right now, but I like a challenge and it's been fun.
Bisnow: You also said in a statement that housing affordability in the U.S. is undergoing a 'crisis.' What steps are you taking in your role to address this issue?
Wilson Géno: This organization has long been a leader in supporting both the supply side and demand side. We’re a leader in supporting initiatives at the federal level, particularly Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the Section 8 program and others to create resources at the federal level that get pushed through state and local governments to support people that are struggling financially.
The biggest issue for this organization and where I'm really focused is on creating supply of housing. This is not an issue that just emerged after Covid; it's been happening for decades now. We have not created policies at the state, federal and local levels that support the development of enough housing to meet the needs of our growing population. We have hit the population number in our country of 300 million in 2012. We're going to be 400 million people sometime in the middle of the century. That is tremendous, and Covid hasn't slowed that down, uncertainty around immigration policy has not yet slowed that down. Those projections remain solid. That is tremendous growth in a relatively short period of time in our history, and people have got to live somewhere.
We've got to let go of some of the old notions that permanent housing for people should be four freestanding walls and a patch of grass. We need to look more effectively at building the housing that we need to support and to make sure everybody has a roof over their head, but also more sustainable solutions. Multifamily housing has the opportunity to provide that, and that's something that we really need to start taking seriously moving forward. Those are just a handful of the challenges.
And then I'll just add to that, as I mentioned earlier, resist the temptation and really arm state and local officials with solutions of how they can get on this path to help support housing supply rather than look for what appear to be easy solutions, like rent control, that are politically expedient but don't solve the problem long-term. We're in a real danger of that happening, and then we're going to find ourselves 10 years from now, 15 years from now, 20 years from now, so far behind on the supply side that the situation is going to become acute. I really feel like we're at the inflection point now. It's both supporting the supply and demand products, but also educating and pushing back on these expedient policies that are going to hurt us even more.
Bisnow: What are you hearing from NMHC members about the biggest challenges that they are facing today, and how do you aim to help them with those challenges?
Wilson Géno: I think it's a couplefold. One is cost. We saw a lot of costs arise during Covid. Many of them rose in real time. The prices of gas go up, the prices of food go up, supplies, things like that. While some of that has started to correct itself, the costs associated with housing have a tendency to be lagging indicators. So we're still seeing some supply chain issues and the ramifications of that while housing that was supposed to be built early in the pandemic has been slowed down and certain supplies are not available. That's one big challenge I see.
The concerns about rent control and rent stabilization issues, they cause uncertainty in the marketplace. This is something that I don't think the state and local politicians fully understand or appreciate when housing in this country is not built by the government, by and large. It is built with private market capital, and private market capital can make choices to invest in companies in other kinds of industries or can make a choice to invest in multifamily housing. Our members have been very successful in helping to leverage that capital over into the multifamily sector, which we so desperately need to build the housing that we need in the future. When there's uncertainty like proposals around rent control, like proposals around making it more difficult to build housing on the local level, zoning codes and other things like that to exclude more multifamily housing, then that capital doesn't come to us and the cost of capital is much higher. It's really important that people understand that and that we continue to push back on those barriers so capital will come to our industry and build the housing.
Bisnow: In your recent hearing with the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, you talked about the potential role tax policy could play in the development of new affordable housing to curb the supply-demand gap. How do you hope to work with lawmakers and politicians to accept this proposal?
Wilson Géno: Housing has been — and I will maintain will always be — a bipartisan issue. It must be. It's not political. Housing is a basic human need. Constituencies on the right and on the left and everything in between have a vested interest in this issue. On one hand, that's a really good thing. Arguably, that should help us, in a very bifurcated, polarized political environment, to move some housing issues forward.
On the other hand, now this hot-button issue they're focused on, both the right and the left, and as we've now gotten good at this idea of weaponizing issues, trying to pull housing as their issue and use it as a wedge between voters and between politicians. It is not a wedge issue. It should not be used as a wedge issue, and I think all that does is hurt the very people that need it. So my message is continued bipartisan support. If politicians want to work on something in a bipartisan way, housing is absolutely the place to be and, in fact, the center proposal that I was advocating for at the Senate Finance Committee is improvements to Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. Almost that entire committee, Republican and Democrats, have sponsored that bill. We’ve had 44 members signed on to it. This should be a no-brainer. We know we need more resources and housing. I'm hoping that idea that this is very bipartisan issue can move our agenda forward.
Bisnow: Give us a bold prediction for the rest of this year.
Wilson Géno: I'm gonna take that one and go on a limb and I'm gonna say that these improvements to the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits do get passed. This legislation has been kicking around since 2021, but I think that both sides of the aisle are actually ready to do it. It's going to build almost 2 million homes in the next decade if we make that happen. It's not enough, but it's certainly a really good start. So I'm gonna say that we get on that path today and it's actually going to happen.
Bisnow: Because it's the weekend interview, I'm curious as to what your weekend routine or your favorite weekend activity is.
Wilson Géno: I really like to hike. We go to West Virginia on the weekends and hike. I like to ski, weather permitting and snow permitting. And I'm a certified yoga instructor, although I don't teach. I like to up my yoga practice during the weekend.