Source: Next City
Date: June 10, 2015
Byline: Next City

Next City isn’t just a news website, we are a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities. Part of how we do that is by connecting our readers to urban changemakers and holding an annual Vanguard conference bringing together 40 top young urban leaders. Gregory Heller is a member of the 2015 Vanguard class.

Name: Gregory Heller

Current Occupation: CEO, American Communities Trust

Hometown: Philadelphia

Current City: Philadelphia

Twitter Tag: @gregimpact

I drink: Coffee. Definitely coffee.

I get to work by: Either walking to our Philly office or Amtrak to our Baltimore office. One of the first things I did when I started working at ACT was to move our Baltimore office within a few blocks of the train station.

The area I grew up in is: I grew up in Connecticut suburbs till I was 7, then suburbs outside of Philly. For a little while we lived in a stone farmhouse with horses in the backyard. But I think I was always a city boy at heart. When I got a little older I used to take SEPTA into Philadelphia for no reason, just so I could walk around and take photos of skyscrapers and absorb the urban energy.

What was your first job? Well, my first job ever was a summer gig working at Montgomery Newspapers. Back then I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I spent another summer working at Janney Montgomery Scott — an investment bank in Center City. I got that job from my friend’s dad and it was great. I blew all my summer earnings on laser tag at the Jersey Shore. I worked my way through college at a deli. I enjoyed challenging myself to see if I could remember multiple sandwich orders without writing anything down. Then I took a year off from college at Wesleyan to work full-time with Philadelphia’s former city planning director, Ed Bacon. That was an interesting year … I don’t have space to describe it here, though. Check out this story if you want to read about that.

So anyway those were all candidates for first job, but my first job after college was working for a community developer named James L. Brown IV. He spent over 40 years restoring a row of historic mansions in West Philadelphia into hundreds of units of affordable housing. I learned a ton from him that guided my future career in social impact real estate and community development.

What is your favorite city and why? That’s tough. I love Philly. I love New York. I love Paris. I love Lisbon. I love elements of so many other places. I have come to really appreciate the quirky, gritty Baltimore vibe, the authenticity of its neighborhoods. New Orleans is an amazing, special place.

What do you do when you are not working? I’m trying to learn Spanish, but I’m not being very successful at finding the time so far. Other than that, hanging out with my amazing wife, going for runs along the Schuylkill River, and trying out new restaurants.

Did you always want to be a social impact real estate developer? When I was in high school I knew I wanted to do something in the urbanism space — to improve our cities, but I didn’t know what yet. I didn’t realize that community development was a thing really until college and then it wasn’t until my work with Brown that I learned what it took to make community projects happen.

What do you like most about your current job? I love working with people who are so committed to making their communities better. It’s energizing and inspiring. I get to travel around the country and meet with community and nonprofit leaders with amazing passion, incredible ideas, dedicating their lives to bettering the places where they live. Every day is a refreshing learning experience.

What is the coolest project you worked on? Oh man, so many! We’re working with incredible people in Louisville, Kentucky, on the West Louisville FoodPort that is going to transform a vacant 24-acre piece of land into a cluster of facilities focused around growing the regional food economy. We’re working with a free public health clinic in Providence, Rhode Island, that provides care to over 2,500 uninsured people a year. We’re creating a fashion and textiles incubator for a low-income community in south Texas. We’re turning an abandoned historic school building in St. Louis into a hub of workforce training and entrepreneurship. I can keep going …

What are the hard parts about your job? The low-income communities we work in have a lot of challenges, and the projects we build are complicated to plan and finance. I like a good challenge, but I think the whole system for financing and building real estate in low-income neighborhoods is broken. I could say more, but that’s actually what I’m giving my TEDx talk about (on June 11th in Philadelphia).

What is the biggest challenge facing cities today? Poverty and inequality. We have incredible disparity today between communities that have resources and those that don’t, and we haven’t made a lot of progress at leveling the playing field.

What makes a successful leader? A good mix of being empathetic and being inspirational.

What’s your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)? I want to change the system for how we build community projects in low-income neighborhoods. So many urban neighborhoods suffer from poverty, blight, and abandonment, and lack basic services like a grocery store. The system for how we build and finance real estate is failing these areas. The system doesn’t work, and so we need a new one that values community outcomes rather than profit as the measure of success.

What’s the best professional advice you have received? “A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head. If no one gets to see it, it’s as good as dead. It has to come to life.” Also slow down. Be a good listener. And have a good accountant.