Moussa Diop, associate professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, claims to not have any hobbies.
He used to golf but hasn’t hit a ball in eight years. He likes fishing but doesn’t have time for that either. Diop does go for long walks but concedes that may not count. “Ask my wife, and she’ll tell you I don’t do anything for fun,” Diop jokes.
But talk to Diop long enough and it becomes clear that he has a huge passion for something, even if it is not technically a hobby. Asked why he likes teaching, he makes a quick correction to the question: “I love teaching.”
“Teaching, to me, is about sharing your life, in a way. I really like to do that,” Diop says. “I think there is nothing more important in life than making an imprint on somebody’s life.”
Diop, now director of the USC Casden Multifamily Forecast, has plenty to share from a life that spans three continents and just as many careers. He studied civil engineering in France, financed cocoa exports off the Ivory Coast, and pursued academia in the United States.
“There’s a continuity between my different lives,” Diop notes. “My interest is in real estate.”
Diop couldn’t have picked a better laboratory for his work than Los Angeles. His research largely focuses on how regulations affect real estate rental outcomes and mortgage securitization. Southern California happens to be one of the most regulated real estate markets in the country.
It’s also an area gripped by a housing affordability crisis. That makes his new role at the Casden Forecast especially relevant. The widely watched annual report from the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate assesses market conditions and makes two-year projections for multifamily rents and vacancies in Southern California.
“We tend to forget a little bit about renters,” Diop says of the report’s importance. “In Southern California, most households are renters, and it’s important to know how much rent is going to be for households because it’s a big part of their expenditure – the cost of living.”
This year’s report, released in November, projected moderate rent increases over the next two years for renters in all five Southern California housing markets, while warning of trouble on the horizon for commercial real estate financing.
The report is valuable to investors, property owners and developers who use the forecast to make investment decisions.
“L.A. is really the place to be if you want to do real estate,” Diop says. “This is an opportunity for me to get closer to the industry. I have to go out and visit the different markets to kind of feel the pulse of those markets.”
Diop’s interest in real estate can be traced to his first career as a civil engineer. After studying engineering at INSA-Lyon in France, he wanted to apply what he learned in his home country of Senegal. He became a structural design engineer who for four years worked on residential buildings and infrastructure projects, such as giant water tanks.
But the job grew boring with repetitive work and not much new to learn. Diop decided to do something else with his life, which brought him to the U.S., where earned an MBA in finance from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Once again, he brought his education back to Africa. Diop worked in merchant banking, financing commodity trading in and out of the continent. The job allowed him to travel the world to meet clients and understand their businesses. He eventually became a vice president of corporate banking for HSBC Bank.
But once again, Diop felt he needed to pivot. He and his wife wondered where the best place would be for their children’s education. They decided that was the U.S., but moving there presented a host of challenges. Diop’s banking experience wasn’t relevant in the U.S., and pursuing further education meant moving his family into the tight quarters of graduate housing and living off their family savings.
“We had to cut expenses and lower our living standards. That was really the most challenging part,” Diop says. “I was more concerned about just making sure that the family would be okay. I was lucky enough to have a family, a wife who believed in me.”
So Diop began his next career as an academic, ultimately obtaining a PhD in Business Administration at Penn State University. Although the PhD allows him to research, his motivation all along was to become a teacher. “That would allow me to also get closer to my kids to help them with their education,” he recalls thinking.
Now an associate professor, Diop is living what he calls “the third iteration” of his life.
A few years ago, Diop’s research reached a conclusion so surprising that he was convinced he screwed up.
As marijuana legalization started to sweep the country, Diop and his colleagues examined how converting medical marijuana dispensaries to retail pot shops in Denver had affected home prices. Diop expected house values to suffer, given their proximity to what was only recently illegal narcotics. The research proved the opposite: single-family residences close to the converted marijuana shops increased in value by approximately 8%, compared to houses that were located farther away.
“The first time we saw that we said, ‘We must be wrong. It doesn’t make sense,’” Diop recalled.
Diop and his colleagues added as many controls as they could to their study, but the results remained the same. “We couldn’t kill it,” Diop says. “Now the challenge was: how do you explain it?”
His best guess: the rising home prices may reflect the gentrification of those neighborhoods, with the new marijuana stores serving the new higher-income residents.
For Diop, the finding is an example of the best kind of research.
“When you find something that’s really unexpected, it’s more interesting to report,” Diop says. “Oftentimes, I think you have some view of the world and you go test the data, and the data tells you something else.”
The research is great, but teaching is the real reason Diop does this job.
“Teaching, for me, is all about sharing knowledge – including learning from your students,” Diop says. “I really value that quite a lot, and getting to meet a lot of students and to, in a way, contribute to shaping their future.”
By teaching, he forms long-term relationships with students. Even if he doesn’t hear from them until long after they leave his classroom – if at all – he feels that connection is always there. From time to time, one of them will send him a message on LinkedIn. It’s always gratifying.
“You see the kids when they first walk into your classroom. At the end of the semester when they leave your classroom, you can tell the difference you have made,” Diop says. “There is nothing, I think, more rewarding than that.”