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ON THE LEVEL: Ken Szymanski straddles for-profit and nonprofit worlds

KenSzymanskiOntheLevelPic.webProfessional, eloquent, caring and active. This was the impression Ken Szymanski gave off during his interview with The Meck Times recently.

Szymanski has been the executive director at the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association for 28 years, and it’s obvious that he has enjoyed every minute of it. The apartment association works with about 550 apartment communities, 200 developers and more than 300 product and service firms in the Greater Charlotte area.

He has a presence in the public sector, as chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Coalition for Housing.

Prior to moving to Charlotte in the mid-1980s, Szymanski was an appointed official in San Antonio, and then worked for the city’s apartment association there. He was offered the executive director position in Charlotte after working with the association in San Antonio for three years.

When he’s not working Syzmanski like to travel – he most recently went to China – and play tennis. He also enjoys biking to work and dabbles in gardening when he has time.

Q: What brought you to Charlotte?

A: So, when I made the career choice that I wanted to be more closely aligned with developers and design professionals, and the private sector side and not the public sector side – that was the move I made. It was kind of a fork in the road with my career as opposed to being a public appointed official, and working for cities and under planning directors and city managers. But it’s an extension of it ‘cause we’re still involved very much in the debate about public policy and affordable housing and neighborhood quality and lifestyle, and the role of housing in neighborhoods and city growth and decline. So it’s all good, and it’s rounded me as a person to be more closely aligned with the private entrepreneurial folks, and not just the regulatory folks. This is more closely aligned with the realities of the market place. On a personal level, it’s all valuable in terms of how cities work and the ecology of cities and the composition of cities, which is made up of a lot of different interests.

Q: What does the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association do?

A: We’re kind of a consensus builder and a public policy shaper in terms of the roles that the industry can play, and we’re a voice for the industry. We’re more a tempering voice about: What’s the impact on development costs? What’s the impact on housing costs to the consumer? Sometimes we get involved as a necessity with individual projects, but not as often. Sometimes we’re offensively seeking things that we’d like to change, but probably more often we’re on the defense about, ‘Well, there’s a new layer, a new proposal,’ and so we’ll say,’Well gee, how far is this going to go?’ And we’ll be the voice with committees and divisions of city council, and departments of the city and county and state. So our job is to defend the interests of our members when they’re too busy to do it. They are the ones that are on the front line of, you know, ‘You wouldn’t believe what happened with this inspector,’ or ‘This project got delayed.’ And so we’re armed with that. The other benefit is that it buffers that individual member from any sort of response by any public official that would be potentially punitive.

Q: What’s different about Charlotte compared with other cities in North Carolina and across the U.S.?

A: The developers and owners that are here are very experienced, very progressive, very smart  business people. But they’re also public-minded. We provide housing, which is a very personal thing to a lot of people, whether you’re a resident there or a nearby neighbor, people care about it, a lot. They may love it and they may hate it, or they may be indifferent, but it’s very important in the lives of people, both as a place to live and as a neighbor.

Q: How has the apartment boom that’s occurred in cities affected the apartment association, and why are people gravitating towards apartments again?

A: Yeah, there’s been a big societal switch and it’s been fun to watch, and there’s a lot of factors. But by far the biggest factor is what happened with home buying on or about 2008. You’d see a 28-year-old single woman, ‘Well, I gotta buy a house, because it’s better than money in the bank.’ And in the hopes that the appreciation rate would be so high, realtors used to advertise that, on average, home values double every ten years, and that’s certainly not the case since then at all. That was such a big driver. And then, the lifestyle of young adults, it’s like, why would you live in the suburbs and drive, and live in a boring cul-de-sac, when you could be in an engaging, lively place that you could walk to? The creative class is what cities, including Charlotte, are trying to attract because that’s great. It’s great for the community. They’re educated, they make for a more engaging, lively community overall. So cities are actively striving to attract those households, and there’s different philosophies about how you do that. But part of it’s lifestyle, part of it is the nature of the job, part of it is, ‘Is the place interesting enough?’ And that’s interesting, how the different cities have different niches and how they try to pursue that, and Charlotte and Raleigh have done well in that regard. It used to be, when there was a lot of building of apartments, it was very predictable that there would be overbuilding, because the demand was really finite, and static, where maybe a third of the households would rent, and two thirds would buy, and so if you overbuild it’s obvious that all of a sudden you’d have a crash from that product, and then rents would go south and vacancies would increase. But now we’ve seen the share of households that rent go from almost 33 percent to almost 42 percent, which is a big shift. The conventional wisdom is that (this) equals overbuilding in the next 12 to 18 months, but that may or may not be as severe as in prior cycles because demand is so strong.

Q: Do you think rental rates are rising because apartments are in high demand?

A: Yeah, and construction cost. Rents have grown, and a lot of people in the apartment business, of course they love to grow rents because they like to make a higher profit. But you can’t consistenly grow rents at a pace that’s much faster than wage increases. It’s just not sustainable. And more and more of these infill deals are looking at the neighborhood as the amenities, more so than the amenities on the real estate itself. So if you can walk to NoDa, or you can walk to South End, or you can walk to cool places in Charlotte, those are seen as amenities in and of themselves.

Q: How do you balance your work life with your involvement in the public sector? And do the two affect each other?

A: They do. And it’s usually not a conflict of interests or anything like that because I’m able to bring the voice of the apartment industry to those forums. That’s good, because those folks are often looking for housing availablities or housing options, or ways of housing – low-wage earners. And so that’s valuable in terms of understanding the point of view of the housing provider. And then sometimes, I can inform our members of opportunities, and that’s valuable. And if you’re in the housing field for very long, and particularly if you work with a range of income levels, you know, you have to be sensitive to the low-income. The expression I like to use is, if you’re making minimum wage, you’re going to be minimally housed. And that’s kind of a joke, but it’s true; do the math on it (Szymanski proceded to do the math).There’s no marketplace housing that can house you. Because the lowest market-rate housing unit is like $650 a monthy, you’d have to make about twenty (thousand) a year to afford that – with our three-times-the-rent of income needed.

Q: When did you realize you wanted to get involved with the public housing sector?

A: It’s really an extension of when I worked for local governments. I’ve always been engaged with the debate about affordable housing (and) housing affordabililty. It’s great because the lenders, the banks, the social workers, the child advocates, the county employees, the university sociologists, the veterans’ advocates: There’s just a whole bunch of folks who all are very much a part of the community. So it’s great to network with them all, and to talk about the realities and challenges, and to address them and to try to ameliorate them. (It’s not that) housing is too pricey, because housing is fairly priced in the market place. It costs money to acquire, build, manage, maintain. And so there’s this gap between the fair price of housing and what low wages can buy.

Q: Is there anything you want to add?

A: I’m a big believer in the efficiencies of apartments, and what they mean to cities in terms of the higher density. It brings the need for retail and the walkability makes it practical and feasible. So it’s great to see all these things, from the urban planning standpoint.

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