Ron Terwilliger is a legend.

If I were to list all of his honors, accolades and accomplishments, I’d be up here for an hour.

I’m guessing most of you know who Ron is.

But let me quickly review the highlights:

Ron built Trammell Crow Residential into America’s largest developer of multifamily housing and ran it for 25 years.

He’s Chairman of the Board of Enterprise Community Partners,

Past Chairman of the Urban Land Institute, and

Chairman Emeritus of the Wharton Real Estate Center.

Ron is one of the world’s most generous supporters of the cause we’re here to talk about today: ensuring that safe, decent homes are within reach for all American families.

He made a five million dollar gift to ULI to establish the Terwilliger Center for Housing and a $5 million gift to Enterprise Community Partners, which will create 2,000 affordable homes annually.

His hundred million dollar legacy gift to Habitat for Humanity will help 60,000 families worldwide get improved housing conditions.

I could go into a very long list of distinctions, like the National Patriotism Award, the Horatio Alger Award and the National Housing Conference Leader of the Year Award…

But, instead, I’m going to step aside and let Ron tell his own story.

It’s a story of determination, hard work and success.

And the need for us all to take action now, if we want to keep the American dream alive for our children… and their children.

Ron Terwilliger.

Saving the American Dream


I’ve been given a challenge today.

And I’ll be honest with you: I like a challenge.

The folks who put together the Home1 Campaign have asked me to come up here and bare my soul to you.

They’ve asked me not to talk to you about housing policy. Not to mention we really don’t have a U.S. housing policy.

Not to talk about tax credits.

Not to talk about the 50% of renters who are cost burdened.

Not to talk about how wrong it is that the majority of dollars our government spends on housing primarily benefits households earning over $100,000 a year.

[It’s entirely wrong.]

Instead, they want me to talk to you about… life.

About what really matters.

About accepting what life brings us.

About seeing obstacles as opportunities.

So… here goes.

I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, in an 800-square-foot house.

For those of you that aren’t developers… the entire footprint of the house where I lived until the age of 18 was less than half the size of this room.

My dad always worked two jobs, and there was not a single year in his life that he earned more than ten thousand dollars.

His day job was selling wholesale petroleum products.

After 8 hours doing that, he’d come home, take a nap, and then go off to his night job.

For a while, he was the late-night manager at a movie theater.

Then he became a Deputy Sheriff—which, for me as a teenager, seemed like it would be exciting… or interesting.

[It wasn’t.]

I inherited my dad’s work ethic, and—starting when I was 12—I worked all summer, every summer. A different job every year.

Delivering newspapers on my bicycle – really starting at age 9.

Inventorying furniture for a moving company.

Sweeping the floor at a car dealership, then polishing the used cars.

Laying sod for a landscape company. (And the extent of the training I received for that position was three words… green side up.)

No one in my family had gone to college. So it meant a lot to my parents that I would be the first one, but they couldn’t afford to send me.

Really all I cared about was sports.

I was captain of the high school baseball team and the leading scorer of the basketball team.

I was a good enough athlete that George Washington University gave me a basketball and baseball scholarship—a free ride.

GW was only a few miles from our family’s tiny house, but I jumped at the chance to move into the athletic dorm.

It was fall of 1958. As of January 1st that year, America had 48 states, and before the first day of Spring, there were 50.

That summer, Magic Johnson, Mike Pence and Kevin Spacey were born.

So was Nancy Grace. And David Kouresh, who would go on to lead the Branch Davidians.

It was quite a year. (Although, of course, I didn’t see the magnitude of it at the time.)

In September, about a week before basketball practice was going to start, I woke up one day and couldn’t bend over.

My father dragged me to the doctor and I was absolutely devastated when I heard this word:


It’s basically one bone in your back slipping forward over the bone below it.

Right away, I knew what it meant.

No more sports. And no more GW.

They wasted no time in sending me home.

It felt like the end of everything I cared about in the world.

But the obstacle quickly turned into an opportunity. My back recovered as if it were inflamed, and I returned to basketball and baseball, going to the Naval Academy for four years and becoming an academic All American in basketball and a star baseball player to boot.

I ended up going to the Naval Academy for four years, and I’m thankful to this day for the experience.

My plan was to graduate and become a Naval Aviator.

A pilot.

At the time, I couldn’t imagine a better career for myself.

But, again, life didn’t follow the course I had charted.

The Navy said no. I wasn’t ‘physically qualified’ – I had a bad back.

Another devastating blow.

At that point, I was at a loss.

Without too much enthusiasm, I ended up joining the Navy Supply Corps, which is the business side of the Navy.

I spent a year in school and playing basketball for Sublant, then spent two years on submarines and two years at the Naval Supply Center.

That five-year stint was all I needed to be clear in my mind that I wanted to go into business.

I applied to Harvard Business School, and I got in.

I left the Navy.

But I had no money and had to figure out how to pay for business school.

I had gotten married, and my wife was working—so that helped. The GI Bill and student loans took care of the rest.

Not only was I the first one in the family to go to college, I got a Harvard MBA. Imagine that!

I took one real estate course at Harvard, and I knew this was the direction I had to go.

I got a job on Hilton Head Island, working for Charles Fraser—who is sometimes called the “inventor” of the modern resort.

Charles was a visionary and a pioneer.

But the most important lesson I learned from him was in the form of a Japanese proverb, that I first heard from him:

“Fall down seven times. Get up eight.”

When the recession hit in 1974, the company went bankrupt.?I got right back up, and I took a job as CFO of a construction company in Texas.

But I quickly got bored there. I had been running companies, and, at that point, I wasn’t running anything.

Then I got a call from a business school classmate.

An opportunity got laid out in front of me.

I could move to Atlanta and launch the east coast version of Trammell Crow Residential, but I’d have to build it from the ground up.

They’d lend me money to figure it out, and I’d get fourty percent ownership in the new company.

The problem was that it felt like a big risk.

I was 38. I had two kids. And I had no net worth, although I was earning a salary that kept us pretty comfortable.

Making the move would mean a 40% pay cut—and the new venture was far from a sure thing.

But the upside was tremendous.

I was facing a tough decision.

What made the choice clear was an experience my dad had two decades earlier, when I was in high school.

Near our house, Bill Marriott opened his first hotel—actually, it was a motel—and he asked my dad to join him.

It was huge for a motel — 345 rooms — and it was in a perfect location.

Directly across the river from the Jefferson Memorial.

And close to Reagan National Airport.

(Bill Marriott later called it one of the country’s first “airport hotels.”)

But it was unproven. Marriott didn’t have a track record, and he had his own way of doing things.

The rooms cost eight dollars plus a dollar for each person, and guests had to check in outside, so the clerk could see how many people were in the car.

Then the clerk would get on a bicycle and lead the guests across the sprawling property to their room.

My dad was scared. He’d grown up in the Great Depression, and he didn’t want to gamble.

He said no to Marriott.

And the company that ran that one motel now has a quarter of a million employees around the world, with 23 billion dollars of annual revenue.

Saying no to Bill Marriott was my dad’s greatest regret.

Knowing that, the decision was easy.

I quit my cushy job and moved the family to Atlanta. If I was ever going to be an entrepreneur, now was the time.

Over the next 25 years I ran the company, we built more apartments than any other company in America.

Then, eight years ago, I made a change.

Up until that point, my life had been about success.

Starting then, my life would be about significance.

My new mission was—and today still is—to create positive change.

Working with Habitat for Humanity has been hugely rewarding.

I’ve seen first-hand, at sites around the world, how people’s lives are transformed by having a safe, decent home they can afford.

In the 42 years since Habitat for Humanity was founded, they have built or restored more than 900,000 homes around the world.

But tens of millions of Americans don’t have a decent, safe home they can afford.

And the problem is getting worse every day.

It is profoundly changing what it means to live in America.

When I was growing up, my dad was able to pay for our home—and our family’s other expenses—with his low-paying jobs.

Back then—and throughout history—hard work was all it took to live a good life in America. And that included having a decent, stable home.

The house I grew up in was not luxurious. And it wasn’t big. In fact my dad paid only $5,000 for it in 1941.

But it was a good home. And we didn’t struggle with the constant fear of losing our home that so many American families have now.

If our family hadn’t been able to afford a decent home, my life—and my parents’ lives—would have taken a much different course.

My parents had a dream that I would get a good education and have a successful career.

Through hard work, they were able to achieve their dream.

And I have lived the American Dream, to its fullest.

The moment when I realized just how true that is was ten years ago—when I was able to start a women’s NBA team, the Atlanta Dream.

To be more specific—

It was the—somewhat surreal—moment when we thought Dennis Rodman might be the team’s head coach. But I declined to pursue that path.

(It’s a women’s team—the coach should be a woman.)

The American Dream became a reality for me—and for my parents.

My dad didn’t have a career. But he was able to take care of our family—by working hard.

Now, even people with good careers can’t afford a decent home.

The idea that a paramedic or a medical secretary, employed full time, can’t afford a modest one bedroom home… that should frighten all of us.

People that train for hundreds of hours to get jobs in competitive, skilled professions absolutely should be able to afford a basic home on a full-time salary.

And people like my dad, who work in unskilled jobs…

The challenge they face is overwhelming.

This is why, four years ago, I launched a foundation with the goal of addressing the problem through policy change.

And, in 2015, we invited all of the Presidential candidates to a housing summit.

Not one of the front-runners showed up.

And those that did attend had little to offer.

One of them—Chris Christie—publicly made this statement about America’s rental housing crisis:

“It’s not the sexiest issue in the world.”

What became clear, over the past four years that we’ve had the foundation, is that we will get no traction trying to fix the problem through policy change—until people start talking about the problem.

That is why we—at least temporarily—I have disbanded the foundation.

And that is why we’re here in this room.

I now see that obstacle as an opportunity.

An opportunity to help people across the nation see the problem and understand what’s at stake.

An opportunity to create the demand for change.

Without this demand, we stand no chance of bringing about any change.

Today, we are launching the Home1 Campaign to break the silence about this crisis.

We need news media to cover this.

We need to give average Americans a reason to care about it.

We need to take action—right now—to protect the American Dream.

Share the videos you’ve seen today with everyone you know.

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The future of the American Dream is at stake.

Thank you.