In this Authority Magazine article, Middleburg Communities’ CEO and Shelters to Shutters Founder and Chairman, Christopher Finlay, speaks to housing affordability, his involvement and inspiration for creating Shelters to Shutters and thoughts on innovation and problem-solving. An inspiring and informative interview.
Chris Finlay of Middleburg Communities: How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable
An Interview With Jason Hartman
In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing options. This has led to a host of social challenges. In this series called “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” we are talking to successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, who share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Finlay, CEO of Middleburg Communities.
As Chief Executive, Mr. Finlay is responsible for the oversight management of all the Middleburg affiliated companies and is highly focused on the strategic direction of the firm. Mr. Finlay has a long and distinguished career in commercial real estate investment, finance, and operations. Over the past fifteen years, he has led the acquisition, recapitalization, and development of over 21,000 apartment units throughout the Sun Belt and has executed more than $3 billion in transactions.
Mr. Finlay is committed to giving back to the community. He is the founder and Chairman of Shelters to Shutters, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of homelessness and poverty for those experiencing situational homelessness, through a network of local non-profit organizations and the multifamily industry. Mr. Finlay is also on the Board of Directors for the National Multifamily Housing Council and is a member of the Urban Land Institute.
Mr. Finlay served seven years in the United States Marine Corps and graduated with Honors from the South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I am a former Marine and, after my service, attended the Honors College at the University of South Carolina where I majored in Accounting. This education led me to KPMG in their Structured Finance Group. This was my initial introduction to real estate finance. In 2004, I transitioned to direct investment in multifamily apartment communities when I started Middleburg. I guess you could just say that I was lucky to have the opportunity to migrate into this industry and then have enjoyed building a company with a great group of people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In 2014, I was reading Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine and came across an article that would end up having a big impact on my life. The editor of the magazine decided to experience homelessness for a period of time and write about his experience. In the article, two things really struck me. The first was the number of people he encountered who wanted to work but without a home address to put on a job application they struggled to get hired or be seen. The second was that he was regularly meeting people who were not the image of homelessness that many of us have in our minds. They had been in the workforce before, had marketable skills, but due to some event in their life like a job loss or medical emergency, they found themselves in a situation where they were experiencing homelessness. They simply needed an opportunity to get back to self-sufficiency. I realized the industry I had spent over 20 years in was in the exact position to help. We regularly struggle with high turnover with entry level onsite positions and need good people who are motivated and want to build a career. It is also a standard industry practice to offer discounted housing to employees who live onsite. I got the idea of creating a program that could offer a hand up to individuals facing homelessness and provide them with both employment and housing within the multifamily industry. We piloted this program, Shelters to Shutters, in Middleburg properties and today we have over 40 industry partners participating.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
In any entrepreneurial venture, there are always surprises, challenges, disappointments, and successes. My wife (of now 31 years) has been foundational in her support of me and my efforts to build a business.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have 2 favorite quotes. The first, “It is not the critic that counts…“ by Theodore Roosevelt and “Success is not final, failure is not fatal” by Winston Churchill. To fail is ok. To not try is not ok. Simple as that.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the shortage of affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. I know this is a huge topic, but for the benefit of our readers can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
Before we jump into this topic, we should define what we refer to when we say “affordable housing”. For purposes here, I refer to “affordable housing” as housing that serves those with incomes less than 100% of median income. This incorporates both subsidized (Section 8) housing and Section 42 tax credit properties that serve less than 60% of median income residents, but also those who are in need of market based attainable housing options.
Affordability is a function of rental rates relative to income. Rental rates are market determined and strongly locally/regionally differentiated. The fewer available apartment units compared to the market demand results in increasing rents. Incomes are potentially more variable, and are influenced by a variety of factors including education or training, credit score, and market income growth.
Most large cities have been ineffective at best and detrimental at worst in addressing affordable housing needs. To gain affordable housing, municipalities have to increase the broader production of housing. Priority approval and increased density for housing that has set asides and rent restrictions for “affordable housing” is one mechanism for directly improving affordable housing supply. Any mechanism that impedes additional housing development like rent control negatively impacts the very thing municipalities are trying to achieve.
Income is the other component of the affordability equation. Often this is thought of in terms of gross income, but in reality, it is more about debt levels, cost of debt, stability of employment, and other factors that more directly impact the ability to pay rent.
In summary, the real challenge to address affordable housing is to incentivize increasing housing supply to outpace limited wage growth.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
Our company takes a dual prong approach to addressing affordability.
First, we employ innovative strategies to develop and create new affordable units. This can include acquisition and substantial improvement or new development, but also looking for ways to partner with municipalities to receive property tax relief or other financial tools that make it feasible to bring these units to market.
Second, we look to increase affordability by helping our residents improve their financial position. We have a Director of Community Engagement who works with our property teams to provide a variety of educational offerings to help residents improve themselves. As another example, we provide positive credit reporting for on time rental payments. This reduces their debt costs with lower interest, and facilitates more available cash flow.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I am really proud of how our team has embraced a culture of service and community engagement. We were the founder and remain a major supporter of Shelters to Shutters, a non-profit organization that partners with the multifamily industry to providing housing and employment for individuals and families struggling with homelessness. There are so many stories of team members taking these individuals under their wing on the job to offer extra training as well as outside of the job such as helping them set up a checking account. The opportunity to change someone’s life and the lives of their family has been extremely rewarding.
In your opinion, what should other developers and builders do to further address these problems?
I think other developers can also join with us to embrace a more holistic approach to creating affordability. There are great new companies positively impacting residents by including cash back rewards programs like Stake or credit reporting from Till. I encourage other builders to evaluate these kinds of options to serve the residents.
Additionally, I’d like to see more within the industry get involved in solutions like Shelters to Shutters. Shelters to Shutters is a program that can be easily replicated in any city in our country. The combination of both employment and housing for individuals to return to economic independence is so critical. As an industry, we are in the business of building communities, and Shelters to Shutters is another way to positively impact local communities in a meaningful way.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
- Communities have to address housing shortages, and affordable housing shortages specifically, through more efficient and effective development, added density and lower costs for adding ADUs, and other related strategies.
- Communities need to prioritize the idea that those who work and serve their communities should be able to afford to live in their communities. They must identify creative ways to ensure this ideal is met.
- Lastly, we can all find creative ways to support our residents to improve their lives.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws which you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
I think less is more in this regard. I don’t think we need more bureaucracy, in fact perhaps the opposite. So often misguided politically motived legislation only makes the problems worse.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am very proud of our work with Shelters to Shutters and I would love to see every apartment community across the country participating. This is an innovative private market solution for a public challenge. Our industry is in need of great talent and Shelters to Shutters finds that talent where typical hiring managers are not looking. It’s empowering individuals who have fallen on hard times but have the skills and motivation to be economically independent again by offering both employment and stable housing. I think it is a great example of an industry coming together to effect change.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I am a big fan of Elon Musk. Obviously brilliant, but it is his ability to communicate his vision and inspire others to achieve truly disruptive ideas that I find so impressive.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
www.middleburgcommunities.com; Middleburg Communities on Linkedin and @middleburgREP on twitter.
Shelterstoshutters.org Twitter: @S2Snonprofit Facebook.com/shelterstoshutters IG:ShelterstoShutters
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.