Meet the woman turning a nonprofit into a developer of affordable housing
In her four years working in the real estate arm of the Mission Economic Development Agency, Karoleen Feng has played a key role in turning the program from an idealistic aspiration into a major player in the neighborhood’s housing scene.
A year or two ago, Feng said, the nonprofit didn’t much impress the local development community.
“I was talking to a realtor and he was kind of not really giving me the time of day, despite whatever I had said about my own experience,” recalled Feng, 40, who studied political economies of industrial societies at UC Berkeley for her BA and then moved elsewhere on campus to receive a Master’s Degree in city and regional planning.
Then, a few months ago, the same realtor got in touch, Feng said.
“He calls me up and says, ‘Oh, you guys have made yourself into the big time, you guys are able to buy buildings throughout the Mission. So I have a building now for you.’”
Before Feng joined its staff, MEDA mostly provided tax preparation, business strategy guidance and education programs. It owned no property, but since then, it has become a mini-mogul. The nonprofit now manages 439 apartments it took over from public housing, owns 122 units in the form of multi-unit apartment buildings acquired through the city’s “Small Sites” program, and is the developer of 534 entirely below-market-rate units in five different buildings, the first of which is expected to break ground in February 2018. It recently paid $6 million to buy a former furniture store on 18th and Mission Streets.
Heading up the 13-person real estate department is Feng — a woman of color in real estate. It’s a field that, in the nonprofit sector, is less homogenous than in general, but is still dominated by men. That makes her, inevitably, a representative of both women and people of color — as well as the face of an agency relatively new to the scene.
“There is a sense that MEDA, being an upstart and a startup … that we don’t have the full technical qualifications behind our work,” she said. “So I have to represent that I’m on top of my game whenever I’m in a conversation … Unlike, potentially, being a man in the field, I don’t get the privilege of just throwing my weight around. I also have to be more respectful of what other people have to say about our work.”
The goal, when MEDA started dabbling in property, was to build or acquire 1,000 units by 2020. If you count the ones it’s expecting to build, they’re ahead of schedule by three years.
Feng is quick to credit the entire team with this achievement, but her own tenacity undoubtedly plays a role. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a team that is three years ahead of its own schedule is headed by a person it can be very hard to keep up with.
“She is so energized and determined and focused, you have to really match that, or she’s gonna run away with the whole thing,” said Katie Lamont, Director of Housing Development at Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation.
“You really have to kind of match her energy, [and] commit to focus with your whole being in the conversation,” she added.
More than half of Feng’s time is spent in meetings, where she moves from one agenda point to the next with dizzying speed, and gives the impression that her thoughts are moving even faster.
In a meeting with two of her team members to discuss potential future nonprofit tenants, Feng zeroed in on a whiteboard covered in a flowchart of qualifications, mulling over how to pick a tenant from a sea of groups needing stable space.
She twirled a paper clip, long since fidgeted out of useful shape, throwing out scenarios — should groups that can show financial stability really be favored over those that can’t, but which might have the most need? How should the new landlord verify whether an organization is sustainable? What kind of evaluation would strike a balance between arbitrary and subjective?
At the core of the conversation seemed to be the thorny question: How will MEDA balance being a landlord that needs responsible tenants with offering a service to those who need it?
“I don’t know that there’s going to be the perfect nonprofit. A lot of them are in survival mode,” she said.
Even once she’s out the door, the conversation continues: Feng said members of her real-estate team sometimes walk her home. At the door, however, the conversation quickly ends once she’s greeted by her three-year-old daughter.
“Literally we’re at the doorway and it’s a transition between me holding my daughter and hugging and kissing her, while we’re still talking about the five remaining issues we have to solve by tomorrow,” she said.
Feng began her career at the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation as an intern and worked her way through the ranks to become an associate director.
“She’s been doing this a long time, and she understands all aspects of it, particularly the business aspect of it,” Lamont said. “She’s attracted some impressive people, in terms of their raw talent but who don’t have nearly the same experience she has.”
Joshua Simon, executive director of the East Bay nonprofit, worked with Feng while she was an assistant project manager there. At the time, she was working on the revitalization of Swan’s Market and finding restaurants to bring local businesses and employers to the grocer.
“She made a point of knowing the property owners of surrounding buildings. Those good relationships bear fruit into opportunities,” Simon said.
But it’s not just business relationships and housing stock to Feng. Managing housing for a service organization means seeing housing as the foundation, but not a panacea, for helping people reach their potential.
“The reality is that solving a person’s housing problem, especially if they have other difficulties that they were originally facing … means that you’re not necessarily making sure that they’re successful, you’re just making sure that they’re successfully housed,” she said.
The concept of housing as a bedrock for opportunity came from her own childhood in Singapore, a country where 80 percent of the population lives in public housing.
“What motivates me is to, in some ways, recreate my childhood and recreate for other people the same opportunities that I had growing up … which, for me, is the opportunity to not have to worry about my daily need,” she said.
There’s a sense of personal connection, and perhaps even responsibility, to the neighborhood, too. While living in the Mission and working in the East Bay, it was easier for Feng to distance herself from the changes sweeping the neighborhood, she said. That became harder when she was faced with a daily flood of stories from families MEDA served in other capacities.
“I would be walking by buildings for sale and feel like it was personally my fault that I hadn’t bought that building, or made sure that building would be permanently affordable, when I have the tools to be able to do that,” she said.
Now, part of her job is not to just buy buildings and bid on development contracts, but push the world of nonprofit and city-funded development in the right direction. That means shaping the teams working on finding solutions to the housing and displacement crisis so that they reflect the communities they serve.
It also means listening when communities say they’re hurting — as the Mission has been doing in conversations about gentrification — and refusing to settle for old ways of doing things.
It’s crucial for stakeholders to “recognize that there are new and innovative ways that we can do our work and that we’re all in this together,” she said. “We don’t think we can solve this alone. We think we need everybody to really solve this.”