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SAN DIEGO—Maximizing industry growth depends on broadening the marketplace to include more partners. So said panelists during the NMHC annual meeting this week here in San Diego.

According to moderator Antonio Marquez, managing partner of Comunidad Partners, apartment firms are growing by expanding their investor, borrower, supplier and resident bases and the first question he asked panelists was simply. Why?

“Why is economic inclusion and equity important? And how have you implemented programs that support supplier diversity, access to capital and credit for minority-owned firms?”

The question from Marquez was a big one and four panelists addressed it head on. For Stephanie Williams, president of Bozzuto Management Co., there are very few clear answers but what is clear, she said, is that inclusion just doesn’t happen on its own—economic or otherwise. “It takes a true collection of significant efforts.”

For Bozzuto, inclusion is an important part of the firm’s mission. “As we seek to benefit from this work, those in our community are also benefiting from subcontractors to vendors etc. There are a lot of other industries that have been doing this for years. The pie gets bigger with more equitable participation,” she said. “Instead of being focused on one-sized pie that can’t get larger, we think what we can do to make the pie larger so more can benefit.”

For panelist Jeff Brodsky, vice chairman of Related, “it is a strategic imperative and additive versus deductive.” In Related’s case, its employees are the greatest asset of the organization and the firm’s talent is demanding participation in this topic, he said. “We are being crossed referenced across other organizations. Our firm was started as an affordable housing provider and we believe that a diverse workforce is necessary to be an employer.”

Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is good for business, explained Brodsky. “We have fallen behind and are determined as an industry to reverse course, but how do you do it?”

Sheri Thompson, EVP and head of FHA for Walker & Dunlop, says that her company spends a lot of time in its programming and its partnerships. “We believe that impact and equity go hand in hand and that will drive results in the long term.”

She also spoke about going deeper versus wide. For example, she pointed out how Walker & Dunlop has partnered with North Carolina Central University to help launch the school’s first-ever MBA real estate studies program. The multi-year partnership includes tuition assistance, internship opportunities and professional exposure for MBA students attending the university. In support of the program, she also noted that Walker & Dunlop will provide two, year-long academic fellowships for the next five years. “The fellowships will cover tuition and full room and board for two MBA students focusing on real estate who might not otherwise have access to the program,” she said.

She also pointed out the importance of mentorship. “It is hard to continue to grow the talent to senior levels so we have made a commitment for the next five years and are measuring it. Our senior officers have DEI goals as part of their compensation. The follow through is key.”

According to Ada Arevalo, CEO of impact capital, the challenges are really about access and opportunity. “Our industry is still relationship based and they are formed by relatability. When you don’t have those who you can connect with or understand at a deeper level then something simple can be difficult. I think the industry has really moved in the right direction. It is a challenge but is one that everyone in this room is ready to undertake.”

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