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The promise of real estate entrepreneurialism in Philadelphia

Tayyib Smith and Andy Rachlin ask: How do we enable a generation of small developers to do enough that, taken together, their work has an impact at the scale of our city?

The view of Center City Philadelphia from Northern Liberties. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

This essay was originally published via ImpactPHL Perspectives, a multi-part series exploring the many facets of the impact economy from the perspectives of its doers, movers, shakers and agents of change. This version has been edited for style.

This is a guest post by Tayyib Smith, principal at Smith & Roller and chief strategy officer at The Growth Collective, and Andy Rachlin, president at Spring Garden Capital Group.

When we think of real estate developers and real estate development, our minds turn disproportionately to grandeur: skyscrapers, sweeping plazas, vast structures of glass, steel, and stone that define our cities, and the men (and historically, it has been mostly men) who have built them.

But of course, the pedestrian reality is that while these kinds of buildings and builders may hold outsize sway in our civic imagination, the vast majority of our urban fabric exists on a much smaller scale. Rowhouses, mixed-use buildings on commercial corridors, triplexes and quadplexes, old factories, warehouses, neighborhood churches, and schools; these are the structures we interact with the most, and they have been built by people whose names we will never know.

Yet this work holds the potential for impact not just in that it shapes our physical environment, but also in the economic and social outcomes it can drive. Simply put, smaller-scale development can be a lever for wealth creation, for affordable housing generation, and for community revitalization. And, crucially, it can do so at a cost that makes it accessible in ways larger-scale development often isn’t.

Let’s consider a little math. A small developer we know — a Black husband and wife team, as it happens, who work day jobs as blue-collar civil servants and develop in their off hours — bought a dilapidated triplex in North Philadelphia for $55,000 and renovated it for $113,000. The work included new bathrooms and kitchens, new plumbing and electrical work for all units, and new drywall, paint, and flooring. The project took about a year. The property now appraises at $240,000, and all three units are rented for an average of $800 per month.

So, in a matter of months, this young couple generated $72,000 in durable wealth for themselves (the $240,000 value of the property less the $168,000 it cost to develop) plus a little cash flow each month from rents. In addition, they have created three housing units that are considered affordable at 40% of the Area Median Income, per the most recent guidelines from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. And they have brought a blighted property back from disuse, which recent studies from the University of Pennsylvania suggest has enormous positives for the surrounding neighborhood, including reducing gun crimes by over 13%.

Indeed, the cascading effects of small-scale redevelopment are increasingly understood to be profound in the lives of communities. Among other things, because of the mechanics of the appraisal process and its crucial place in the setting of property values, every home sold or financed at a strong price provides an incremental corrective to decades of now-well-documented undervaluation of homes in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods — undervaluation that a recent study from the Brookings Institution estimated to cost homeowners in these neighborhoods an average of $48,000 in lost wealth.

Authors Andy Rachlin and Tayyib Smith. (Courtesy image via ImpactPHL)

Another appealing aspect of real estate entrepreneurialism is its (relatively) low barrier to entry. No specific degree is required, and so long as the properties being redeveloped are modest, so too are the capital requirements. Experience and expertise are crucial but are often learned through work in the field. This means that the work can be — and often is — done by people who come from the communities where they are developing. There’s some sense of moral equilibrium to this: wealth created in and by a place going at least in substantial part to people from that place. But there’s more to it even than that. While real estate development inherently and inevitably brings change to neighborhoods, our experience suggests that people who come from the places where they work tend at least to be sensitive to the rapid and dramatic shifts that signal “gentrification.”

Notwithstanding the opportunity for wealth creation, neighborhood revitalization, and affordable housing development, most small-scale development operates without public or philanthropic support. Given all of these benefits, the obvious policy question is: How do we animate more of this kind of activity?

This question is even more pressing because we know that for every success story, there are plenty of “what might have been” stories too. There have been untold numbers of promising real estate entrepreneurs who didn’t grow much or didn’t even get off the ground, often because of historic and systemic barriers like lack of access to financial and social capital. If there were more formal supports for this kind of real estate entrepreneurialism, what might they look like? How much might they accelerate community revitalization and wealth creation among historically undercapitalized populations?

There are already efforts underway offering promising answers to these questions. From the Aequo Fund to Jumpstart, the Black Squirrel Collective, and Tayyib’s work with The Growth Collective, several groups have begun organizing, capitalizing, and providing formal and informal support networks for aspiring small developers. We should encourage and invest in these kinds of efforts.

There is a role for the public sector too, though we remain conscious that the smallest entrepreneurs can struggle to manage the administrative requirements that often accompany government engagement. First and foremost, the City of Philadelphia has made substantial strides in divesting itself of the thousands of vacant properties it owns, but there is still room for the pace of these efforts to increase and for their requirements to be made more accessible to smaller developers. In addition, through its Accelerator Fund, the city has made more financial resources available to small real estate entrepreneurs.

Finally, as impact investors, we should be conscious that the surest vehicle for scaling any activity is the market and finding and supporting ventures in this space. At least one of us should cop to some self-interest here. Andy’s company, Spring Garden Capital Group, provides debt and equity capital and consulting services to small real estate entrepreneurs, occupying a niche in the market left vacant as traditional community banks have consolidated.

But they aren’t the only ones. Developers themselves always need capital, especially risk capital, and finding more intersections between small real estate entrepreneurs and capital organizers like ImpactPHL and Investors’ Circle can yield real value. There are also companies working to serve small real estate entrepreneurs in new ways, like Small Change, which helps developers crowd-source capital for impactful projects.

Ultimately, the question is one of scale. How do we enable a generation of small developers to do enough that, taken together, their work has an impact at the scale of our city? There is no singular answer, but given the myriad benefits of a thriving community of small real estate entrepreneurs, the discussion surely merits a place in the regular discourse of our impact investment ecosystem.

People: Tayyib Smith

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