Member Spotlight on ULI Atlanta’s Next Chair, Lisa Gordon
By The Wilbert Group for ULI
From real estate to relationship advice, we spoke with Gordon about her tried-and-true work ethic, passion for helping others and where to find her outside of the boardroom.
As President and CEO of Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, Lisa Y. Gordon knows the value of sweat equity. On Tuesday following Daylight Saving Time, Gordon woke at 5 in the morning for a workout, which really felt like 4 a.m.
“It’s a beautiful day in Atlanta,” she said on a call later the same day. “It’s a busy day. A crazy, busy day.”
Gordon is responsible for advancing Atlanta Habitat’s mission to create affordable housing options for working families and neighborhood revitalization. In this role, she oversees a $14 million operating budget, a team of 80 employees and 13,000 volunteers. She enjoys getting an early — and strong — start to her busy days.
A HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Gordon began working in real estate more than 20 years ago. Since then, she has grown her extensive résumé with care, dedication and community partners—the same approach Atlanta Habitat has taken to growing its reach across metro Atlanta.
The framework to her career began in Florida, where she earned a position in Broward County’s Public Works Department as the Quality Control Director in 1997. One of the first big projects Gordon worked on was the Broward County Civic Arena (now called the BB&T Center), which included adding an interchange to make the destination accessible. She not only helped with project manager components of building the project, but also the land acquisition — setting the columns and beams for a strong base to her career.
In 2000, Gordon moved to Austin, Texas to serve as the Assistant City Manager. Here, her career further took shape, as her assignments oversaw infrastructure departments, including public works and real estate, transportation, planning and zoning, economic development, watershed management, and internal support services.
Her work also offered a window into public-private partnerships, as she facilitated the master agreements of major projects including the Mueller redevelopment, a former airport site that was reimagined as a vibrant urban, mixed-use village, and the expansive Barton Creek community development, which includes more than 4,000 acres of preserved land.
“Many projects I worked on are now considered ‘best practices’ around the country,” she said.
Gordon’s time in Austin also offered a window into the challenges that can accompany large transactions involving the city and county. In partnership with Stratus Properties, the Barton Creek project required over 100 meetings with interested parties and stakeholders. During this time, she also oversaw negotiations for land to construct and fund major interstates, including Highway 130, Highway 54 and an expansion of Loop 1 to improve transportation infrastructure in metro Austin.
Another challenge she recalled was arguing with developers for 14-foot-wide sidewalks in the Austin Downtown Overlay District, allowing space for outdoor café seating and a pedestrian-friendly experience. (Spoiler alert: the spacious sidewalks won.)
“Austin was way ahead of its time in terms of walkable communities, preserving green space and putting the ‘smart’ in the smart growth,” said Gordon. “I remember the comments: ‘That’s going to cost us money,’ but it’s what makes the area such a nice, walkable place.”
RAISING THE ROOF
Gordon’s industry peers began noticing her impact beyond the Lone Star State, too. In 2004, she was offered a position as City Manager of East Point, and she moved to Georgia. Three years later, Gordon went to work as the Enterprise Assets Management Officer for former Mayor Shirley Franklin at the City of Atlanta. Between 2010 and 2015, she served as the Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., leading the opening of four parks, developing 11.9 miles of hiking and permanent trails, completing the design of more than 50 percent of the BeltLine corridor, and creating a multi-year strategic plan.
Each career transition added more insulation and siding to the build-out of her curriculum vitae. Then in 2015, a new door opened when Gordon was recruited for her current role at Atlanta Habitat for Humanity. At the time, Atlanta Habitat was only doing single-family homes infill development.
“They were looking for someone who would help the organization expand, grow and serve more families in a way that helps revitalize communities,” she said. “With my background in infrastructure and real estate and my commitment to transformative redevelopment, I thought it would be a great challenge.”
Under her direction, Atlanta Habitat moved to a wholistic neighborhood revitalization model. “We look at new ways to partner with other organizations, we’ve added services geared at retention of existing homeowners in some of the most challenged communities, and we’ve increased our number of families served from around 45 in 2014 to 161 last year,” said Gordon. “This year, we’re forecasted to help about 190 families, but we may reach 200 families served through the new programming.”
One of the most successful services Atlanta Habitat has implemented is the Repair with Kindness program to address critical home repairs for seniors and veterans by providing up to $20,000 for necessary improvements for safety and quality of life in their homes.
“One of the issues that come up all the time is gentrification. How do we allow people who have been investing in these communities for a long time to stay in them?” Gordon said. “The critical home program is really geared at that. It means homeowners can stay in their communities as the communities get better and see reinvestment.”
As a credit to the organization’s commitment to its refreshed mission and new leadership, Habitat for Humanity International named Atlanta Habitat an “Affiliate of Distinction” in 2017.
With new programs, come new challenges. For Gordon, getting the word out about how Atlanta Habitat impacts families and communities beyond single-family home construction — and raising funds to do so — is a daily grind. One of Gordon’s proudest moments came in 2016 when Atlanta Business Chronicle named Atlanta Habitat one of the city’s “Best Places to Work.”
“There were only two nonprofits on a list of 100 companies,” she said. “We don’t have the resources to do what for-profit companies can for their employees, but we do have a great workplace, a great work environment, and a great work ethic. Getting recognized in this way was a big win for us.”
BEYOND THE BOARDROOM
Gordon’s list of accomplishments doesn’t end there. In 2016, she was inducted as a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. She is an active member of International Women’s Forum, Women’s Affordable Housing Network and Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW), as well as a co-chair of the U.S. Council Advocacy Committee for Habitat for Humanity International, where she weighs in on policy issues across the nation with a group of fellow CEOs and executive directors.
“I like policy, as you can tell,” she said.
She has also served on ULI Atlanta’s Livable Communities Council and more recently, ULI’s Advisory Board. She was first introduced to ULI in 2005 through UrbanPlan, a program for students to learn about the fundamental forces affecting real estate development.
“While I was working in East Point, I met a developer who invited me to be part of the city council for UrbanPlan,” she said. “It was fascinating to see students trying to process complex problems and how the program sparked an interest in something they might not have encountered until they got to college or the workplace.”
Since becoming a member of ULI, Gordon regularly attends the Spring and Fall Meetings as well as speaks on their panels. She added that one of her favorite aspects of ULI is the rich content.
“When you get the Urban Land magazine or go to the Spring Meeting, there is always so much great information. It’s timely, it’s relevant, and it keeps up with the trends,” she said. “Being a member of ULI has helped me understand the constraints on the development community and how we can work together to have great projects. Over the many years that I’ve been a member, I’ve always felt ULI was a good use of my time.”
When Gordon isn’t working or volunteering, she enjoys her early morning workouts as well as a round of golf, a calligraphy class or reading to unwind on weekends. Currently, she has a copy of “Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein on her desk and Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” on her bedside table.
“It’s hysterical,” she said of the latter, a memoir by the South African comedian and “Daily Show” host. “It talks about his life, but also is a commentary on the social impact of poverty and what that means whether you’re in South Africa, America or other places in the world.”
Gordon’s wide-angle worldview can be attributed in part to her family’s origins, tracing back to the Caribbean. Her parents grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, worked in New York and later lived in Florida.
She enjoys writing, too. In fact, many people are surprised to learn Gordon self-published a book in 2008 titled “Love Legacy: Spiritual Renewal for Your Marriage” inspired by lessons from her own relationship.
“I had a difficult time trying to find a resource to address tough issues in our marriage and issues coming up for my friends, so I decided to write it myself,” she said.
This May, Gordon and her husband are celebrating 24 years together. “We did the work,” she said. Sweat equity pays off.
Please read the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s coverage of Lisa Gordon becoming ULI Atlanta’s next Chair here.