The knowledge gained inside the walls of a university classroom will often influence what lies ahead in life.
Rochester Business Journal, by Kevin Oklobzija, May 9, 2019 - Bret Garwood, however, might tell you that the conversations in the hallways of an academic building can be just as important, if not more impactful, than what is learned during a lecture.
Just days before he would receive his master’s degree in city and regional planning from Cornell University some two decades ago, Garwood was strolling down the hallway. Pierre Clavel, the professor who taught him community planning, happened to come walking toward him.
“Oh, you’re the one with (an interest) in housing,” Clavel said. “I know about this nonprofit in Rochester that’s looking for somebody.”
“Two weeks later,” Garwood said, “I’m picking out apartments in Rochester.”
Just like that, a career path was paved.
Convinced during his pursuit of an architectural degree from Lehigh University and even during his time at Cornell that New York City would be his career destination, Garwood instead detoured to the banks of the Genesee River. He says it was a blessing.
He was hired to fill that opening at The Housing Council in the summer of 1997. Now, 22 years later, he continues to passionately seek solutions to the affordable housing crisis in his role as CEO of Home Leasing.
“The most fortunate thing that has ever happened to me, that changed the course of my life, was moving to Rochester,” said the 46-year-old Garwood, who grew up in the north shore Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Ill.
He spent 10 years with The Housing Council, then worked as the director of business and housing development for the city of Rochester from 2007 through 2013 before joining New York State’s Homes and Community Renewal program as senior vice president for multifamily programs.
Between January 2014 and March 2017, he and his family lived in the Columbia County town of Ghent, about 30 miles south of Albany.
Now he’s back working in Rochester, but with a private company for the first time in his life. He joined Home Leasing as chief operating officer on March 20, 2017, the first step in the succession plan that would see him take over from Nelson Leenhouts as CEO two months ago.
Garwood oversees 150 employees for a firm that specializes in property development, management and construction. Home Leasing owns and manages 2,200 housing units in 23 housing communities across New York as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland, and continues to explore new mixed-used, mixed-income, supportive housing ventures.
“We liked his attitude, his willingness to work hard, to grow and to run a company not just for the bottom line but for the common good,” said Leenhouts, who remains chairman of the board and is still in the downtown Clinton Square office every day.
When the official transition was announced, Leenhouts said his firm “went to the top of the food chain” for their next leader. This was no quick hiring process, though.
“We probably searched three years,” said Leenhouts, who founded the firm with his late brother, Norman, in 1967.
That’s because when you’ve built a company based on integrity, trust and a desire to make meaningful contributions to the community, then the heir to the leadership helm must be a perfect fit.
“I don’t have him under contract,” Leenhouts said, “but I’m hoping he’s here for at least 20 years.”
When Leenhouts first approached Garwood about the job, there was natural apprehension about coming on board. This is a family firm that employs three generations of Leenhouts. He wasn’t family.
“My first instinct was, ‘Does the whole family want me? Is there somebody that’s going to be disappointed?’ ” Garwood said. “This is a family-owned company and things are passed along to another family member. But I really did get comfortable that the whole family actually liked the idea of having an independent perspective.”
The real trepidation for Garwood was a transition from the nonprofit and public sector to private enterprise.
“My hesitation was whether I wanted to work for a for-profit company,” he said. “I certainly have nothing against profitable companies, but I was always very much a mission-based person.”
That he was joining a mission-based firm made the move seamless. Home Leasing is a Certified B Corp, meaning it adheres to high standards of accountability, effectively balances profit and purpose, and is driven to be a force for good.
“As I explored this idea and as I’ve lived it over the last couple of years, I really enjoy reporting to a family, rather than only a group of investor-style owners,” he said. “They take a much longer-term view than often an investment-minded owner would, and they care about the stability of the company, because they presume that their future generations will be involved.
“And this family, because of Nelson’s leadership and the family’s ethics and culture, their motivation is the impact they make in addition to having a successful company. Don’t get me wrong, we love growth and we want to be successful, but we talk a lot more about the impact of our work. We’re most proud of our impact on the quality of life in communities.”
Garwood contends he was destined to work in architecture and/or housing.
“In middle school I was re-designing our house,” he said with a smile. “I have always been interested in housing. I have no explanation why, it’s just always been true.”
While in high school, he also was doing his part to help others through a volunteer organization with the United Methodist Church in Libertyville.
“I worked with a youth group raising money,” he said, “and then we went down to the Carolinas to rehab homes for families living in extreme poverty.”
He knew while studying architecture at Lehigh University that he would someday be creating homes. Except the more he studied and the more he looked at society, his focus changed.
“In undergraduate school I was an architecture student and did a lot of design, but I also increasingly got interested in urban environment because I’ve always loved cities,” Garwood said.
“It was a slow movement toward trying to deal with urban issues, community issues, in ways other than just design. I started designing and it increasingly became about what it means to have a home, and what a home means to community; the impact of housing. A stable home really provides for advantages that are so key.”
Thus, the roles with The Housing Council, with the city, with the state and now with Home Leasing have helped him fulfill his ambition of doing meaningful work.
“As I’ve progressed in my life and my career, what I try to accomplish in housing issues just becomes an additive process,” Garwood said. “When I was a kid dreaming of my dream house, it was just about design. Then it became in high school and college, ‘Wow, a house for someone who doesn’t have a house, that’s key, trying to figure out solutions for people who do and don’t have housing.
“Housing is so fundamental in so many parts of our lives. I have simply tried to use my work of dealing with housing issues to impact more and more things.”
That he has joined a company intent on creating and managing supportive housing initiatives could be considered a perfect fit. And his master’s degree in city and regional planning comes in very handy. The principles employed by a city planner very much apply in housing.
“To me a city planner is about trying to figure out how to improve the quality of life and the vitality of communities in a way that benefits the people who live there,” Garwood said. “You need to try to identify problems, try to figure out why they’re that way, and try to figure out solutions and then figure out ways to implement remedies to those solutions.
“The mission of Home Leasing is to improve the lives of our residents and communities in which we live. That’s not just about creating the housing but managing it in a way that they can hopefully thrive increasingly over time.”
His rise to the head of a company firmly entrenched in the Rochester landscape is no surprise to his former boss with the city, Carlos Carballada.
“He enjoyed getting things done, and getting things done in the right way,” Carballada recalled of Garwood’s time in city housing. “He’s perfect for Nelson’s organization. He’s knowledgeable, he’s bright and he has a lot of qualifications as an individual.
“But more importantly, he’s a good man. He’s always trying to do things the right way, so when a project’s finished, everybody sees the quality of work that’s been accomplished.”
Garwood is thankful for the opportunities Carballada and Julio Vazquez, former community development commissioner, provided when he worked for the city, as well as the guidance from Anne Peterson, former executive director of The Housing Council.
“I’ve always had wonderful bosses who cared about me,” Garwood said. “There’s a really long history of wonderful community development organizations and innovative affordable housing practices in Rochester, and most importantly great people who are willing to help young people in their early careers and mentor them.”
Now he’s trying to pay it forward.
“We’re big believers in servant leadership,” he said. “Nelson is the best example I know of someone who is a servant leader. My job is to help the people who work for Home Leasing be successful in their jobs and successful in what they’re trying to accomplish. I marvel at our people and their expertise in areas that I only know a little.
“In some ways, taking over as CEO, I will be successful if I can simply be a decent steward of Nelson’s legacy and his approach and standards of doing business.”
That legacy is prominent in projects throughout Rochester, such as Charlotte Square.
“We’re very proud of our work on Charlotte Street and of our work that we plan to do on the Inner Loop,” Garwood said.
The next Charlotte Square project involves 200 housing units and rent will range from $450 to nearly $3,000.
“There will be 28 units of supportive housing for those who are formerly incarcerated and those who are frail elders and people with HIV and AIDS who are homeless,” he said.
“That’s the kind of work that’s being done. You’re trying to accomplish more than just great affordable housing. You’re trying to create a vibrant community, an inclusive community, an integrated community.”
Simply providing housing for those in need doesn’t meet the goals of Garwood and Home Leasing.
“Affordable housing isn’t just trying to create units that are affordable for people of low to moderate income,” he said. “Now we have mixed-used affordable housing projects that are often providing commercial services or amenities. Supportive housing that provides services for the homeless or people with medical conditions. You no longer are providing affordable housing, you’re providing mixed-used, mixed-income, supportive housing.”
The B Corp. certification is a Home Leasing hallmark.
“It’s a difficult-to-attain designation,” Garwood said. “The reason we did it was to get somebody outside of us to hold us to a higher standard. Now when we re-apply, which I think is every three years, we can actually see if we are improving. They score you and we can see, ‘Are we doing even better with our treatment of our employees, our impact on the world, our environmental stewardship, our transparency.”
Being better is a driving force for Garwood.
“I always want to be working on a project that is more amazing, more impactful, than anything we’ve ever done before,” he said.
Position: CEO, Home Leasing
Family: wife Christy Field; stepson Sage, 26; daughter Iris, 16.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in architecture from Lehigh University, 1995; master’s degree in city and regional planning from Cornell University, 1997
Hobbies: Spending time with family, music. Long ago he bought a record player but said he realized if he didn’t get rid of it, he’d die at age 60 when his stacks of records collapsed on him.
Quote: “Housing is so fundamental in so many parts of our lives. I have simply tried to use my work of dealing with housing issues to impact more and more things.”