Nicolas P. Retsinas

Nicolas P. Retsinas, a senior lecturer in real estate at the Harvard Business School and director emeritus of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, talks with Shelterforce about his long service in the housing field.

You’ve had a very influential voice in the government and private sectors. How do you navigate the conflicting needs of those driven by social justice and others who are driven by the bottom line. How do you inject equity and get everyone to agree?

I don’t know that I would agree with your premise that I’ve been influential. But I think part of it is trying to explain that they’re not conflicting, that social justice, social equity, making sure people have access and opportunity, is part of a prosperous, thriving, functioning economy and a functioning marketplace. We’ve got to be able to find a way to prosper as a country, but at the same time make sure people aren’t left behind, because if they’re not brought along with us, they’ll be an anchor. They’ll drag us, they’ll drag the economy and the market going forward.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University is one of the most important sources of housing information in the country. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences there?

The Joint Center is a wonderful institution that has a long and glorious history. When I joined the Joint Center in 1998 it was clear to me that it could be an even more important platform, not just producing its signature report, The State of the Nation’s Housing, but really being a place where people from diverse backgrounds, perspectives, [and] circumstances could go and get the same information. Putting sunlight on the marketplace and on all the housing information that we have was very, very important.

We’ve always stopped short of advocating a particular policy. Our notion is that if we give the information, if we talk about what the trends are, and if there’s an agreement on these trends, then it would be possible to garner a consensus going forward.

What do you see as the accomplishments of the nonprofit community development sector, its challenges, and its role in undoing the devastation that the housing meltdown has brought to so many fragile communities?

Their accomplishments have been many. They’ve demonstrated to government and to the broader marketplace that it is possible to build sound, decent, sustainable, affordable housing in a way that is consistent with and supports broader community development agendas. That’s been difficult. Sometimes it’s not done as efficiently as any of the groups would want it to be done, but they’ve made a difference in many communities that the market and sometimes the government has left behind.

They have a real uphill battle in terms of trying to find a way to intervene in the crisis. There are a handful of organizations, a handful of communities that have been more successful in resisting the foreclosure tsunami. But I wouldn’t underestimate the challenges that they face, particularly with the broader economic headwinds.

What have been some of your most rewarding career experiences?

I’ve enjoyed getting to know remarkable people who I now consider my friends. It’s a very special person who gets through the frustration and challenges of affordable housing, and continues to fight the good fight every day for years and years and years.

I know you’re not comfortable speaking about personal things, but I have to close with one deeply personal question: What attracts you to the Red Sox?

I am very proud, as you know, of my Greek heritage. And one of the myths that I most enjoyed growing up and throughout my life was the myth of Sisyphus, this person who constantly tried to roll a boulder up the hill but never quite made it. And it kept falling back and he kept rolling it up and never quite got to the top.

What attracted me to the Red Sox initially was they were Sisyphean. They kept trying every year to reach the top and never quite made it. That gave me a great lesson — that there is value in the journey. Yes, you need a destination, you need a top of the hill. That’s what I learned from Red Sox, that’s what I learned from Sisyphus, and it’s been very, very helpful to me.

Thank you.

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