In the atrium of the National Housing Center in Washington, D.C., NAHB’s national headquarters, there is a life-size bust of Leon N. Weiner, the Delaware-based builder and developer who served as president of the association in 1967.
He’s the only NAHB leader to be so honored. But then again, there is only one Leon Weiner.
“He was known throughout the housing industry as ‘the conscience of the housing industry in America,’ and played a key role in developing housing policy and forging consensus at the national level,” then-NAHB President Gary Garczynski said in a Builder magazine obituary when Mr. Weiner died in 2002. “We will miss Leon’s outspoken, enthusiastic and effective advocacy for housing. Our industry has lost one of its brightest lights.”
As NAHB celebrates its 75th anniversary, long-time members remember leaders like Mr. Weiner, and younger members should get an introduction.
NAHB advocated for the creation of the Department of Housing, now HUD, in the mid-1960s during the Johnson Administration. Mr. Weiner led that effort, helping to convince legislators that housing was such an important player in the nation’s economy and in society that it deserved its own department.
It was just part of a career spent largely in the service of providing affordable housing for low-income families and the elderly, winning national awards and appointments and leaving a legacy that includes a scholarship program for disadvantaged students that survives to this day.
NAHB 2014 Chairman Kevin Kelly thinks about Mr. Weiner’s legacy often: He is chairman of Leon N. Weiner & Associates in Wilmington, Delaware, where he has worked since Mr. Weiner hired him in 1979.
“He was the smartest man I ever met, but you run into very smart people who love to let you know they are really smart. Not Leon,” Kelly remembered.
However, his personality did lean toward the bull-in-the-china-shop side, Kelly said. “When he was negotiating, he was hardnosed, and if you weren’t prepared, you’d have a problem, particularly when he was right and you were wrong. And when Leon was convinced he was right, 1,000 people could say he was wrong, but Leon would be undaunted, particularly on issues of principle. He would never sacrifice principle on the altar of profit. That was his moral compass.
“Leon believed that housing was a fundamental human right and the fact that there were tens of millions of Americans who were inadequately housed was a national disgrace,” Kelly said.
Kelly remembers one trip that he took with an NAACP delegation to talk to then-Senator Caleb Boggs of Delaware. They all had to wait outside. “While we are sitting in the waiting room, I keep hearing this voice. It was very emphatic and very loud and at times, almost lecturing, and they were talking about the Civil Rights Act. Leon was giving Caleb Boggs hell over his refusal to sign it,” he said.
In the 60s and 70s, Mr. Weiner conversed regularly with White House officials, including the president and his closest advisors, who valued Mr. Weiner’s insight into housing policy.
“Leon’s secretary would say, ‘Mr. Weiner, the White House is on the phone,’” Kelly remembered. It happened often enough that Kelly got curious, and asked her what was going on. “I said, ‘Is that, like, the White House?’ She just looked at me and said, ‘Do you know of any other White House?’”
In 1981, just before then-President Jimmy Carter left office, Kelly drove with his boss to Washington for a meeting with bankers about an apartment project in Maryland. But his boss had a different trip in mind.
“He got on the radio – this was before cell phones – and told the office to send the White House my Social Security number,” because Mr. Weiner wanted Kelly to meet the president. They parked at the White House. “We went through the diplomatic entrance and he said, ‘Come on, I’ll show you around.’ We marched all over hell and creation, walked through the East Room, and we met President and Mrs. Carter.”
Kelly was bowled over. Mr. Weiner, not so much. “One thing I’ve never forgotten is that Leon said, ‘These people are public servants, they are not public deities. Don’t ever treat them like a deity. You show them the respect the office is due and that they are due, but don’t you ever, ever act as if they are deities. Too many people do. If you feel strongly about your position, you don’t have to be deferential even if you are talking to the president of the United States.’ And he never was.”
For Mr. Weiner, it was all about the mission, Kelly said.
“His avocation became his vocation, and he began transitioning [from market-rate products] so by the time I got here, we were doing tons of affordable housing. We still do commercial, but 85% of our business remains affordable housing,” Kelly said.