With a business background, Ethan J. Ceplikas assumed that he would be drawn to the practice of corporate law. Instead, he found himself fascinated by his real estate classes during law school and enjoyed his work in the affordable housing law industry after graduation. He spent a few years in private practice at Nixon Peabody in Boston before jumping in-house at The Community Builders in 2014.
Earlier this year, Ceplikas became general counsel and vice president of the nonprofit organization, whose mission is to “build and sustain strong communities where people of all incomes can achieve their full potential.”
“At the end of the day, when I go home, I’m proud to tell my kids that I am making a difference,” he says. “That really matters to me.”
Active in the American Bar Association’s Forum on Affordable Housing and Community Development Law as well as the Boston Bar Association, Ceplikas also spends “a lot of time” coaching for his kids.
He recently sat down with New England In-House’s Correy E. Stephenson.
Q. What drew you to The Community Builders?
A. I was representing a number of affordable housing developers while at Nixon [Peabody] and really liked the work they did. When the position opened up at TCB, I jumped at it. We are one of the largest developers of affordable, mixed-income housing, based in Boston but with properties as far west as Chicago and as far south as North Carolina. We own, operate and manage around 11,000 apartment units, but we also do more broad community development, with certain commercial projects and neighborhood revitalizations.
I really like being able to point out some of the projects we’ve worked on to my kids, provide some perspective for them about the challenges our society faces, and show them examples of quality, sustainable, affordable housing for our residents. The work that TCB and its peer organizations perform is really important.
Q. What is the biggest challenge for in-house counsel?
A. When I was at a large law firm there were experts on everything. So if an unusual wage issue came up in Illinois, I could call a colleague and get quick advice for my clients. Here, we face a lot of questions that come up and either have to find expertise or do some research to be responsive to our clients’ needs.
Since we have completed over 100 properties in 14 states and Washington, D.C., we face a lot of differences in the law in different locations. It comes up a lot with regard to property management and the different policies the properties have with regard to pets or security deposits, for example.
Q. What does a typical day look like in your practice? How have things changed in your new role?
A. It varies quite a bit. Our legal team spends about half of the time supporting new development work and projects in the pipeline. The other half is spent on more typical corporate counsel functions, such as HR, property management and managing litigation.
I’m really excited about my new role. A lot of the legal work I’m doing is the same, but the GC role lets me get a bit more involved in other parts of the organization, such as strategic planning and managing the relationship with our board of directors.
The position is also humbling. There are a number of leaders in the affordable housing industry who have come through the TCB legal department — including Jonathan Klein, our recently retired GC, who was an excellent mentor and one of the reasons I chose to join the organization.
Q. How is TCB approaching the housing crisis?
A. TCB does a great job of trying to help navigate the housing crisis facing the country. If you look in the Boston area and other markets around the United States, rents are so high and the cost of buying homes is so high, it is really tough for individuals just to afford a place to live and have a good quality of life. We are also seeing a growing disparity between high-income earners and low-income earners. These broad societal and economic problems facing the country are the things that worry me.
Q. What does the future hold for affordable housing?
A. One challenge that the affordable housing industry continues to face is the availability of resources. Although there is an increasing need for more affordable housing, the availability of resources isn’t increasing at the same rate. As an industry, we have to continue to work with government officials, private organizations and other partners to ensure there are still resources available to create affordable housing, as well as rehabilitate and preserve existing affordable housing.
Q. Will TCB continue to expand?
A. The organization launched a strategic plan in 2014 that we’ve been pursuing for the past five years, but we are starting some new planning for the coming years. We are focused on the markets where we currently operate, but we are always looking for other interesting opportunities that fit with our mission to continue to foster economic revitalization through housing and commercial space.
Q. What is your favorite part of the job?
A. One thing I particularly enjoy about being in-house at TCB is hearing stories from our residents. When you work at a law firm on an affordable housing transaction and you get to the closing, the developer goes off and develops, operates and owns the property; that’s the end of your involvement. Here, I get to help with the closing and then continue to work with the property once the residents move in. It’s nice to see the positive outcomes.