CPE’s Stars to Watch 2019: Advocate for Affordability

Under Jennifer Litwak’s leadership, Housing on Merit provides services to nearly 5,400 residents in California, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Litwak, 34

Executive Director, Housing on Merit

Jennifer Litwak
Jennifer Litwak

Under Jennifer Litwak’s leadership, Housing on Merit provides services to nearly 5,400 residents in California, Ohio and Washington, D.C. Since starting the nonprofit affordable housing developer in 2013, Litwak has handled the closing of more than $238 million in acquisitions and overseen the development, preservation and renovation of 2,300-plus affordable units.

By one estimate, there is a shortage of 3.7 million affordable dwellings across the country, as tens of millions of Americans struggle to pay for the roofs over their heads. The worsening crisis is now part of a national conversation, further enhancing Litwak’s ability to make a difference.

Litwak built Housing on Merit from scratch with partners after serving as a litigator at DLA Piper and a public policy consultant with San Diego’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless. She worked out of her home for several years after starting the California-based organization.

It’s a surprising career twist for the American Bar Association member, who majored in sociology at Wake Forest University and went on to earn her J.D. from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Digging into housing and homelessness policy on the state level, Litwak realized that the issue hinges on availability.

“There’s not that much naturally occurring affordable housing,” she noted. “It’s very high-end, expensive, and/or it’s heavily subsidized in some way.” Litwak become fascinated by the problem of filling the gap. The complexity of structuring affordable housing deals also resonated with her legal background.

Litwak is especially proud of having taken her organization’s portfolio nationwide. Housing on Merit made the leap to Washington, D.C., two years ago, and now the 501(c)(3) is setting up shop in Ohio. “New markets are like a mystery that you have to unravel, so that’s really exciting,” she said.

The executive is also working to launch a think-tank project in Los Angeles called Housing Innovation + Learning Laboratory, which aims to pioneer innovative housing models and systems. She contends that regulatory barriers are often fatal to creative solutions, which can range from 3D printing and shipping containers to modular and prefabricated homes.

Litwak has served on the board of directors of the San Diego chapter of CREW Network for two years and is active in community service, including San Diego’s Consolidated Plan Advisory Board, which recommends policies for the distribution of around $14 million of public housing and community development funds to nonprofits and other organizations.

What Others Say About Her: “Jennifer’s background as a lawyer and experience serving at-risk housing populations has given her a unique ability to lead Housing on Merit,” observed Jeffrey Jaeger, principal at Standard Cos. as well as a Housing on Merit board member and co-founder. “She has also always been at the forefront of solutions to the housing crisis.”

“I enjoy working with Jennifer immensely. She’s creative, thoughtful and diligent, and she is constantly evolving as a non-profit entrepreneur,” put in Scott Alter, like Jaeger a co-founder of both the nonprofit and Standard Cos.

Meet the rest of CPE’s Stars to Watch for 2019—commercial real estate’s top young talent.