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Wisconsin Real Estate Program To Add New Graduate Track in Affordable Housing and Sustainable Development

This innovative new track responds to student and market demand

By Clare Becker | Photography by Paul L. Newby II

August 16, 2023

real estate students present their findings

A new graduate-level offering from the Wisconsin School of Business will meet demand for two of the fastest-growing topics in real estate: housing affordability and sustainability.

Debuting in Fall 2024, the Department of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics’ 12-credit affordable housing and sustainable development track will prepare students for careers in both residential and commercial real estate development with a focus on affordable and sustainable housing issues and financing.

The program will have a soft launch this fall, prototyping some of the track’s courses with current WSB students before opening for enrollment prior to the official launch next year.

The new track complements and adds to WSB’s portfolio of graduate real estate degrees, which includes the MBA in real estate and the Master of Science-Business: Real Estate and Urban Land Economics. Created in 2019, the master’s degree currently offers three specialized tracks: real estate core; applied real estate investment; and private equity.

“WSB’s longstanding leadership in real estate and ability to meld tradition and innovation continues with the creation of this new track in affordability and sustainability,” says Mark Eppli (BBA ’83, MS ’84, PhD ‘91), director of the James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate. “Our programs continue to evolve to meet the demands of the rapidly changing marketplace and to prepare students to lead across many facets of the real estate industry.”

Mission possible

Issues related to housing affordability and sustainability are alarmingly easy to come by, affecting both the average consumer and the real estate industry at large.

Hospital employees who must commute for hours to find affordable housing, for example, or the fact that landfills are overwhelmed with building material waste are just some of the complex problems around affordability and sustainability today, Eppli says.

“We actually have challenging dual missions in this—and they don’t always run parallel because if you want to have sustainable housing, it costs more to build it,” says Eppli, who founded the Associates in Commercial Real Estate (ACRE) Program while at Marquette University and is on the Affordable Housing Committee for the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago.

The new track gives students the tools to navigate this evolving area of real estate and builds on WSB’s record of success in pairing a rigorous core curriculum with an applied learning experience component.

Like WSB’s already established real estate tracks, the affordable housing and sustainable development track offers 12 credits of a concentrated curriculum in a vital area of real estate. Students also benefit from hands-on learning with professionals in their fields.

In the existing private equity courses Eppli co-teaches with Michael Brennan, students gain real-world experience by working directly with brokers, investment managers, and analysts, and presenting to boards of directors and investment committees. The responsibility is dauntingly real: Students work with WSB alumni to invest actual assets worth $4.8 million and make site visits to locales such as Las Vegas, Austin, and Los Angeles.

This type of applied learning will be replicated for the affordable housing and sustainable development students, enabling them to gain invaluable learn-by-doing knowledge.

The goal is to make the students ‘client interface-ready,’ Eppli says, by working on the ground with professionals in their future fields, day-in and day-out.

“That range of both verbal and written communication skills has really solidified our students as being best in class from a placement perspective,” Eppli says.

Students attracted to the new track might be working in—or preparing to work in—entities like Madison Development Corp., Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, the City of Madison Community Development Authority, CommonBond communities, Habitat for Humanity, and other local and national affordable housing entities.

In Eppli’s experience, individuals in roles with organizations that tackle key societal issues such as homelessness, low-income housing, domestic violence, and housing for the formerly incarcerated are dedicated to the cause but may lack expertise in other crucial areas.

“Oftentimes while they come into these positions super passionate, they don’t have the technical and financial analysis skills to build an income proforma or conduct in-depth market that are truly critical in order to be successful in their roles,” Eppli says.  

“We hope to change that. There’s not another program out there that we have seen that matches up to what we’re doing. And we looked around.”

Renowned expertise in sustainability

Christopher Timmins, who holds the Gary J. Gorman Affordable Housing Professorship and is a professor of real estate and urban land economics, will lead the affordable housing and sustainable development track. Prior to joining WSB, Timmins was an associate professor of economics with Yale University and a professor of economics with a secondary appointment at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He received his PhD in economics from Stanford University.

Timmins’ primary research focus is on the intersection of natural resource and environmental economics with urban economics. His other areas of exploration include industrial organization, development, and public and regional economics.

In 2016, Timmins set up a lab group at Duke on environmental justice topics.

“Environmental justice is very heavily oriented around the urban landscape and includes urban economics and the overlap with the housing market,” Timmins says. “I had been working in that space for a while, so the switch over to more of a real estate perspective is pretty easy and natural.”

Innovative, robust curriculum

Some of Timmins’ research topics will intersect with what he plans to teach in the classroom.

“A component of sustainability that I’d like to make sure we work in has to do with health,” Timmins says, noting that “healthy housing” is a big topic in the environmental justice realm. “Housing isn’t really sustainable if people who live there don’t have access to green space where they can walk and live a healthy lifestyle, or if they’re exposed to pollution.”

While the curriculum is still being finalized, Timmins intends to have a core class on affordable housing financing that covers the various financing mechanisms and funding sources used in that type of development.

A second class will likely cover the ways in which housing markets fail to provide affordable housing solutions on their own—discrimination and exclusionary zoning, for example—along with the consequences of these failures for residents who may be struggling to make ends meet. 

“The affordability problem extends pretty broadly at this point; it’s become a middle-class problem in many cities as well. But there are a lot of places where race intersects with income that make affordable housing even more of an issue,” Timmins says.

Other topics will include segregation, discrimination, income inequality, housing precarity, eviction, homelessness, and how zoning interacts with many of these to exacerbate the problem.

Timmins also plans on expanding an existing sustainable housing course to include a greater emphasis on how neighborhoods and access to housing can affect health, and how affordable housing development can better deal with challenges arising from the climate crisis.

A community for all

The affordable housing and sustainable development track will extend the reach of WSB’s programs and expand the knowledge of the next generation of real estate leaders, says Greg Reed (BA ’83, MS ’88), associate director of the Graaskamp Center for Real Estate.

“I think it hearkens back to the traditions of the program, but also the history of innovation,” Reed says. “To my mind, having studied under Professor Graaskamp, this is a very Graaskampian, very natural progression for us to go in this direction. He was always focused on areas beyond just the bottom line.”

Reed says there’s an inclusion component to the new track as well.

“It’s about making sure people feel included, that things are equitable, and that you’re not isolating specific communities from others but allowing people to live alongside one another, to live, work, play within the overall community,” he says.

“It’s definitely trying to create a sense of belonging and community for everyone.”