Published February 8, 2021
A philosophy major turned real estate developer, Connor Kenney has a passion for innovative development projects involving affordable housing and inclusive, master planned community revitalization.
During his time at UB, Kenney made it his mission to become an expert on affordable housing financing, participating in UB’s Affordable Housing Initiative and attending the New York State Association for Affordable Housing conference in New York City.
Today, Kenney is a developer working with Miami-based SAA | EVI, which is a triple bottom line company that pursues real estate ventures that benefit cities through inclusive community development. He represents the firm in New York State and is responsible for overseeing real estate development, construction management, and business development. Currently, Kenney is leading the development of over 1,000 units with a combined total project cost of approximately $380MM, including SAA | EVI’s $85MM 230-unit redevelopment of Pilgrim Village. The project is located in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Corridor and is designed to achieve net zero energy. Construction is expected to start in 2021.
Prior to joining SAA | EVI, Kenney was a developer with PathStone Corp., in Rochester, N.Y., one of the most active non-profit developers in Upstate. He was responsible for all tasks associated with developing affordable and mixed-income housing throughout PathStone's geographic footprint. He oversaw Skyview Park Apartments from concept origination through construction closing. Skyview is a $44MM 157-unit development at the former Irondequoit Mall. He also oversaw all development activities on a 101-unit LIHTC deal designed to achieve Passive House Certification and Net Zero Energy, which is currently a candidate to receive NYSERDA's Buildings of Excellence Award.
Connor is an active alumnus of the MSRED program, advises current real estate development students at UB as a professional mentor, and sits on the program's Advisory Committee.
Here Connor shares his inspirations for pursuing real estate development, outlines some of his current projects, and reflects on where his field is headed.
I discovered real estate as a field by happenstance. I was on the verge of going to law school until a family member who worked for UB at the time told me about the MSRED program. Now I cannot imagine doing anything else.
Going from philosophy to real estate development might seem odd, but I think it was a natural progression. As an undergrad at Whittier College (in Whittier, Calif.), I remember having great conversations in philosophy classes and then walking back to my dorm room thinking, 'Well now what? How do I practically use those ideas in my day-to-day life?' Studying philosophy helped me understand what I value and what I care about. I traveled to China and Taiwan after college and lived at several Buddhist monasteries. I am passionate about philosophy. I think everyone should study it. But, at the end of the day, philosophy is abstract. Real estate, on the other hand, is tangible. That was, and remains, very appealing to me. The real estate development process starts with a concept and results in a building that you can touch. You can then measure that building’s impact on communities and on residents’ lives. Ultimately, real estate development is a tool, a potentially powerful tool, that can effectuate meaningful change in society, in cities, towns and communities, and in the lives of individuals.
The MSRED program changed my life. I owe a tremendous amount to faculty members Mark Foerster, Dave Stebbins, Jeff Lipuma, Al Price, Alan Dewart and Ernie Sternberg and all the professors who shared their knowledge. Their efforts helped equip me with the skills necessary to succeed as a developer.
I entered the program knowing that I wanted to learn how to structure Low Income Housing Tax Credit deals. I read as much as I could on tax credits and utilized the resources available through the program. For example, Don Capoccia, a UB alumnus and principal at BFC Partners, graciously sponsored two MSRED students to attend the New York State Association for Affordable Housing conference in New York City. That conference led directly to an interview and internship with PathStone Corp., and then my first job in the industry.
I loved my time at PathStone. I learned a lot and made lifelong friends while living in Rochester. In May 2019, though, I left PathStone and started working with SAA | EVI. We have offices in Miami and Baltimore and, currently, we are finalizing plans to open our Buffalo office. SAA | EVI is a great company with a very entrepreneurial culture. I’m tremendously grateful to David Alexander, Ernst Valery, and Stuart Alexander for giving me an opportunity, allowing me to learn from them, and providing me with a platform where I can develop innovative products that help transform communities.
I have been fortunate. I’m working on LIHTC and market rate deals in a number of cities and States. I’ve made a lot of close friends over the last several years and have had great experiences. I can unequivocally say that I would not be where I am today professionally without UB’s RED program.
Ernst Valery, SAA | EVI's President, likes to say that we are planners first and developers second. In essence, we don't just develop a building and move onto the next one. We aim to create sustainable communities and build structural opportunities for the residents, and we do so while being guided by sound planing techniques and good design. When we develop affordable housing, it is our goal to create a product that is indistinguishable from market rate housing. I, and the whole team at SAA | EVI, believe that everyone should have a great place to live and we focus on communities where other developers aren't necessarily looking.
More broadly, developers have a profound impact on the built environment and the lives of those who reside in that space. Community building is complicated. There are lots of moving parts. I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations, but developers do have a responsibility to build communities that are guided by equity and inclusion. That belief is a core philosophy of SAA | EVI. There are certainly developers who don’t consider that to be part of their business models. In many instances that may not be out of malice. Maybe their development team has an expertise in a certain product type. For example, a development shop only develops market rate housing or office space and they don’t know how to finance LIHTC deals or aren’t comfortable developing in neighborhoods with certain socio-economic challenges. Be that as it may, there are still many ways for those companies to do their part and promote equity and inclusion. The developer could, for instance, instruct their GC to hire MWBE subs on the job site; build more TI into their development budget to give a business an opportunity and help pay for that business to occupy space; offer favorable lease terms; or maybe take a 12% return instead of 15%. Those are just some examples. The point here is that there are a number of ways to develop responsibly and be cognizant of social justice and inclusive development - regardless of the sector that you specialize in. The reality is that if you specialize in something then you can find a way to make it work. Developers, lenders, and investors simply need to make a conscious decision to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. If everyone in our industry committed to incorporating equity and inclusion into their deals then it would make a tremendously positive impact on society.
It might take a full semester course to properly address this question! There are many challenges and the challenges shift depending on where you are in the country. For example, the problems in Buffalo and Rochester and Cleveland are much different than those facing cities like San Francisco or New York City or Boston. In Buffalo, housing is relatively affordable – but wages are very low. In New York City, wages are high – but the cost of housing is astronomical. In general, though, two of the largest challenges currently facing the affordable housing industry are 1) NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard) and 2) zoning restrictions. Municipalities need to be upzoned – like Minneapolis recently did – to make it easier for developers to build housing in and around popular neighborhoods that have access to resources. The power that NIMBYs are granted through zoning laws creates a tremendously inefficient housing market across the country. This is a personal opinion, but I think it is poor policy to allow, say, twenty people who oppose a project for a nebulous set of reasons to prevent the development of a building that might increase housing supply by, say, 140 units.