Lindsey Gael

MCP'13 + Certificate in Real Estate Design and Development

What kind of work are you doing?
I am working for the Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA) in their Planning & Development Department. The CHA is on track to be the first housing authority in the country to have their entire portfolio of properties converted to a “privatized” subsidy stream through participation in a HUD pilot program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). Through utilization of this new subsidy platform, in just the past 2 years that I’ve worked here, CHA has undertaken renovations or reconstruction at 6 properties, totaling over $80M in construction work. It is a very exciting time at CHA. I spend a lot of my time focused on the financial pieces of the renovation projects which is very complex work and then the other half of my time I work as the project manager for a couple renovation projects. Being split between these two roles provides great variety and constant learning.

What led you to your current position?
Before joining CHA I worked for HR&A Advisors in NYC. They are an urban planning consulting firm that works in a broad variety of planning and real estate arenas. The work I did there was very interesting and diverse but I eventually realized that I was interested in focusing more on real estate. I also realized I wanted to work from the position of the owner rather than the consultant. As the owner, you get to make all the final decisions, and then you have to live with those decisions. I liked the opportunities and challenges of that position. Finally, I was also interested in the idea of specializing a bit more in a single geography, getting to know a community very well instead of learning a new community and place for each consulting project.

What attracted you to the firm or position?
CHA has the reputation of being one of the best housing authorities in the county. Very smart and committed people work here and the agency is always doing interesting and cutting-edge work, both in terms of development and national public housing policy. So the opportunities for career growth and learning were very appealing to me. Also, as a counter-balance, it is a public sector job which provided the opportunity to carve out the work-life balance I want. An unforeseen benefit of this job has been getting to work in a very diverse office; I have learned an immense amount from working with people that have very different backgrounds than my own.

How did your studies at PennDesign prepare you for your work there?
Going into PennDesign, I knew I was interested in real estate and in fact, that was why I chose Penn. I focused my coursework in that direction and took as many finance, business, and real estate classes at Wharton as possible. Having a blend of PennDesign classes and Wharton classes really prepared me well for this job. My concentration was Public Private Development (PPD) and I earned the Real Estate Design and Development (REDD) Certificate. Entering the job with knowledge of how zoning works, how the banking world evaluates returns and risk, how architects operate, etc. allowed me to hit the ground running. You really need to know a little about a lot of different things for this job, and PennDesign provided that.

What courses, studios or instructors had the greatest influence on your work or thinking?
Professor Landis’ real estate classes were helpful—in particular getting exposure to LIHTC is important and not many business school people learn that so it gave me a leg up. Professor Nakahara’s Real Estate Development class at Wharton was incredibly challenging and taught me so much in so many different facets. The Corporate Finance 101 class at Wharton also provided an essential baseline understanding that I benefit from. Planning Law and Real Estate Law were also very helpful –I only remember bits and pieces of the actual cases but having learned the fundamental logic and language of law has been critically useful to my work in real estate and finance. The workshop and studio classes were sometimes very frustrating, but they are important experiences. In any job you are going to need to work with people that are difficult to work with –that don’t pull their weight, or don’t listen, or don’t understand you—it’s your responsibility to figure out how to work with them and workshop and studio helped develop that. Workshop and studio were also great opportunities to develop some design skill and a more critical eye. This comes into play in my work often.

What was the best part of studying at PennDesign? In Philly?
I made great friends at PennDesign and had a lot of fun learning and sometimes suffering with them. PennDesign provided social support and organization –like happy hour on Fridays and many shared common core courses—that made it easy to form friendships and yet it was not so insular of an environment that you couldn’t also build an independent life and connection with the city. Philadelphia of course provided a great urban laboratory in which to study the full range of urban planning issues –gentrification, entrenched poverty, effective and ineffective land use policies, successful redesigning of streets and neighborhoods, etc.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In 5 years I see myself still working in affordable housing—maybe I’ll shift into more of the green building arena or I’ll continue in the traditional affordable housing development and planning world that I am currently in. There is so much to learn in affordable housing development and public housing that I see myself continuing to be challenged by this job for many years to come.

Are you keeping in touch with classmates, students or faculty?
I do keep in touch with a lot of my classmates. In Boston there is a nice group of folks from my class and we get together regularly to have dinner and catch up. We all work in affordable housing development or design so we have a great time talking shop and also laughing about funny times we shared at Penn. Our larger class was pretty close so I also have friends in other cities—Philly, NYC, DC—that I visit each year. Most significantly, I am getting married this October to a fellow PennDesigner so yeah, there is a lot of PennDesign in my life!

Any words of advice for prospective students?
If you can have a sense what you want to do before entering the program, you will get much, much more out of it. There is no problem with exploring different corners of the planning profession through coursework, but you will get far more out of your experience if you have a pretty strong sense of what you want to do. Figure out what your strengths are and what skills you like utilizing and back into a concentration from there. Are you happy when you can have a lot of time alone in front of a computer working on detailed tasks? Are you happy when you get to spend a lot of time interacting with other people? Are you happy multitasking and managing many different processes at once? I think choosing your career based on your strengths is a great way to go.

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