As a kid, Matt Birenbaum loved maps. He was energized by seeing new places, travelling, and discovering new neighborhoods. So perhaps it is not surprising that in college he got his degree in Urban Studies and discovered his love for real estate as a business.
“By the time I graduated, I knew what I wanted to do,” recalled Matt. “It was a hard field to get into, especially in the late 80s. Real estate was in a worsening recession and most of the opportunities were with old-line, family-owned businesses. It helped if you had connections in the business; I did not.”
He got his toehold in the business after answering an ad in the Washington Post (his kids still marvel that that’s the way it once worked) doing land acquisition for public storage. It was definitely “on the job training”, but it began a 30-year career developing real estate at AvalonBay, EYA, at his own company, Abbey Road Property Group, and then back again to his current role as AvalonBay’s Chief Investment Officer.
While his primary focus was market-rate housing, Matt was involved over the years in multiple affordable projects in Alexandria, Washington, DC, Montgomery County, and Arlington. He first encountered APAH during the redevelopment of Arna Valley View Apartments. It was one of the most controversial projects ever to go forward in Arlington. In the end, the County provided the tools to create a win-win—940 units of which 170 were committed affordable. The company eventually sold the 101-unit building to APAH in 2014.
With the encouragement of friend and long-time Board member Rita Bamberger, Matt deepened his involvement with APAH, joining the Board of Directors in 2015. “Affordable housing has always been an issue that I’ve cared about and understood given that I’m in the housing business. The opportunity to help in that way, to leverage my professional skills and network as well as just money, to me that is the perfect opportunity to volunteer.”
As a Board member, Matt is a tireless ambassador and advocate, starting with getting his own company more and more involved. For many years a top sponsor of APAH’s annual Celebrate Home! benefit, AvalonBay also contributes staff time, talent and resources to APAH through their annual Spirit of Community program and through learning days where APAH and AvalonBay’s real estate teams share best practices and innovations. “These sessions have been incredible,” notes Carmen Romero, who leads APAH’s real estate team. “AvalonBay is one of the largest and most respected REIT’s in the nation, as APAH grows it has been so helpful to have our team learn from their scale and experience.”
When APAH began talks with American Legion Post 139, Matt was one of the first to urge the Board to commit to an ambitious capital campaign. “It’s an incredible location, incredible schools, close to a metro and we had an opportunity to do something really innovative. We considered different ways to close the funding gap by selling part of the property and making the project smaller, but I felt–and so did the staff–that it was such a great site and location. We had such a great partner in the American Legion that we would not be doing the mission or the site justice if we didn’t provide as much affordable housing, at as deep a subsidy as we possibly could. So, we made the decision to do the stretch goal—to create 160 units all in one phase and to raise the money to do it.”
Matt went on to play a key role in the campaign, helping to secure the lead gift of what will become Terwilliger Place. He and his wife, Ilona, also made the decision to make a significant gift to the project. “For those of us who can afford personally to contribute what better cause to contribute to,” Matt noted. “I was excited to have the opportunity to participate. And as one of the people who was really advocating to go for it, I thought it was important to step up personally.”
As Matt looks to the future, “It’s incredibly exciting for all of us who do this work. Affordable housing has kind of been this obscure corner of the field and now it’s entered the mass consciousness in a way that it never has in my 30 years in the housing business. People are really talking about affordable housing and housing affordability a lot, which is great.”
“One of the great things about real estate is that it really is where private business intersects with public policy. If you are working in development, you have the opportunity to do both. Housing is where economic segregation really begins, and a lot of that is written into the law and is driven by zoning and regulation. We can make a difference and we can do more.”
“APAH is in an incredible position,” noted Matt. “The organization has incredible leadership and staff. For the first time in my career, the public seems full engaged, both the general public and the elected leaders, in trying to do more for affordable housing when for years you felt a little like you were yelling into a canyon when talking about this issue. Ultimately what that means is being able to help more people and really be a force to try and create a more economically integrated economy and metropolitan area.”