Celebrating AAPI Month with Greg Cerbana
Greg Cerbana was born and raised in Hawai’i and moved to the mainland United States in the 70s when his father was stationed at Fort Lewis. He explained that the West Coast is the home for a lot of Polynesians because it's the closest access to return back to the islands. Greg quoted current American Idol contestant, Iam Tongi, who recently said on the show that he moved from Hawai’i because “we were priced out of paradise”, a major problem for the native Hawaiian community.
“When people, unfortunately, are not able to stay at home, they adapt and form community wherever they land,” Greg says. “Hawai’i has been trying for a long time to reclaim parts of our indigenous culture, whether that's language, traditions, food, or beliefs. So I’ve found that we tend to stick together on the mainland to try and cling towards and revive some of those traditions that make you feel connected to your culture.”
Greg’s parents were founding members of a hula halau or school, Ke'ala ‘O Kamailelauli'ili'i in Federal Way. Hula is a way for Hawaiians to reclaim and connect with the stories of their ancestors or their kupuna. In April, the halauwas invited to participate in the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, which happens every year in Hilo, HI. As an invite-only competition, they were the only halau from outside of the islands to be invited to participate. Greg says his family’s involvement in the halau has helped him honor his heritage and continue to engage with the Hawaiian community in Washington.
As former co-chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force at the National Apartment Association level, these emerging topics are all very important to Greg. Reflecting on his career, he hopes that he can be an inspiration to other young people of color, specifically Pacific Islanders who may not realize their full potential.
“This is an industry that has always, in my view, created opportunity, particularly for women and other diverse backgrounds,” he says. “I'm proud that I started at the bottom as a leasing agent and learned the industry from the ground up. I think it’s proof that with tenacity and grit, as well as being connected to those that can champion you with their influence, you can accomplish things that you never thought were possible.”
Like many other industry professionals, Greg unexpectedly stumbled across the multi-family industry. After learning his wife, Sloane, was pregnant with their first child, the couple relocated back to Washington from the Bay Area to be closer to family. They both worked in retail management then, but after hearing about a former employee entering the apartment industry, he decided to start exploring his career change. Now, Greg has worked for a real estate investment trust (REIT), a regional third-party fee-based firm and a large owner-operator, and has served on a variety of boards and committees dedicated to improving the multi-family industry.
“As a young family, all the benefits working in property management were very enticing to us,” Greg explained. “Most people know that working in retail can be unpredictable, so things like a set work schedule, fair pay and a free apartment if you lived on site were all things that sounded great to my wife and me. I never would have imagined it would snowball into this.”
Greg expects that most people who have worked as leasing agents can relate to his experience. Many of the skills required in the industry are best learned through hands-on experience. His first few years were spent learning the ropes and developing new skills. He quickly rose the ranks in his company and felt that his tenacity and living on-site helped propel him forward. Eventually, Greg was promoted to regional manager for Equity Residential and stayed with the company for 10 years. After leaving his regional management position with Equity, Greg worked in fee management at a local firm for a few years before joining his current company, Weidner Apartment Homes.
Weidner has experienced tremendous growth since Greg joined in 2005. At the time Weidner had about 12,000 units, but now the company owns and operates close to 66,000 apartment homes. With the rapid growth, Weidner identified an opportunity to engage the public and connect with business leaders, elected officials and industry professionals to increase the company’s local presence. After managing Weidner’s Washington portfolio for eight years, founder, Dean Weidner, reached out to Greg to start the company’s Public Relations and Government Affairs department to begin this important work and connect Weidner to the community. He is currently the Vice President of Public Relations and Government Affairs for Weidner Apartment Homes.
“To be heard, we have to be our own best storytellers,” Greg says. “Policymakers need to hear from those of us who are on the ground providing, creating and managing housing, hear our challenges and our successes to support us. Otherwise, the narrative that others tell about this industry leaves our control.”
Greg accepted the challenge despite not having formal training in public relations or government affairs. He had some insight into government affairs, having served as a founding board member of WMFHA in 2003 and past board president in 2010. Outside of the day-to-day challenges when Greg was working in operations at the regional level, he said the main external challenges were connected to local politics. With his role at WMFHA, Greg said he naturally gravitated towards advocacy for the community, giving him the tools he needed to kickstart this new department. Now, Greg is proud to say that Weidner is participating in policy conversations at the local, state and federal level.
“I'm very humbled by the position. I often think to myself, ‘Oh, I’m just this kid from Hawai’i, frankly, I would rather wear slippers and shorts, than a sport coat and a tie’. But then I pinch myself, remembering I get to travel to DC to meet with elected officials or be on a first-name basis with a state Senator,” Greg says. “This opportunity to connect with people that have an outsized influenced on our industry and the knowledge that I am giving back to our community is a tremendous honor.”
When asked for advice for other young professionals looking to enter the industry, Greg shared the advice he gave to his own children: to be personable, approachable and a person of your word. Connecting with others and developing a strong work ethic early on will contribute to a successful career. He encourages those just getting started to find a mentor and emulate admirable practices in their daily routine.
Greg’s wife, Sloane Cerbana, is WMFHA’s Vice President of Operations and has been with the association for 15 years. While she was introduced to the industry by Greg, he is proud to watch her flourish in multi-family training and development. He’s grateful for the opportunity to grow with her within the industry, even though their areas of expertise differ.
Outside of work, Greg and Sloane ride their Harleys together, exploring the PNW. He is a part of the Kanaka Hekili MC, a Hawaiian motorcycle club with chapters throughout the islands and mainland United States.