Updated 6:41 p.m.
There hasn’t been a better time to be involved in Philly’s housing and commercial development scene in centuries.
It’s no secret this city is experiencing a boom. But how did we get here? And who’s thinking about the future? In this installment of Billy Penn’s Who’s Next series, which has spotlighted more than 500 up-and-coming leaders in various industries over the past three years, we’re highlighting Philadelphia’s most dynamic real estate, housing and development professionals under the age of 40.
On this list are are CEOs, Realtors and civil engineers. There are architects and artists, attorneys and nonprofit leaders. Community organizers and public servants. Recent immigrants and lifelong Philadelphians.
All of them have one thing in common: Through their work in the development industry, they’re making a lasting impact on our city — and may hold the keys to finding our way forward.
Read on to meet our 18 impressive honorees, listed in alphabetical order.
When the market crashed in 2008, Mahari Bailey was forced out of his job as a real estate attorney for big banks. Lucky for him, it worked out for the best. Now, Bailey owns his own company and develops mixed-use properties in his native West Philly neighborhood. He operates within a niche he calls "affordable luxury" — high end apartments, but priced lower than market rate. Bailey loves the creative side of his work, which sees him infusing art into each apartment he creates. Goal: Preserving culture in his community. "When I was a child, West Philadelphia was a predominantly African American neighborhood," he said. "It’s a goal of mine to keep some of that history and heritage in West Philly."
Catch the chatter about City Council's bill to tax new construction to fund affordable housing? It got shot down by Mayor Jim Kenney, but not before advancing in the municipal political process. Little discussed fact: That bill got started with the Women's Community Revitalization Project, which Christi Clark helps direct. In her current role, Clark helps organize meetings with Philly residents to discuss the housing needs in their community. "The thing I love the most is working with people and seeing the power they can have when they come together to take action," Clark said. "There's a lot of power in building a collective voice around community need."
For most people, buying a home is an incredibly personal moment. Ife Foy gets that. "It can be really stressful and intricate," she said. Foy has a background in acting, and originally pursued realty only to supplement her income. Then, of course, she liked it so much she gave up theater completely. Now, Foy sells most of her properties right around the very block where she grew up: 52nd and Market. As a longstanding Philly resident, she takes pride in helping shape the future of her community. "It’s come full circle," Foy said. "It’s so cool that people want to live in my neighborhood."
Carlos Herrera was just 16 years old when he immigrated to Philly from Venezuela — and he's been taking risks in the name of local development ever since. Within a few years, he started his own business, building residential properties in the city. "There are people who like to play it safe and have a paycheck every week," Herrera said. "I've never been like that. I like a challenge." He's built up properties in Fishtown, Port Richmond, Kensington and Point Breeze. Next, he's taking on a massive project: 41 brand new townhouses along the Delaware River in the same spot where a Trump Tower had once been planned.
Home ownership, in Katy Hill-Ott's opinion, should be accessible to everyone. In fact, she thinks it's one of the few ways for people to sustain wealth. "In an economy that seems so scary, so unknown," she said, "home ownership is a way for us to be able to retire one day." Her current work deals mostly with residential properties in the same Northwest Philadelphia where she was born and raised. She's invested in the community — both welcoming new residents, and helping long-time residents stay put. Hill-Ott got into real estate just four years ago, and she credits her entry into the field to some excellent women mentors. "I love working with women and helping women own homes," she said.
As a top PHA executive, Dinesh Indala has a lot on his plate. Every day, he manages 14,000 properties and a staff of about 800 people — including builders, property managers and engineers, just to name a few. That means big-picture operations, plus day-to-day operations and regular tenant complaints. When someone works that hard every day, you hope it pays off — and Indala insists it does. His favorite part? The relationships he's built with PHA tenants across the city. "I love any time I get a phone call saying that the house I provided is life-changing," he said. "It’s always good to see that what we’re doing makes a difference in families’ lives."
Juluia Jackson wants to help people get to know Philly neighborhoods like she knows them. She does most of her business in Mount Airy, Oak Lane and Germantown. Jackson's niche is first-time home buyers, and by the time she's done with them, she hopes they better understand Philly neighborhoods and have a property they're proud of. "I enjoy walking them through the process and seeing the end result," she said. "It’s being an educator, a counselor, a friend. It’s a lot." All that counseling has paid off — Jackson said after 13 years in real estate, many of her clients have become loyal friends.
Before a nonprofit opens an affordable housing development, plenty of legalese stands in the way. Joseph Jampel is among the Philadelphians leading people through it. His job has two defined roles: He provides legal services to nonprofits that want to provide housing for low-income Philadelphians, and he drafts economic and housing policy. Over the past few years, Jampel said he's seen some serious progress in Philly's affordable housing realm — for one, the industry is becoming crowded with folks who want to do good. "We have a lot more work to do," he said, "but it’s good we’re having the conversation and starting to get some policy in place."
When it comes to new construction, Bob Liberato stays with the project every step of the way — from the developer's first concept all the way to the ribbon cutting. Basically, Liberato works with the developers to build out their entire idea... virtually. That way, he can figure out creative ways to save money and time on the project. "It’s almost like debugging a program," he said. "You end up with a scenario with a lot less conflicts that you would have had beforehand." Liberato loves his job for a couple different reasons: It keeps him busy with multiple projects at a time, and he gets to make his mark on major regional developments. Right now, he's working on a giant research center set to be built at the University of Delaware, and two smaller projects at Penn.
As a residential architect, Lily Meier spends every day designing the future of housing in Philly. In her eyes, that doesn't always mean tearing down the old and starting fresh. In fact, her favorite part of the job is renovating existing homes — she delights in exploring the old ones and finding unique characteristics. "I love...the surprises you find in these older neighborhoods," Meier said. "I also sort of love the jigsaw puzzle of taking something that’s existing, and making it better for the person living there." In Meier's work, creativity is essential, and she's always looking for ways to be more artistic. She loves making collages, and she recently participated in a Mural Arts training program — Meier hopes to incorporate both art forms into her future housing designs.
Brynn Monaghan has only been in real estate for eight months. She graduated from Temple in 2010 with a degree in advertising, and it took her a few years to admit she was unhappy in the field. "I had no business spending eight hours behind a computer," Monaghan said. "I need to be moving around from place to place interacting with people." She started taking weekend real estate classes, got her license, and made it her full-time gig. Now she sells homes in neighborhoods across the city — Drexel Hill, West Philly, South Philly and Port Richmond — wielding a gorgeous Instagram account full of property showcases to connect with buyers online. That marketing degree's coming in handy, after all.
Avi Oslick first got started in real estate after being mistreated by his own landlord. Even small repairs required arguments to get done — so he figured he could do it better. He founded Avicado Real Estate, through which he develops affordable housing for artists in Kensington, where he lives. "I feel like it’s very important if you want to do something in the community," Oslick said, "you have to be connected to the community." Potential future projects include developing a grand exhibit hall at the corner of Kensington Avenue and Cambria Street, with ballroom-style show space, a cafe and a store for local producers to sell their wares.
Garrett O'Dwyer is all about building relationships. In his work with the Association of Philadelphia CDCs, he's built bridges between community organizations and medical institutions and helped insurance companies and healthcare nonprofits see eye-to-eye. From his perspective, housing and healthcare are irreversibly intertwined, and connections between the fields can improve disparities. O'Dwyer is currently planning a summit on the connections between healthcare and housing, which will welcome experts to Philadelphia in December. Said O'Dwyer: "We want to share with folks — locally and regionally — the models developed to address a range of different housing issues."
Real estate is in Traci Powell's blood. Her father worked in the industry, and she spent her teenage summers helping out in the office — so of course she's had her real estate license since age 18. At times, Powell has gone beyond her role as a realtor and actually helped people learn more about the process by partnering with nonprofits to offer free classes for first-time home buyers. Born and raised here, Powell especially loves helping long-time renters put roots down and buy homes. "If you are from Philadelphia," she said, "this is the time you want to get a piece of Philadelphia that you own."
Jodi Reynhout is working to stop gentrification in Hunting Park — before it actually happens. At Esperanza, a nonprofit that serves the Hispanic community, she oversees various programs and services with the goal of empowering residents. Massive development hasn't yet reached Hunting Park. Before it gets there, Reynhout wants to develop effective land trust models that give long-time Hispanic community members enough ownership to prevent their own displacement. "Gentrification threatens to displace people and leave them out of the benefits that others are seeing," Reynhout said. Ideally, she hopes the work will be so effective that in can be scaled to other communities — in Philly and nationwide.
For Palak Shah, the best part about leaving her engineering job and founding her own real estate company has been helping other people up. Now at the top of her own company after working her way up, Shah makes sure to hire diverse contractors — by race, gender and sexual orientation. "We truly believe that social impact and profitability should go hand in hand," she said. That mission comes through in her product, too. Even in her Section 8 housing developments, she installs high-quality materials — something other developers might not consider. "We found if we do it this way, tenant retention is higher and they take care of our houses better," Shah said. "Those things actually impact our profitability well."
When huge developments are finally finished, the focus is often on the structure itself. Although the physical facade and its interior are often the most noticeable changes, there's also lots of work that goes into the surrounding outdoor space. Mike Thomas is often behind the scenes...on the outside. He designed the sidewalks, driveways and parking lots at SugarHouse Casino, making sure the building was in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And thanks to Thomas, the building is a little more environmentally friendly — he developed the stormwater management system on site. Right now, Thomas is working on the new Ardmore Transportation Center.
Cherise Wynne takes her job seriously — but that doesn't mean it has to be boring. Wynne left her former position as a chemist because she wanted to have more 9-to-5 fun, and in her new gig as a realtor, she's found a way. To clients, she's called "Agent Lady," and under that name she finds lots of laughs (including that time she danced in the middle of Broad for a real estate remix of Beiber's "What Do You Mean?"). That, she said, is an important part of making the industry accessible to young people. "I help buyers and sellers in the largest investment they’ll ever make," she said. "I take it very seriously, but I also try to have some fun with it."