When Mansur Abdul-Malik crunches a building’s pro forma, he doesn’t see numbers—he sees faces: the 10-year-old boy popping wheelies in Baltimore’s Hollander Ridge neighborhood; the D.C. family who needs a new stove; the dozens of residents who have his personal cellphone number.
Abdul-Malik’s ability to translate the dollars and cents of development into the impacts on everyday people is one of the reasons he has traversed—and is transforming—the affordable housing landscape so successfully. For the past decade, he has worked for the NHP Foundation (NHPF); as a vice president of development, he will soon lead efforts in their new Baltimore office, where he manages the investment and redevelopment strategy of multi-family affordable housing assets. He represents NHPF in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, forwarding green energy practice to increase efficiency by 20% by 2024. While his work is rooted in numbers, it is driven by people, and centers on significant engagement and outreach.
“It’s about building that trust and transparency,” says Abdul-Malik, “and people appreciate that— it’s not something that’s being done to them, it’s being done with them.”
Residents of NHPF’s properties—which are located all over the country, including in the Baltimore-Washington area—have taken notice, and so has the industry. Abdul-Malik was recently honored with the Emerging Leader Award at HAND’s 2021 Annual Meeting and Housing Expo.
“It was a pleasant surprise, but It’s really not about me at all,” he says. “It’s about all of those people willing to give their time, effort and energy; to be willing to sit down and have lunch and pick up the phone to answer my crazy questions! All of those different interactions with people, like Professor (Maria) Day-Marshall and a lot of my professors at UMD, have put me where I am now.”
Abdul-Malik’s interest in real estate development was sparked through a commercial real estate elective he took during his undergraduate degree at the University of Baltimore, where he majored in entrepreneurship. After graduation, he eschewed business school and pursuing a CPA, instead looking for something more people focused. Real estate development—and more specifically, affordable housing—checked the right boxes. “I wanted to do something that made a difference. And a mentor of mine once told me, ‘if you can do affordable housing, you can do just about anything in real estate development.” While he looked at a number of excellent programs, Maryland’s global perspective, highly invested faculty and programming tailored to working professionals put it at the top of Abdul-Malik’s list.
“Several years ago, Mansur took a course that I taught, entitled ‘Capital Markets and Real Estate Investments’ where he learned about the financing tools developers use to construct and preserve affordable housing,” said Maria Day-Marshall, director of UMD’s Real Estate Development program. “It is really rewarding to see how he is now applying those tools to provide decent and safe housing for low- and moderate-income residents. Over the years, Mansur has kept in touch with me, sought advice and bounced ideas off me. When he contacted me recently about establishing an internship program for UMD MRED students at NHP, I jumped at the opportunity to provide real world experience in the affordable housing sector for our minority students. He has been a huge, consistent supporter of the program and I am very appreciative of his willingness to give back.”
Below, Abdul-Malik talks about why Baltimore’s latest affordable housing experiment will change the game, the activity that brought him peace during the pandemic and the power of getting beyond the numbers:
You have been with NHP for close to a decade. What has changed over that time and what has kept you there? When I started at NHP we had a $50 million equity fund through a partnership with PNC bank. The goal was to buy properties, hold them for a few years and then refinance them under the low-income housing tax credit and maintain them as affordable. I was in this tiny office, just destroying Excel sheets and cranking through deals. Then NHP started engaging in Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) transactions. Washington, D.C., is unlike any place in the country in that, when an apartment building goes up for sale, the residents have first right to actually purchase that building. Oftentimes, residents don’t have the financial capability to do so, so they will create a tenant association and partner with a developer like NHP who will go in, buy the property, do a renovation and maintain it as affordable. As a developer, some of my first deals were TOPA deals. There can be this initial fear for the residents; they see a big developer come in and wonder if they will raise their rent or kick them out. They see D.C. becoming more and more unfriendly to people who aren’t making a $100K salary. So, whereas before I was just crunching numbers, the TOPA deals gave me the chance to work with the community and the residents more directly. The numbers began to have context. A small change in my spreadsheet might mean that Mrs. Jones won’t get a new stove. So those types of things had a real impact on me and forced me to make sure I could take it as far as I could to provide the best I can for people. For residents, it’s a relationship with the person and company that has the final say—and knowing they have a say in what their building will look like. And when it’s a person that looks like them, who’s wearing a Ravens hat, for example, it completely changes the conversation!
NHPF released a video last year, Unconventional Affordable Housing: Yes! In My Backyard, that drills down into the centuries of political and social constructs that shape communities and opportunity. In it, we get a look at Hollander Ridge, a 94-scatter site single family affordable housing program recently completed by NHPF. Why was this story important to tell? Baltimore City has a nationally recognized history of redlining, which still exists today. When you research Baltimore’s “Black Butterfly,” it will show areas of poverty and blight: pockets of low-income families—predominately communities of color—which make up the wings attached to this affluent center right down the center. What the property Hollander Ridge represents is a breaking down of that to a degree. I’ve done a couple of interviews with media about why that mattered. Yes, it was expensive, but it was equitable. This is not me bashing affordable housing complexes—because we do a bunch of them—but if you talk about true equity, the true equity is about taking those same folks that would qualify for 60% of AMI rents and putting them in areas that are market rate, or above market rate. It’s giving them access to those same types of amenities. All of those kids in Hollander Ridge: they are going to really good schools and that was done on purpose; they’re adjacent to transportation lines; they’re near parks and doctors’ offices. The properties have backyards and multiple bathrooms and finishes that are found in market rate houses and, when you do that, it starts to change the perspective. The kids of the old Hollander Ridge are now the parents of the new Hollander Ridge; they had the first right to come to the new development. So that’s a step in the right direction, but the real step is their kids. They are being exposed to the opportunities that their parents didn’t have. It’s a completely different dynamic. And what will those children look like in 10-15 years when they have access to the best, when historically, their families have not? That, to me, is really going to be the experiment.
People have a lot of misconceptions about affordable housing. What do you want them to know? Well first, that affordable housing is a stable investment. If you do research on the risk adjusted return, you’ll see it has as stable a return as almost any investment out here in the market. Financially, affordable housing makes sense, and it hits that triple bottom line: it’s good for the people, its good for the wallet and it’s good for the planet. A lot of people don’t know that affordable housing has a ton of green energy savings requirements; NHPF just converted its entire portfolio in D.C. to solar and have made enormous strides in water savings.
There is also a misconception that affordable housing is the creator of crime or blight. In many of the neighborhoods we are working in, we’ve put forward a huge effort to eliminate crime and engage in community work, to connect the police with our residents for different events, not just calls. These communities are primarily productive members of society that do not deserve the stigma associated with affordable housing. For government, it is a huge priority that cannot be overlooked; it touches so many things. People with low to moderate incomes have essential jobs—they are essential workers—and deserve an affordable, decent place to live.
What has been your most meaningful project? Each of these projects is unique, and every last one of them has a story and a piece of my heart. My first project was the Parkchester apartments in Washington D.C., and working with residents was a phenomenal experience on a very personal level. I remember one time during a resident association meeting a question came up about deep freezers. Typically, deep freezers are a lease violation largely because they are pretty unregulated as far as size, age and energy pull, but we were getting some pretty big push back from residents. And the reason behind that is because Parkchester is in the middle of a food desert; whenever residents have the opportunity to go to the grocery store, they load up. We knew we had to find a way to get them freezers so we offered rebates for the old ones that could go towards apartment-size EnergyStar models. Creating those relationships with residents, where they can have those conversations with me, is really powerful.
You recently led the charge to create an internship program at NHPF; this year, three UMD students will benefit from that opportunity. Why was that important to you? What do you hope students take away from the experience? Just like everyone else in the country, when George Floyd was murdered, our organization had this time of self-reflection to ask, “what are we doing?” So, we created this task force to examine what we were doing to promote equity and diversity, to give as much as we can to our communities and stakeholders. How do we continue to expand our reach? Part of that was leaning into our affiliate nonprofit called Operation Pathways, which provides on-the-ground resident services, but the internship was also a manifestation of that conversation. It was important to me to be able to provide that additional experience beyond formal schooling. It’s real-world experience that doesn’t have the same level of risk; they mess up on one of my pro formas, we can sit down and walk through it and they can learn from it. The wisdom I received from my mentors and my professors at Maryland was above and beyond schooling—it was about work life balance, the real world, career advancement. I felt that NHPF was at a point where we were able to give that. Your assets aren’t necessarily on your balance sheet; they are the people going in and out of that door every day.
What’s a skill you learned in school that you still practice? I actually go back to my class notes and books a lot—I kept every last one of them. Professor (Margaret) McFarland mandated we all get a copy of the Dictionary of Real Estate Terms and I use it a lot. So, I would say knowing how to use resources; Maryland really helps you navigate the different resources and teach you how to use what you have to get that answer that you need. Because of that skill, I’m able to figure out problems relatively quickly.
What’s a piece of advice you wish you could tell your younger self? To become more immersed in the numbers early on. I took my finance classes in my second year and it probably would have made sense to have some finance class in every semester. Nine times out of 10, your first job coming straight out of school is going to be associated with some sort of number crunching. The more practice you get in, the better.
You began volunteering with Joseph Richey Hospice in 2012. How did that experience change your perspective on life? When I was at the University of Baltimore I’d drive past Joseph Richey every day on my way to school. It was one of the few hospice centers in the 1980s that accepted patients with AIDs. My dad died from AIDS, so for me it was personal. The volunteering experience was incredible. Even though the patients understand that this is going to be their last room, they are still people and want to be treated as such; they still only like chocolate ice cream and still root for the same football team. It taught me that regardless of what’s going on, live your life to best you can and give as much as you can freely. A lot of the conversations I had during my time there revolved around patients wishing they could do more—that they could spend more time with grandkids, give more to charity, share their talents with someone else. It gave me a lot of perspective; life is precious and finite. What can I do to have as few of those wishes as possible when it’s my time? And it taught me to show the appreciation to people while you have the ability to do so. Joseph Richey gave way more to me than I gave to them.
What’s saved your sanity during the pandemic? My bike, it was critical. The gym shut down and the bike gave me the opportunity to get out on mostly empty roads—because everyone was home. It brought me back to a place of my childhood, just being able to get out and ride a bike. Having that mental respite, however brief, was great.
What’s next? I’m looking forward to continued growth at NHPF. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with our executive team on a lot of new funds and experience the organization at different levels: from the guy who was in the closet crunching numbers to doing the developments, to the person that is not just putting together the finance but creating the vehicle that is the finance. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next level is.