ULI Louisiana member Laura Woltanski is a Multifamily Finance Loan Officer in Walker & Dunlop’s New Orleans office. Laura, past Programs Chair, currently serves as Advisory Services Chair and W&D is a Diamond Sponsor of ULI Louisiana District Council. We recently sat down with Laura to learn more about her background, experience with W&D, and involvement with ULI Louisiana.
ULI: Can you tell us a bit about your background and what brought you to your current ULI role?
LW: I moved from Michigan to New Orleans in Aug 2009 to attend graduate school at UNO. I knew very little about the city, knew no one here, and had no idea what my next step was beyond my Masters of Urban and Regional Planning Program. After about two weeks into my second semester, Ivan Miestchovich, the professor of my only Real Estate Finance class, let his students know about a job for a part-time assistant with Walker & Dunlop. I applied, with very little knowledge but a lot of confidence, and got the job.
Through W&D, I was offered the opportunity to join ULI and get more involved and I jumped in head first. I was extremely involved with our programs committee and Young Leaders Group, helping to host a YL Exchange in NOLA in 2013, then transitioning to YL Chair. Since then I’ve become increasingly involved with the YLG on a National basis, helping to form an Advisory Committee in 2016 and formalize the Exchange opening it to all DCs in North America. On a local basis, I was most recently Programs Chair and am transitioning into our Advisory Services Chair as I served as chair for our 2014 and 2015 TAPs and assisted with the recent ASP on Charity Hospital. I love how ULI has the best of the best as members, allows young professionals to get involved and take on leadership roles, and encourages giving back to our communities.
ULI: 8 years at Walker & Dunlop – is it home now?
LW: When I was offered a full-time position after graduating, I accepted saying it would be short-term as real estate finance was never what I saw myself doing. I guess after 8 years, I should admit this is home for the foreseeable future! While many people know W&D as being one of the top multifamily lenders in the US (#1 Fannie Mae, #3 Freddie Mac, and #4 HUD lender in 2017, as reported by each respective entity), they may not realize the great culture the company has built. W&D was selected as one of the Best Small & Medium Workplaces for Financial Services, Best Workplaces for Millennials, and Top 100 Fastest-Growing Companies, all rankings as reported by Fortune Magazine in 2017. We operate on a first name basis, open door policy, and keep a small company feel. There isn’t a single person in the company that isn’t willing to take the time to help out a coworker, make a connection, provide resources, or serve as a mentor. I work in a very small office here in New Orleans but am friends with coworkers across the country and am involved in several different company-wide initiatives. These connections have become extended family and both push and support me as I move forward in my career. I couldn’t ask for a better company to work for!
ULI: You work on projects throughout the Southeast and are also very involved in the New Orleans development scene – is there anything that stands out in other markets that you feel we could do a better job with down here?
LW: Obviously, each market is unique and has a different local context that needs to be considered – available local resources, political and activist environment, availability of financing options, long-term success and sustainability of project, etc. I do think New Orleans is taking a smart and strategic approach with many things. We are a leader in historic and new market tax credits, implemented a complete streets ordinance in 2011 that has had positive impacts on current infrastructure projects, our mixed income developments are very well received throughout the City. There are also several large-scale topics we need to address. All of these issues have organizations working on them or small projects underway but there continues to be a need for increased support, resources, and efforts to tackle them as they impact the livability of New Orleans.
We need to continue opening up access to our waterfronts and programming the space for public use – think the Riverwalk in San Antonio, Market Square and Esplanade in Helsinki Finland, or Navy Pier in Chicago. The Butler hike and bike trail and boardwalk in Austin is a great example of programming waterfront land as well as incorporating greenbelts throughout the city and encouraging healthy, walkable cities. The greenbelt in Atlanta and Railroad Park in Birmingham are other successful examples in the Southeast. New Orleans needs to pursue more public private partnerships such as the aforementioned Railroad Park or LSU’s Nicholson Gateway Project in Baton Rouge. The region also needs to focus on efficient public transit that allows residents to get back and forth between their homes and work – MARTA in Atlanta and Capital Metro in Austin are great examples of systems that have been increasing their services and routes in the past few years.
We need to do more to increase the efforts of our local land trust, reduce homelessness, and increase the availability of affordable housing. Genesee County Land Bank is probably one of the best known land banks in the US given the circumstances of Flint, MI. While there hasn’t been one solution to homelessness, thinking outside of the box has seen success – Utah’s Housing First initiative provides homeless individuals housing for free, Potter’s Lane in Orange County turned shipping containers into multifamily units for homeless veterans. The city needs to understand the linkage between real estate development and economic opportunity – something I think NOLA Business Alliance is doing a great job with. And most importantly, we need to continue including all stakeholders in the discussion as New Orleans tackles these issues and moves forward.
ULI: What challenges are you dealing with currently?
LW: Besides rising interest rates? We’re continuing to see cap rate compression and increasing values. While this isn’t bad per se, many of our clients are being priced out of offers on properties. Buyers from out West or the Northeast that are being priced out in their normal markets are now moving into the Southeast, many without fully understanding the market differences, demographics, flood insurance requirements, etc and making offers on properties that are on average $5,000-$15,000/unit higher than regional competitors. The non-local buyers see these properties/markets as relatively low cost when compared to the markets they usually invest in, see them as great opportunities, and are willing to pay higher prices. This shift in buyers and property values puts pressure on property operations and the need for increasing rents, removing naturally occurring workforce housing, and encouraging the conversion of affordable housing at the end of it’s compliance period.
ULI: Any advice you would give to the Laura Woltanski of 5 years ago?
LW: It’s okay to say NO. You need to figure out what you want to do, what activities you’re interested in or will benefit you, and say yes to those opportunities and no to everything else. And don’t feel guilty about your decisions! I’m just now realizing all of this and the importance of being strategic. Understanding this 5 years ago would have made putting myself as a priority so much easier!
ULI: As we kick off festival season, would you consider yourself a FestiGal? If so, any can’t miss upcoming shows/events?
LW: While not your typical festival (and I sadly don’t get out there every week), I really enjoy the Jazz in the Park series. I think Armstrong Park is an underutilized space but I love it! The water features and bridges, Mahalia Jackson Theater, and so much history of the city and surrounding communities displayed in the statues and Congo Square. There is nothing better then kicking back on a Thursday on a blanket in your little space of the park and enjoying the local acts.