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Compassionate
capitalist

Real estate whiz Marjy Stagmeier is changing the lives
of her tenants, one apartment complex at a time.

Kids race around the yard of the Willow Branch Apartments, a modest enclave of 186 units built in 1972. They ignore the slight woman dressed in a conservative skirt and button down shirt surveying the property in Clarkston.

In one corner, girls trace an impromptu foursquare space in the Georgia clay. In the center is a lopsided soccer field where boys chase a turquoise ball that keeps slipping down the hill into a dry creek bed. A fast game of tag zooms past a communal garden, tall with leafy Roselle Hibiscus. And throughout the yard, slightly older girls walk hand-in-hand with little ones who beam at their more confident volunteer guides.

“This week we’ve got the Girl Scouts,” Margaret “Marjy” Stagmeier says, as she opens the door to the complex’s community room. She pulls her navy sweater knotted around her neck a little closer as a blast of cold air briefly musses her business-length bob. A Scout pours lemonade with great concentration into a rainbow of plastic cups lined up on a counter.

A tiny girl with a head of curls giggles, stands on tiptoes and grabs a glass before darting back out.

Stagmeier smiles. She is not a camp counselor nor is she an activity director, although her job calls for both skills. She is the owner of the apartment complex, bought in 1996, and her nonprofit Star-C has made this summer program possible for her tenants.

It’s not the only service available to the 700 residents of Willow Branch. There’s health care, after-school programs, meals for the children, security guards and more.

Why would a landlord offer all this to residents who pay less than $575 a month in rent?

She believes it’s the logical, profitable, moral thing to do.

Pioneers rarely walk an easy path, but Marjy Stagmeier is convinced her property model and brand of caring capitalism can transform communities and still make a profit for its investors.

Photo: Marjy Stagmeier at the Willow Branch apartments n Clarkston.


2

Making connections

Stagmeier and her spouse John, along with three cats, live in a tidy house with a welcoming porch and a beautiful garden kitty corner from the tennis courts in Ansley Park. The two bought it in 1998 and have expanded it, adding a second story and a new kitchen to make it truly theirs.

The couple met while running; they would pass each other regularly in Piedmont Park. It took John Stagmeier a few weeks to work up the nerve to speak with her. The unassuming couple are never ones to draw attention to themselves, but they stay active in the neighborhood. She’s served on the neighborhood beautification foundation and has been the president of the Ansley Park Garden club. He’s shared neighborhood beautification duties as well and served on the security committee.

Their house is filled with colorful art bought on trips and special outings. Family photos of their son and three grandchildren sit on side tables. But the heart of their home is in a hallway on the first floor that contains the most personal of paintings. Created by Marjy, it is a family tree, its limbs stretching over the walls connecting countries with photos of family members dating back to 1885. The limbs stretch all the way up to the ceiling where the couple’s families connect.

The family tree speaks to Marjy’s passion for creating connections, not just in her family but in communities throughout metro Atlanta.

Marjy Stagmeier literally wrote the book on making a profit in real estate asset management. “Real Estate Asset Management: Executive Strategies in Profit Making,” first published in 1994, is now in its third printing and was recently translated to Chinese. It’s become an industry Bible.

She is the highly successful president of her own firm, TI Asset Management, and is one of the managing partners at Tristar Real Estate investment. TI Asset management manages commercial property and Tristar focuses on property acquisitions and asset management, working closely with lenders and banks.

Her firm manages properties including a GAP in Washington, D.C., an AMC Theatres in Tampa, Fla., Perimeter Square West shopping center in Dunwoody and more. And she regularly puts her Distinguished Toastmaster skills to work as a popular business speaker.

So it’s surprising to hear the Stone Mountain native say she was shy as a child.

After school program director Allie Reeser gives Alice, 6, a hug at Willow Branch.

3

A clear path

Stagmeier credits her father, Richard Boring, for helping break her out of her reserve.

He was a serial entrepreneur who owned a wide variety of companies, including an electrical contracting company and an industrial supplies company. He also tried his hand at being a pig farmer and ran a Xerox copier tube refurbishment company out of the family basement, staffing it with the local ladies tennis group. He instilled his entrepreneurial spirit in his three daughters, all of who have gone on to own their own businesses.

“My dad was like the man on 'Sanford and Son,' but he had girls,” said Marjy’s older sister Kathleen Baber. “He was always taking us with him on jobs and having us work with him. The day we got a driver’s license was like a huge bonus, because we’d be able to help more.”

Their mother, Peggy Morton, kept their Stone Mountain home a social hub, often managing fundraisers for DeKalb politicians or fighting for some social justice cause. Her mother’s example gave Stagmeier a strong sense of community service, that and a game she dominated at school set her on her path.

“I was the Monopoly champion of Mr. Avryn’s sixth grade class at Hambrick Elementary School and knew right then and there that I wanted to be a landlord when I grew up,” Stagmeier said.

Her sister believes a moment of bravado in eighth grade was also a turning point. Stagmeier unexpectedly announced she planned to compete in the local talent show. The show was all but rigged to let the high school senior guys with their rock bands win.

“But there was this scrawny thing in pig tails,” Baber remembers. “This 70-pound weakling who looked more like a fourth grader got up there and did flip, after flip, after flip, going head to head with these tough guys. She took control of the stage and owned that crowd.”

When organizers called her back to the stage to award her the trophy and her check for $25, Stagmeier politely cut their speech short when she said, “Thank you. Can I have the trophy now? It’s past my bed time.”

From that time forward Baber knew her sister would leave her mark on this world.

Stagmeier went on to study finance and accounting at Georgia State. She earned her accounting degree and at her father’s urging got her CPA.

She passed it on the first try. But a lifetime of quietly keeping someone else’s books was not her plan.

“I always knew I wanted to run my own company,” she said. “And I always knew first I wanted to work for other people for 10 years.”

She earned her real estate license and then took a series of jobs that would make her a better Monopoly champion in real life. As a market researcher for Carter and Associates, she mastered real estate trends. As a mortgage banker, she learned the art of making loans. As a financial analyst at Laing Properties she figured out “the inner brains of how property really worked,” running internal audits and budgets for offices and apartments. At Equity Properties she learned more about due diligence and the art of buying and selling property.

And then she decided to learn German. On her commutes to her office in Marietta she practiced with a CD from the library.

Stagmeier got good enough at the language she found a partner with a German equity company, the Matuschka Group. She learned how to manage everything from a cornfield to shopping centers to hotels. By August 1994, the portfolio she managed was worth more than $500 million, becoming the biggest investor with Post properties and managing properties for the Rockefellers.

Many business leaders at that career juncture would acquire more power to earn more or they’d retreat into early retirement. Stagmeier was just getting started.

“I think she’s serious about being secure financially mainly so she can help others,” her sister said.

Children read books during the after school program at the Willow Branch.

Photo: Kamal, age 9 (from left), Royal, age 6, and Moises, age 7, play on the grounds of the Willow Branch apartment complex. In addition to the after-school program, residents enjoy the benefits of community gardens, a weekly farmer’s market, transportation to a health clinic and mental health counseling.


4

The silent crisis

Americans desperately need affordable housing. Over the last decade, the demand has increased 38 percent but affordable options have increased only 7 percent. It’s what a 2015 Urban Land Institute report labeled the “worst housing crisis for lower-and middle-income renters (the country) has ever known.”

The rule of thumb is a monthly mortgage or rent payment should cost no more than one third of a family’s income.

In DeKalb County, home of Willow Branch Apartments, 33,480 people – 28 percent of the county's renter-occupied units — spend more than half their income on housing. In Fulton, 44,302 people are in the same boat, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. Stagmeier knows these numbers cold and has been doing what she can to alter this formula.

She started the TransInvest group in 1994 and TI Asset Management in 1995 and quickly raised $8 million managing about 5 million square feet of property. Then she scoured Atlanta for an affordable housing complex that offered high return, landing on one by the airport.

Reading over the rental applications, she noted that many of the applicants were single moms raising multiple kids on airport jobs that paid $8-$10 an hour. She kept thinking, How do these women survive?

“I vowed, since I bought this property at such a good price, I would not raise the rents,” she said.

In the five years she owned the property, life improved there. She started by hiring the right onsite manager, a minister named Chadee Quick who came from the “it takes a village” school of property management. She got the broader community involved and started a volunteer-run after-school program and recruited the College Park Police to take kids on fishing trips.

The property maintained a 95 percent occupancy rate. Crime decreased. Property values increased.

“She created this beautiful management model that helped the tenants, but as a landlord, I also won,” Stagmeier said about Quick. A triple bottom line, is how Stagmeier describes it — a social, environmental and financial win.

But her next big enterprise employing this housing model threw the sixth grade Monopoly champ a curve.

    _Before Willow Branch, Stagmeier \(standing, left\) experimented with     site\-based social programs for tenants at a property near the airport and     one in Cobb County._

Photo: Madison Hills apartment complex in 2004. AJC file.


5

Remaking Madison Hills

Madison Hills apartment complex in Marietta presented Stagmeier challenges from the start.

On behalf of investors, her company acquired this blighted apartment community in 2006. They gave her five years to give them a return on their investment.

Nearly 200 of the 446 units were filled with mold and 75 were burned out. The complex needed serious work.

She wanted to renovate, but the complex had been the source of criminal activity for years, so county commissioners refused to grant her permits to renovate the damaged units.

“The children that were living there were living in a crisis situation,” said Dr. Amanda Richie, principal of Brumby Elementary, where the children of Madison Hills attended school.

The property was so unsafe, Brumby’s bus drivers weren’t allowed to drop kids off there, nor were teachers allowed to visit students’ homes. Most of the complex’s 200 students, who made up 30 percent of Brumby’s student population, struggled academically. Brumby was one of two Cobb County schools on the Federal Watch List for Failing Schools at the time.

“The commissioners wanted to condemn the property, because the school was failing,” Stagmeier said. “They thought if they closed it down, the school would stabilize since they would no longer have to deal with students from this blighted apartment community.”

She knew the families at Madison Hills didn’t want to live in this chaos, but their rental options were limited.

Stagmeier refused to give up. She fixed what she could without permits, adding new roofs, fixing the plumbing. She brought in security and the police arrested everyone with an outstanding felony, reducing her tenancy by about 10 percent.

She paid a visit to Brumby Elementary. Stagmeier had never before realized how much an apartment community could impact a school. Richie taught her a valuable lesson.

Transiency often contributes to a school’s failure, Richie explained. Landlords raise rent $50 or $100 and families have to move. A move may mean attending another school. This disruption hurts a student’s education. Test scores suffer. Behavior problems increase.

“Before I left that office, I told her I would help her turn that school around,” Stagmeier said

She vowed to keep the apartments affordable and, inspired by Chadee Quick’s success with the airport property, she started an after-school program at Madison Hills funded by her company.

The children were no longer going home to empty apartments after school because their parents were working two and three jobs to pay the bills. They had supervision and tutors. They weren’t getting into trouble because they were bored.

The students got structure, safety and connection. They developed friendships in the complex. That meant parents got to know each other, too. They started helping each other out, sharing rides or watching each other’s kids when a work shift went late. Knowing the children had a safe place to go after school, parents got better jobs.

Having a stabilized apartment community meant residents could contribute more to the broader community and to the tax base, Stagmeier said, because they were staying put and getting better jobs.

By 2012, all 90 children in the after-school program passed the school systems’ competency tests. The school went from one of the worst in the state to a Title 1 school of distinction.

Finally, five years in, the county came around and granted the permits Stagmeier needed to remodel the moldy, burned out apartments.

If this were the movies, this would be the happy ending. But battling poverty takes an ever-vigilant leader, and Stagmeier was forced from the watch. Her investors wanted her to sell.

“They had actually given me six years, instead of the five they promised, so we were lucky in that respect,” she said.

Stagmeier sold the complex in 2012. Almost immediately the new owners closed the after-school program. The rent went up, families moved out, Brumby Elementary went back on the watch list for failing schools. The complex sold again in 2014, again rents were raised. Again families moved out.

It left Stagmeier even more determined. Community, she said, can’t wait.

Photo: Marjy Stagmeier waits to greet children at the after school program at the Willow Branch.


6

New investment model

At Willow Branch Apartments Stagmeier is testing her model again, but this time she’s funding and coordinating the social programs with her nonprofit, Star-C. It seems to be working. Ask Zach Harrison.

A millennial version of Stagmeier, he started his company, Fresh Harvest, with a vision. His for-profit company delivers local, organic produce to homes and offices in the Atlanta area. With each order he includes an extra bag of produce to be shared with someone else who needs it. The company will also donate food on a customer’s behalf.

Once he moved into Willow Branch a year and a half ago, Harrison often shared produce with his neighbors. People seemed to appreciate the food, he said, but what they seemed to like most was the friendship that grew over shared meals. Harrison believes Willow Branch helps foster those relationships.

Willow Branch neighbors may speak 22 different languages, but he said they all feel like family. Children meet through the after-school program, which currently serves 65 children. Parents are outside tending community gardens together, which helps deter crime. A summer program keeps kids occupied in a safe environment when school’s out.

Residents are transported to the Oakhurst health clinic for medical care and provided translators. They also receive dental care and mental health counseling.

In July, Fresh Harvest started a weekly subsidized farmer’s market at Willow Branch and hired tenants to staff it.

Volunteers are a key to the success of the programs. They logged 15,000 hours in 2015 alone.

“Atlanta has the most benevolent volunteer community,” Stagmeier said.

The complex has had a positive impact on the neighborhood school, too. Indian Creek Elementary has gone from one of the worst in the state to the 79th percentile between 2013 and 2015. “That’s a big jump in only a couple of years,” Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry said. “Marjy has seemed to crack the code of working with this particular population.

“If only every complex owner did this we would have a much lower poverty rate, lower crime and people would be healthier. She’s living proof that conscientious capitalism works, ” Terry said.

And the good news is, this time she won’t be forced to sell it. She bought out her investors in 2013.

Now Stagmeier is spreading the word about her unique property management model. Star-C holds monthly breakfast meetings for business leaders and members of the community so she can share her experience turning Willow Branch around, solicit volunteers and donations, and get feedback from the community about her projects.

Meanwhile, Stagmeier isn’t resting on her laurels. She has started another non-profit called 3Star Communities. Her goal is to raise $10 million and buy more blighted apartments near failing schools where she can replicate the success of Willow Branch.

At these breakfast meetings she’s met a growing number of young landlords who are earning a 10 percent to 15 percent return on similar properties and who want to give back to their communities. She is eager to guide this new generation of property managers to follow her model.

“The money you invest in your community always gives you stronger returns,” she tells them.

Stagmeier’s face beams when she says 10 Willow Branch residents recently moved out after saving up enough to buy their own homes.

“This business model is one where everyone wins, not just the landlord,” she said. “If you take good care of your community, they will certainly take good care of you.”

Behind the story

Josephine, age 10, dances in a room of the building used for the after school program at the Willow Branch apartments.

ABOUT THE STORY

Freelance writer Jen Christensen first met Marjy Stagmeier through Leadership Atlanta, a group of citizens working to make the city better by connecting with city leaders and educating one another on the issues facing the region during an intensive nine-month program. They first spoke at a ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s costume party at the opening retreat. Stagmeier wore a ‘60s-era Delta flight attendant uniform and Christensen wore a fake red-and-white Mohawk, combat boots, a punk rock T-shirt and tight red plaid pants. Months later over coffee Stagmeier walked Christensen through maps and stats documenting the area’s affordable housing crisis and spelling out what she’d do about it. Her goal was to have 100 meetings, believing that her plan would take off after that. Christensen was meeting number 92. This is a story about the intersection of compassion and innovation and how it can improve quality of life.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jen Christensen has worked as a producer and reporter for 22 years, mostly in television. The Peabody and DuPont awards-winner has freelanced for the Advocate magazine, PainSolutions, Sirius OutQ Radio, among other outlets. She is a co-author of the books “Women Public Speakers” (Greenwood Press) and “Women Confronting Retirement” (Rutgers Press).