Source: The Philadelphia Citizen
Byline: Jessica Blatt Press
Date: 1/19/2023

Gregory Heller has spent his career trying to make Philadelphia more hospitable — and equitable — for the people who call it home.

When Greg Heller’s young children ask him what he does for work, he answers them plainly: “I help people find affordable places to live.”

As city kids, Heller’s are acutely aware of housing issues around them, even if they lack the vocabulary to describe them. They see people experiencing homelessness; they see the contrast between restored mansions and falling-apart rowhomes. They may not have the language for what their father does, but as city dwellers, they get it.

What they may not fully understand is that their father — author of Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia, a biography of the architect and city planner behind much of Philadelphia’s design — is, like the subject of his book, someone who has tried to find new ways to address the intersection of many of Philly’s most seemingly intractable problems: housing, poverty, inequity and racism, to name a few.

He’s done it as a planning and design analyst for Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). As a managing director at the Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation. As CEO of American Communities Trust, a Baltimore-based organization that provides social impact expertise to clients like developers and government entities, among others. As the executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. And in his current role as a director at Guidehouse, the global consultancy that focuses on affordable housing, equitable communities and government solutions.

Heller is equal parts urban planner, public servant, and strategist. And as his career has progressed, he has become even more committed to the belief that it takes cross-sector collaboration, creativity, and the civic engagement of all of us to make real change. His approach makes him a natural fit for Generation Change Philly, our series in partnership with Keeper of the Commons to spotlight and amplify those who are leading our city forward.

A life-changing interview

Ask Greg Heller how he came into the field, and he might take you back to 2002, when he interviewed Bacon for his college thesis comparing Philadelphia and Berlin. Afterward, Bacon — who served as the executive director of Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970 — asked Heller to take a year off from Wesleyan to help him write his memoir.

“My first instinct was to say no,” Heller says. He had senior year ahead of him, after all. His track team was doing great! And, besides, he was still vacillating between wanting to be a journalist and pursuing photography, or some blend of the two.

But then it struck him: “Opportunities like that come along only once in a lifetime,” he says. He signed on.

“We have a new governor, we’re going to have a new mayor – and we have to hold them accountable to being more creative and innovative about how we solve pressing problems,” Heller says.

His year with Bacon, who died in 2005, was transformative. Every day, Heller would show up at the then-nonagenarian’s Locust Street home at 9am and get to work, often late into the night. Bacon’s visitors alone made for a crash course in design expertise.

“I got to have a private meeting with I.M. Pei,” Heller recalls. “Rafael Viñoly came and knocked on [Bacon’s] door one day, out of the blue, when he was competing with Daniel Libeskind for the Ground Zero redesign. Just amazing experiences like that, all throughout the year.”

Heller returned to Wesleyan with a new thesis topic — “Ed Bacon’s planning method” — and a hunger to get back to Philadelphia. “I just really wanted to get into the fray.”

Learning from giants

Heller could’ve taken his skills — in storytelling and research, in analytics and photography — into any number of lucrative careers. Instead, he took a job with developer James L. Brown, IV, whom he’d met during his year with Bacon, earning $1,000 a month thanks to a small grant Brown had obtained for the position.

“Jim was one of the earliest African-American community developers to be successful at scale,” Heller says. “When he was doing his community development work in the 80s, it was pretty unusual to have an African-American developer rebuilding his neighborhood through big partnerships with established development companies, utilizing brand-new tax credit tools to bring large-scale equity finances into projects that involved both historic preservation and affordable housing production.”

Every morning, Heller would take the 38 bus to find Brown sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. ”When I got there, we’d drive around the neighborhood in one of his vintage Cadillacs. He had people who were sort of his confidantes, who would tell them what he needed to know about what was going on on the street. He really became known as sort of a father figure in the neighborhood,” Heller says.

During his time with Brown, Heller also met John Rosenthal, the founder of Pennrose Properties, which is now one of the largest affordable housing developers in the country, and Ken Woodson, the VP for community and government affairs at the Philadelphia Zoo. “John took me under his wing and taught me about affordable housing finance and structuring,” Heller says. “Ken taught me about the dynamics of working in a community like Parkside that is not just a low-income primarily Black and Brown neighborhood, but also where there were conflicting community groups that were at odds over key issues.”

When the grant money for Heller’s position ran out, it was time to move on, which led Heller to Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRCP). There, he was tasked with leading a research project on how to promote civic design excellence and selling it to the city’s next mayor.

After Heller’s team completed the report and Michael Nutter won the primary, DVRCP got it in front of Nutter and his people. It included a host of recommendations, including how to educate the public and city leaders about the importance of planning and design; ways to improve the city’s permitting process; how to more successfully connect planning and implementation and to evaluate impact; and how to be more effective in building partnerships around planning and civic design.

To help implement some of those ideas, Nutter’s team invited Heller to join their Planning Commission transition team. (He also chaired the Historical Commission team.)

After that, it was on to the Enterprise Center, where Heller had the opportunity to work for Della Clark to develop and launch the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises (CCE), a 13,000-square-foot food incubator at 48th and Spruce.

Community-focused affordable housing

Consulting and leadership roles followed before Heller found himself tapped by the Kenney administration to work at the Redevelopment Authority. There, he honed his skills working with communities that — for good reason — are often skeptical about development projects.

“There were some communities that we were working in that were really ravaged by urban renewal,” he explains.

Take Eastwick, in Southwest Philadelphia: Back in the 60s, the neighborhood was billed as Philadelphia’s “city within a city.” There were plans to demolish thousands of acres and displace thousands of people to essentially build a whole new city. But with only part of the plan ever completed, Eastwick is stuck with hundreds of acres of vacant land. The community is further challenged by the fact that it is one of the lowest-lying areas in the city, prone to flooding.

“I remember that first meeting where I went into Eastwick to try and undertake a community engagement and planning process. I started out by saying, I know the history of this neighborhood, I know how the agency I represent displaced thousands of people, and what I want you to know is that I’m committed to working with you to rebuild your neighborhood in a way that empowers the people who live here, and that’s done in a way that reflects the best interests of what you want for your community,” Heller says.

But addressing mistrust among residents was only one part of the job at the Redevelopment Authority, which often involved navigating the political interests of numerous competing stakeholders. “You had to satisfy all of the City Councilpeople, the administration, the developers, the communities you work in, and figure out how to find compromise solutions that actually get things done in that complex climate,” Heller says.

And yet, he says, “That’s what I really enjoyed about it — trying to solve for those problems.”

One problem Heller worked to solve: affording rent in Philly’s increasingly expensive housing market, in which 50 percent of renters in September 2020 had trouble paying their landlords. “We’re the first city in the country to launch a guaranteed income program where the amount of income that each household gets is specifically to cover its housing need,” says Heller.

The program — which served 300 people during its pilot and will last for 30 months — distributes cash via debit cards, no strings attached, equivalent to the gap between a family’s contributing 30 percent of its income to housing and the cost of that housing.

During the pandemic, Heller oversaw the logistical puzzle of setting up a system to distribute funds so well that Philadelphia gave out 43 percent of all federal housing relief money allotted to Pennsylvania residents.

“I got to have a private meeting with I.M. Pei,” Heller recalls. “Rafael Viñoly came and knocked on [Bacon’s] door one day, out of the blue, when he was competing with Daniel Libeskind for the Ground Zero redesign. Just amazing experiences like that, all throughout the year.”

From Philly to the nation

Now as a Director at Guidehouse, a global consultancy with expertise in cross-sector solutions, he’s bringing a lifetime of experience to projects around the country. The first project he took on at Guidehouse: consulting on emergency rental programs around the country. He is, after all, the guy who was featured on the front page of The New York Times and interviewed for CNN for running Philly’s program.

For almost a year, he’s also been working with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services to help with our state’s emergency rental assistance program, including initiatives like training and technical assistance to PA’s 67 counties. He’s also helping jurisdictions replicate another project he started while at the Redevelopment Authority, which involves creating nontraditional finance for affordable housing projects.

Throughout his work, he’s helped develop programs that enable people who’d ordinarily be denied home loans get them; he’s implemented programs that have shifted the city away from relying on grants and instead generating funds from developers; he’s designed programs that require affordable housing to remain affordable, and for the land these projects are built upon to stay in the hands of the city (not developers) and appreciate in value.

His call to action to Philadelphians, he says, is to push the government, at every level, to be more creative. “We have a new governor, we’re going to have a new mayor – and we have to hold them accountable to being more creative and innovative about how we solve pressing problems. Without creativity, you’re just going to keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

Building a village

Talk to Heller long enough, and you’ll amass a staggering list of folks he’s grateful for — mentors who have taken chances on him, mentees who’ve gone on to do great things, his wife (Diana Lind, a Citizen board member and author of Brave New Home).

“I definitely give a lot of credit to people who not just mentored me but gave me opportunities that in many ways I was not qualified for,” he says. “They believed in me and believed I could do it.” Now, he says, he always looks for opportunities to pay that support forward.

He also looks for opportunities to demonstrate that for all of his involvement within institutions, for all of his insider access, anyone really can make a difference in this city.

We can be a part of the solution,” he said during his 2016 TEDx Talk. You don’t have to be a wealthy developer or connected politician or a seasoned urban planner to make a difference in the built environment. As proof, he introduced a member of the audience, Chris Scott, who’d purchased trees for everyone in his block, renovated a neighborhood park, and brought together community members to create a Community Development Corporation to rejuvenate Parkside, the same neighborhood where Heller got his start under the tutelage of Mr. Brown.

“Let’s stop waiting for them to come and rebuild our communities,” he said, alluding to the mysterious forces so many of us assume have more power than we, as citizens, do. “It’s time for us to get together and change the system and start building the bright future for our communities that we all know is possible.”