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Little-known man built success in rental housing

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Posted: Sunday, February 4, 2001 10:00 pm

Imagine 22,000 people.

That’s more than the population of Galt. It’s about 40 percent of Lodi’s population.

Now, imagine providing shelter for those 22,000 men, women and children.

You are responsible for the roofs over their heads. The plumbing for their showers and faucets. The heaters and air conditioners that keep them comfortable.

A low-key company on Kettleman Lane does exactly this.

It is a unique firm built by a uniquely talented man, Joseph D. Michael, now 80. Michael has never sought out personal recognition, but he has quietly, steadily built an empire of rental housing from Nevada to Hawaii.

The company he founded, Professional Apartment Management, on Kettleman Lane, now operates 171 projects in the West and has more than 350 employees. Though Michael continues to serve as chairman of the company, his son, David, is president and oversees the daily affairs of the firm.

Joe Michael may be among the most successful yet least-known business leaders in California.

Richard Hanner

Slim and bespectacled, he has the air of a university professor. On a recent morning he wore a blue sweater, blue striped shirt, no tie, and dark slacks. Michael exudes confidence and expertise without a trace of arrogance. He seems a man of cool substance and few frills.

Reared in Stockton, he graduated from Stockton High School. After serving in World War II, he graduated from the University of Santa Clara’s law school.

“I really wanted nothing more than to be a general practice lawyer,” he said.

But a few years into his legal career, the path turned. Michael was asked to help put together a subsidized housing project. The federal department of Housing and Urban Development had begun setting aside millions for such endeavors. But they had also grown a thicket of rules and regulations surrounding the money.

Michael deftly penetrated the thicket. That first project, in Stockton, proved satisfying to both the tenants and the investors.

While continuing to handle divorce cases and represent criminal suspects, Michael took on another subsidized housing project, then another.

Over time, he became an expert on the esoterica of subsidized housing, the obstacles as well as the opportunities. Michael learned about insulation, about plumbing, about an array of tax consequences, about finance.

He learned, too, that he enjoyed the process as well as the results.

“I found it very satisfying to provide good housing for people with lower or moderate incomes,” he said.

With each project, Michael and his team of contractors, architects and accountants gained experience and confidence.

Michael steadily narrowed his practice of law while expanding the development business. He started building non-subsidized projects, including office buildings. Some were built with partners, some not. With his son, he began creating senior apartments and assisted-living centers. Their firm offered management services for other housing owners.

Still, subsidized housing remained at the core of the business during the early years, and remains so today. Michael shows a flicker of pride when describing these projects.

“I would defy you to distinguish one our subsidized projects from a conventional project,” he said. “In our years of building these, we have never had one go into default. We’ve never had one badly deteriorate because of deferred maintenance.”

Along with steadiness has come a flair for innovation. The firm is pioneering senior apartments in which two unrelated seniors share kitchen and bathroom space. “It nearly cuts the rent in half,” Michael said. Efforts are underway to start tutoring and computer training for children in some of the firm’s housing projects. The company provides scholarships for several of the children living in PAM homes. The secretary of HUD, in fact, recently honored the company with a national high achiever award for its work in providing subsidized housing and related services.

A key to his company’s success, Michael said, is the quality of management. Managers are carefully screened and trained. They are overseen by a hierarchy of other managers to make sure the grass is always green, the paint is always fresh.

In fact, Steve Pinkerton, chief of Stockton’s housing and redevelopment department, said many of the subsidized projects in Stockton, including Michael’s, tend to be better maintained and managed than those that are privately financed and operated.

“Some people say you can spot a subsidized project because it is of lesser quality. In Stockton, you can spot them because they are the best-looking and best-maintained,” he said. “The government now imposes requirements that virtually assure these projects will be good quality. I wish conventional lenders were as demanding.”

Michael gave up the practice of law entirely about 20 years ago. Though he enjoys golf and fishing, he remains committed to his company, to the job of providing housing for 22,000 people.

“And to tell you truth,” he said, with just a hint of a smile, “I just like coming into the office.”

Richard Hanner is the Lodi News-Sentinel’’s editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.

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