How to get a Master’s in Affordable Housing?

By: Janaki Kibe, Project Manager

I live in Boston, Massachusetts, part of a larger metropolitan area that is home to over eight universities, including Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Tufts, Northeastern, Brandeis, and University of Massachusetts – Boston. Despite the plethora of academic types and abundance of obscure course titles (i.e. “Alien Worlds” – yes a real course offered at Boston University), I haven’t found a school yet that offers a Masters in Affordable Housing. (And yes, I have looked).mad_scientist

Yet, with my inherent Tiger Mother DNA and the endless enthusiasm of my mad-scientist boss, David Smith, my colleagues and I have been stealthily crafting our own unofficial Master’s in Affordable Housing.


After much anticipation—I know you were anticipating it—I am ready to unveil the curriculum.

Course 1: SUP-665 Real Estate Finance and Development Fundamentals

Harvard Graduate School of Design or Harvard Kennedy School

Professor: Ed MarchantHarvard_gsd

Ed Marchant, an enthusiastic practitioner (read: actually worked in the field!) and real estate teacher extraordinaire, is a wonderful person to introduce you to the world of real estate development, and really, aren’t we all in need of such a person? In Marchant’s class, which is offered in the fall, you’ll build your own pro formas, calculate IRRs and NPVs, and understand how discount rates impact your returns. The class is a mix of students who have worked in real estate and finance and then the rest of us, who are pretty much akin to blank stares, I mean slates. While the first few weeks of the course may be overwhelming—Marchant has a tendency to surprise students with a slew of rapid-fire questions “What is the IRR? What happens when vacancy rates increase by 2%? What does 40B say?”—there will be a eureka moment when things fall into place and you realize, “Geez! This is amazing!”. And that’s when the fun starts. I definitely recommend this course for anyone who has an inkling that they are interested in real estate and wants to understand what the heck people mean when they say NPV!

Course 2: SUP-666 Affordable and Mixed-Income Housing Development, Finance, and Management

Harvard Graduate School of Design

Professor: Ed Marchant

In the Spring, you can follow up on your newly developed real estate skills by taking Marchant’s Affordable and Mixed-Income Housing course, which is offered at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). In addition to learning a heck of a lot about subsidies and financing for affordable housing development in the US, students also have the opportunity to participate in an affordable housing development competition. In our small office in Boston, four of us participated in this competition over the last four years—and three placed a prestigious second in the competition. One claims that she was fourth place (note: they only give awards for the top three places). The competition is great. You form a student team comprised of architects, planners, MBAs, and the occasional policy folk, are paired with an actual Community Development Corporation, and are given the task of creating a development proposal for a specific site in the Greater Boston metropolitan area. The proposals must be architecturally and economically feasible and desirable. For most of us students, it was the first time that we were working on “real” projects and the opportunity to deal with real world constraints rather than theoretical ones was appealing.

AHI Staff win 2nd place at the Boston Affordable Housing Development Competition

Course 3: Real Estate in Frontier Markets

Harvard Business School

Professor Nic Retsinas

After taking the two Marchant classes you should have a solid understanding of real estate fundamentals and may find yourself itching to apply some of your real estate skills in the exotic emerging markets. If you find yourself in that scenario, you should happily embrace Professor Retsinas’ Real Estate in Frontier Markets at the Harvard Business School. (Full disclaimer: You may have to change from the ironic hipster t-shirts you wore to the GSD to JCrew slacks to match your fellow students).

Professor Retsinas’ class is structured as a series of case studies focused on different countries and different types of real estate asset classes. We read about actual deals covering everything from slum upgradation in Mumbai to luxury condominium development in Europe, and even heard about Magic Johnson’s investment in urban neighborhoods around the country. Professor Retsinas organizes many visitors so nearly 80% of classes have a guest speaker who is a central character in the development. I always enjoyed listening to the guests share the rationale behind their decision making.

Course 4: International Housing Finance Course

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Professor Marja Hoek-Smit

Now, if you’ve really got the housing bug the capstone is dwharton_schoolefinitely attending Wharton’s International Housing Finance Course at UPenn. My colleague, Duong, and I attended this 9-day course last week and loved it. We were in a class of 50 students comprised of mid to senior-level executives (bankers, developers, and Ministry of Housing-Settlement-Development folk) who were all passionate about housing finance and figuring out how to make housing systems more efficient in their respective countries. Our year had sizeable contingents from Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, and Thailand. Over the course of 9 days, we learned about the attributes of successful housing markets, housing policies, and housing finance systems. We also learned about the failures of certain housing initiatives. I always prefer listening to guests over reading text books (I know, I am a real new age learner), and Professor Marja was wonderful in arranging an array of guest lecturers who accounted real life housing choices and their implications.

One of my favorite guests was Sean Closkey, President of The Reinvestment Fund (TRF). TRF is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that invests capital in poor neighborhoods in the aim of helping spur neighborhood revitalization. What makes TRF particularly unique is that they have developed a very strong analytical mapping tool that helps them decide where to invest and also later assists them in evaluating whether their investments are “successful.” Their policy map is unique and a great tool to make sure that scare resources—ehem money—are used effectively and efficiently. In many of the countries where we work—India, Haiti—finding good, reliable, data on housing is extremely difficult. There generally aren’t housing indices and finding any sort of data on house prices at a granular house-level basis is challenging if not non-existent. The policy map is a great tool for governments to strive to develop over time and, I think, could be very lucrative for developers who know how to use it.

Another guest I really enjoyed was Soula Proxenos of the International Housing Solutions, a PE fund that invests in affordable housing developments in South Africa and its neighboring countries. IHS targets markets with high housing demand and stable political and economic landscapes. Fund I – The South Africa Workforce Housing Fund is closed and IHS is currently raising funds for Fund II.

Lastly, I can’t end this blog without mentioning Alejandro Murat, CEO of Infonavit, the largest mortgage lender in Mexico. Mr. Murat came to our class to talk about the changes in Mexico’s housing policy and the implications for Infonavit and housing development going forward. Mexico City is a sprawling city of 8.9 million people. Most of that sprawl has been made possible through the PAN government’s support of cheap social housing that was built on the outskirts of cities.

“The premise of a new life in a new home, away from the crime-ridden inner cities was enough to appeal to millions of Mexicans during this this period, who were initially willing to move far into the outskirts (as far as 30 km from the city center) and accept a smaller house (as small as 32 m2) than the one they left behind. With the public housing agencies (INFONAVIT and FOVISSSTE) dishing out subsidized mortgages at record low prices, it seemed like there was never a better time to buy.” Source:

Unfortunately, by the time the 2009 crisis rolled around, residentAbandoned houses in Mexicos were no longer in favor of long commutes to houses that often lacked infrastructure and services. As a result, many residents decided to abandon their houses and move back into the city –closer to their jobs, social networks and transportation. Today, 5.5 million homes lie vacant across peri-urban areas in Mexico.

President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, which is part of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), came to power in 2012 and shifted the direction of housing policy in Mexico. Recognizing the social and economic problems of building houses that are disconnected from infrastructure, jobs and transit, the PRI government has shifted the policy focus to spurring vertical (i.e. high-rise) development closer to city centers. Unfortunately, this has been bad news for some of the country’s biggest home builders, Urbi, Cases GEO and Homex, which had bought large tracks of cheap land under the previous government.

Stocks of Mexican homebuilders have dropped sharplyWith the poise of someone truly adept at answering difficult questions, Mr. Murat spoke about the implications of the policy changes on Infonavit, including the need for better coordination and facilitation between housing entities, the push to develop rental housing as a housing option that offers greater labor mobility and flexibility to households, and lastly a shift to find ways to retrofit and upgrade existing housing stock rather than continually focusing on new housing.

So, after writing far more than I intended, I would like to offer our loyal readers to contribute with their own suggestions of courses, articles or books that have been particularly meaning in shaping your own Master’s in Affordable Housing.

Me with Professor Marja and the Mortgage Professor

2 thoughts on “How to get a Master’s in Affordable Housing?

  1. Shaiek Coe

    How does the course help in real life situations.
    We have been working on an affordable housing solution in South Africa. What makes housing expensive is the cost and location of land. Material and labour whether in upmarket or downtown cost more or less the same. The industrialisation of the building processes is the future of construction. The biggest cost in any development that is infrastructure and bulk services are buried in the ground and is handed over to the local government for collection in the form of rates and taxes. There are no incentives for developers who has to sign away everything they own to the banks.

    1. Laura

      I can not agree more with you Shalek. It is the land that makes prices skyrocket. It has been happening in advanced as well as developing countries. The biggest problems are probably the gentrification of poor areas, and heavy investment in rich ones. This only supports inequality and makes the whole situation even worse. The whole idea of the affordable housing suffers from the very starstart, frome initial expenses that are highly exagerrated.


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