Looking to a more equitable future, Philly’s Black developers step up for their city

‘There is an unmatched opportunity to ensure that the future of our city is truly inclusive of all our residents,’ one advocate said

By: - February 21, 2022 10:01 am

By Ayana Jones

PHILADELPHIA — Leon Caldwell is urging other Black developers to use real estate development as a tool for social change.

“Our jobs or our products that we put out there can solve problems in communities and sometimes that problem can be thinking of the future,” the founder of Ujima Developers said during a recent virtual symposium organized by The Growth Collective and 17 Asset Management.

“My want for all of us in this space is to ask the question is how does my project not only contribute to my wealth? How did it actually solve a problem or a challenge or position the future of this neighborhood into a place where everyone can thrive?”

He said what developers build can impact how a community grows economically and in terms of its health.

“We actually do impact how people live and experience the built environment,” Caldwell explained during his keynote address.

His company is currently developing three projects including a food and health destination, a STEM-focused workspace and multi-generational housing.

“There are projects in Philadelphia and all over the country that are taking on this idea that the built environment should be one that edifies people’s health,” Caldwell continued.

By raising $30 million in capital, the Collective supports a pipeline of Black developers who are sensitive to the role they play in shaping neighborhoods.

The speakers at the organization’s Philly Forward: Driving Change through Holistic Community Development program included representatives from successful Black Philadelphia-based real estate development firms such as Smith and Roller Holdings, Wilson-Drake Development and Mosaic Development Partners.

“We’re holding them up as a model for what holistic development and what a change oriented community building development strategy could look like,” Sandra Dungee Glenn, a co-founder and convener of The Collective said of those real estate development firms.

The organization has been awarded $450,000 in grant funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Patricia Kind Family Foundation to help build diversity in real estate development.

“Philadelphia is growing and there is an unmatched opportunity to ensure that the future of our city is truly inclusive of all our residents,” Ellen Hwang, Knight’s Philadelphia program director  said in a statement.

“We’re thrilled to support The Growth Collective as it creates a stronger ecosystem of Black real estate developers who are meaningfully engaging with residents and making investments that reflect their priorities.”

The Collective’s virtual symposium featured various panel discussions on strategies for holistic real estate development that focus on health, wealth and wellness for Philadelphia communities victimized by systemic racism.

“It’s not possible to have a functioning, holistic community when people don’t have access to the 21st century economy or safe housing,” said Tayyib Smith of Smith and Rolle.

“We are in housing crisis not just locally, but nationally and internationally, and if we don’t address this with people who look like the very same people who inhabit the lion’s share of this city we will continue to make the same mistake we’ve made in the past, while making other people enriched building housing in our communities.”

During one of the discussions, members of the Collective spoke on their expertise in building holistic communities.

Lorraine Wilson-Drake, president of Wilson-Drake Development, highlighted the importance of boosting the value of neighborhoods lacking investment.

“I build in Black and brown neighborhoods that haven’t had a lot of investment,” said Wilson-Drake, whose real estate company specializes in affordable luxury developments.

“My value proposition is I’ll give you a really nice apartment but it’s going to be in a neighborhood that probably has some challenges — hoping to spark some change in those neighborhoods — and that’s what we’ve been able to do.”

“Neighborhoods usually become safer when they have a lot less vacancy and look a lot brighter when people start to invest in them,” she continued.

Ayana Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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