Black Squirrel Collective (BSC) officially opened applications for its Philly Rise Accelerator this week after years of planning. By helping these developers acquire and develop publicly held and vacant properties in the city, in turn, the firm hopes to bring opportunities for underrepresented developers to build new affordable housing and retail, and increase community wealth.
“We’ve built a program that is going to allow small Black and brown real estate developers to accelerate their growth and become sustainable and successful real estate development companies,” BSC Chief Program Officer Thomas Webster said.
BSC was founded by Webster, an entrepreneur and advisor to startups; Kevin Williams, an entrepreneur and the CEO of the SMART Group; James Burnett, executive director of VestedIn (formerly the West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution); and Jabari Jones, president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative.
Webster said BSC’s leadership has been concerned about the dearth of smaller developers of color able to access and develop the public land owned by the City of Philadelphia. The organization conducted a survey through VestedIn and found that these developers faced barriers to real estate development such as not understanding the acquisition process and not being able to meet the capital requirements.
From these findings, BSC decided to create its own program based on the well-worn tech accelerator model. The collective’s program has four pillars: community building, education and training, mentoring and coaching, and providing capital. Partners in developing the program and training its future participants include the Urban Land Institute district council, of which BSC is a member, and mission-minded real estate firm AR Spruce.
The goal is to have five Philly Rise cohorts over the next five years and build up 40 to 50 sustainable Black and brown real estate companies.
BSC is looking to enroll 10 to 12 developers and start programming in October. Applicants must have a minimum of five properties to be considered for acceptance into the program. They must also be willing to stay in Philly and complete all five properties here. Ideal participants are those who are currently building their real estate business — “not those who are thinking about it, but those who are already doing it,” Webster said.
The program will be about 22 months long, with the first eight months focusing on training, financing site acquisition, design, zoning, land approval and the like, leaving the next 14 months for new construction on the properties.
All the properties to be developed will be vacant lots, and all buildings will be new construction, all residential, though Webster said BSC is not yet sure what part of Philly the properties will be in.
“We know it’s going to be probably in Philadelphia’s most-needed communities where we can have the greatest impact,” he said, “and being able to bring opportunity for homeownership to the local population. Fifty percent of the properties are going to be affordable and the rest will be offered at market rate.”
Webster said Philly Rise is unique, because real estate development programs like Minority Developer Program (MDP) and Jumpstart are for entry-level developers. Meanwhile, The Growth Collective program is for experienced developers, but there’s nothing in the middle.
“What we’re looking to do is be that bridge in between Jumpstart and MDP and the Collective that creates a roadmap from the people who are serious about being real estate developers, so that they can become future members of the Collective,” he said.
While this will be the first cohort, the goal is to have five Philly Rise cohorts over the next five years and build up 40 to 50 sustainable Black and brown real estate companies.
Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.