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Since 2004, Charmaine Curtis has headed her own development and consulting companies, emerging as a leader in the Bay Area developer arena. Her three decades of real estate experience include multi-family, mixed-use and urban infill projects, and she has overseen or worked on the development of over 7,000 units of housing, in both San Francisco and Seattle.
Passionate about developments that can crack the affordable in the land of unaffordable, Charmaine believes we are due for a paradigm shift in how we think about wealth and equity. She has written and spoken about the implicit challenges of being a developer who also happens to be a woman and Black, noting that even where she has lived and worked for decades, “in liberal San Francisco [there] is unconscious, pervasive bias against Black people and women. It would be hard to overstate how much more difficult it is to gain access to capital and be taken seriously as a real estate developer if you’re Black, and compounded if you’re a woman. In spite of this, my career is incontrovertible proof that a Black woman can succeed in the industry.”
Previously, Charmaine served as president of A. F. Evans Development, director of housing development at Mercy Housing California, and project manager at McKenzie, Rose & Holliday Development. One of her early jobs was as an associate planner for the city of Berkeley.
Insights and Inspirations
- Charmaine didn’t realize what she was up against (Black + woman) until she was in her 30s.
- She wonders what her net worth would be today if she were not a Black woman?
- She’s interested in developing real estate around market principals that would pay her enough to be comfortable, but ensure that those she is building for are comfortable as well.
- What would it take to spread the wealth? Charmaine wonders if you added up all the wealth in the world and distributed it equitably, what would everyone have? Would it be enough?
Information and Links
- Charmaine likes a blog put out by Neha Sampat. Neha has a consulting practice called GenLead BelongLab, and her blog is mostly about empowering women by helping us identify what holds women back.
- And then art. Charmaine was part of a group of women who collaborated to bring this amazing 55′ sculpture, “Truth is Beauty,” to San Leandro, to educate about violence against women and to inspire survivors to speak up. The “visionary developer” who installed it was Gaye Quinn.
- And Charmaine also wanted to point to a mural (on a project she co-developed in Oakland) called “Hands Across”. Designed by noted artist, Kota Ezawa, it has become even more resonant in 2020.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:10] Hi there. Thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing. My guest today is Charmaine Curtis, who’s had a significant career as a real estate developer on the West Coast. She owns her own company, Curtis Development and Company, and she’s focused on impactful housing projects trying to crack the affordable in the land of unaffordable. But we’re not video blogging, so you probably don’t know that Charmaine has two strikes against her. She’s a woman and she’s Black. And if you’ve ever wondered what that’s like, here’s a chance to learn. Charmaine says that she didn’t know what she was up against until she was in her 30s, when reality struck. “How much more personal wealth would I have, she wonders, if I were a white man?”
Eve: [00:01:12] Be sure to go to EvePicker.com to find out more about Charmaine on the show notes page for this episode and be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform. Small Change.
Eve: [00:01:36] Hello, Charmaine, it’s just lovely to have you on my show.
Charmaine Curtis: [00:01:40] Well, it’s really nice to meet you.
Eve: [00:01:42] Yes, I hope we meet in person some day …
Charmaine: [00:01:45] Me too.
Eve: [00:01:45] … when this silly pandemic is over, right?
Charmaine: [00:01:49] Yes.
Eve: [00:01:50] So, I wanted to ask by, start by asking you what, what drew you into real estate?
Charmaine: [00:01:59] It was a very serendipitous and intentional way. I got a master’s degree in urban planning from UC Berkeley with every intention of being a planner and, you know, doing my part to save the world. And then I got jobs as, not counterplanner kind of jobs, which is, I think that most people think of planning, they think of people who are sitting at a desk in a municipal building and, you know, giving people information about what they are or not allowed to do on their properties. I worked for the redevelopment agency in Berkeley. But my first job, first of all, was working for Libby.
Eve: [00:02:35] Oh.
Charmaine: [00:02:35] Doing market studies. Yeah. You probably didn’t hear that part.
Eve: [00:02:39] No.
Charmaine: [00:02:39] Yeah. Yeah. So, yeah, Libby was the first person I worked for out of grad school.
Eve: [00:02:45] For our listeners, Libby, Libby Seifal heads up a growing women’s development collaborative that we’re both part of. So backgrounds. Go ahead.
Charmaine: [00:02:54] So. I went to work for the city of Berkeley, for the redevelopment agency, and I was just a young whippersnapper who threw out into the wilderness when they were trying to expand … into a couple parts of the city. And, so I got chewed up in that process with very little support and realized I was really not interested in being a public employee. But I didn’t know what I wanted to be at that point, because I had just spent these years getting a graduate degree. And then I serendipitously was introduced to a developer who was starting his own company and looking for a young whippersnapper to come and work for cheap and help him build this company. So, that’s what happened, that, you know I kind of fell into the business, not intentionally, but through that introduction, which, which was great because I got to work on some super exciting projects in San Francisco that were really pioneering. And I got to learn the business, at least that side of the business. It was, it was a for-profit company converting loft buildings or warehouse buildings into lofts, which was a new thing for San Francisco, a very old thing for New York, but a new thing for San Francisco. So, that’s how I got into the business. And I did that for a few years and really got, you know, sort of trial by fire, learning that, you know, all about entitlements and actually worked on one of the first low-income housing tax credit syndications in the country.
Eve: [00:04:32] Oh.
Charmaine: [00:04:32] We did all kinds of, it was just, it was a wacky thing. You know, some of it was consulting work that we did for others. But so, I got, I got a real broad range of experience in that, in that company.
Eve: [00:04:47] Kind of always the case when you’re in a small company, isn’t it? You get to do everything because there’s no one else to do it.
Charmaine: [00:04:54] Yeah, and small was me and him. That was it was just the two of us at the beginning. And it was really, it was a great experience. And then it was a challenging experience as the company was growing. And I kind of felt like I was not able to grow as much with it at some point because other people were brought in. And so I decided to move on. And that was in the early 90s. And I decided I really wanted to learn the affordable housing side of the business and build some affordable housing. I mean, I was sort of, back to, you know, my part and trying to save the world, and I got a job working with an organization, it was called Catholic Charities at the time in San Francisco, but was later acquired, shall we say, by the Sisters of Mercy, who were starting their own development, affordable housing development, company, which is now, as you probably know, a pretty large national company, a non-profit, and based in Denver. And so that was really an interesting transition from being part of the male dominated Catholic Church to moving into the female dominated part, which was a revelation. And so many amazing, I mean, the women who were, who started that organization, including Sister Lillian Murphy, who died last year, I think, were just extraordinary women in every way, just in terms of their true passion for providing affordable housing and alleviating poverty, you know, trying to make a dent in poverty, not just, you know, putting people in buildings. And just because they were brilliant, you know, any of these women could have run a successful for-profit development venture. But, you know, they were nuns, and so they put their talents into building an operation to build more and more affordable housing, which is, now it’s just, it’s, it is, as I said, one of the largest nonprofits in the country. And, you know, that was also super informative experience for me. Also a burnout, because, you know, if you’ve worked in affordable housing, you know that at least here in California what it takes to put an affordable housing development together is like 10 pieces of funding, small pieces of funding from, from multiple sources and then trying to marry those sources. And the brain damage and the transaction costs of affordable housing is excessive. I was also, you know, I was being a project manager, and then I was, I was managing people, and then also managing projects, which just totally a recipe for burnout. You just can’t do both.
Eve: [00:07:52] Right.
Charmaine: [00:07:53] I decided to take a break, and actually decided to go to film school, which I did …
Eve: [00:07:59] Oh wow.
Charmaine: [00:07:59] Which I did well. And I went to film school at San Francisco State, and for a semester, and during that time, I was also working and doing consulting work for Mercy and others, and to support myself. It was something that I was passionate about, but it was also something that, you know, I didn’t feel I had the financial bandwidth to pursue.
Charmaine: [00:08:28] I grew up in a working class family and I wasn’t really intending to be a working class person, myself. You know, the goal was to move beyond that. And to do my family proud, and to do myself proud in terms of being able to do what all generations want to do, which is just do better than the one before or the ones before, especially when you’re your Black person in in this country. And I had opportunities growing up because I was recruited into a program called A Better Chance. And I left my home in Cleveland to move to Minnesota where I went to high school for three years, and went back home on vacations. That program is a program that was founded on the East Coast back in the late 60s, early 70s, to identify promising young people, kids in inner city areas who were in crappy schools and to give them an opportunity to go to, initially boarding schools on the East Coast, but it expanded to the school like I went to in the Midwest, which was a public high school in a really wealthy suburb. So, I ended up getting into Dartmouth College after that. And so, you know, I was a smart kid and I had these opportunities and, you know, and I seized them. But, you know, getting those opportunities and taking advantage of them doesn’t mean that you kind of leave behind all of your, you know, the baggage of coming from a family that, where my mother, everybody worked two or three jobs. And my mother grew up picking cotton in the South. And, you know, it’s really not until, I would say probably in the last 10 years of my life or so, that I’ve really been able to sort of think about the impact, the sort of generational impact of, of poverty and, you know, slavery and racism in this country.
Eve: [00:10:29] Yeah, well, it sounds like in one generation you’ve come a long way.
Charmaine: [00:10:34] Indeed. I mean, I’m the one who from my immediate family that left Cleveland and, you know, kind of made my way in this insanely expensive world of San Francisco. So, after that, I kind of did some consulting on my own, and then when I went to work for a company, there was a for-profit developer. But they develop both market rate and affordable housing, which was kind of the best of all worlds for me. And I ran the multifamily part of that company and under a really great boss who is still somebody who I’m really close to. Art Evans, who was a, I think, a real visionary in the, in the field. And who came out of a redevelopment background and held that vision of both doing well and doing good. And I would say probably more doing good, ultimately. Art, he did a lot of really great work and ended up getting clobbered like a lot of people in the, in the Great Recession of 2008, 2009.
Eve: [00:11:36] Yeh.
Charmaine: [00:11:36] And then, I just did the addition the other day. I’ve been out on my own as long as I’ve worked for other people in the business. I’ve been on my own since 2004, and started out doing my own development, building condos in the East Bay and working on some stuff up in Seattle. And at the time I thought I had a financial partner who I thought was going to back my business, but that ended up not happening. And so I really ended up on a shoestring putting these deals together, between my own capital, and back in those days before the recession, you could do really high leverage …
Eve: [00:12:11] Right, right.
Charmaine: [00:12:13] … with participating debt and other kinds of financial participation by investors. And so, anyway, that was, that ended up being a, not a wise thing under the circumstances, which, of course, no one could have anticipated what was coming.
Eve: [00:12:28] No one. No one. That was a disaster.
Charmaine: [00:12:31] Yeah. And so, I built a couple of really nice projects that were in, what I would call transitional neighborhoods, which was the focus of my business plan, which was looking around the edges of, and looking at, you know, where people in San Francisco were fleeing to, frankly. Which was parts of Oakland and Berkeley, and seeing that those neighborhoods were ripe for …
Eve: [00:12:57] Yes.
Charmaine: [00:12:57] … change and also wanting to build an entry level product, not trying to …
Eve: [00:13:03] Not luxury.
Charmaine: [00:13:03] … not luxury, not, I would, I’ve never been interested in that, which I think was ultimately one of the reasons that my potential financial partner decided that he didn’t want to invest in me, because I wasn’t thinking that way. I wasn’t thinking huge and expensive. My interest really is much more in transformation of neighborhoods in a relatively organic manner.
Eve: [00:13:26] And isn’t that in the end, a little bit more recession proof, or a lot more recession-proof.
Charmaine: [00:13:31] Oh my God, if that was exactly my thinking at the time. Yeah.
Eve: [00:13:35] In 2008, 2009, I had a number of buildings in Pittsburgh that I had redeveloped, sort of against the grain. They were transformational. They were, I don’t want to say luxury products, but they weren’t affordable because I couldn’t, just couldn’t get the numbers right. But they were different. And honestly, I barely felt the recession. It was very odd because they were in underserved neighborhoods and places that most people weren’t looking at, just as you said, on the edges. Right?
Charmaine: [00:14:05] Yeah.
Eve: [00:14:05] It was an interesting learning experience for me.
Charmaine: [00:14:09] Yeah. You know, if I’d been at a different stage in those projects, I might have been able to pull it out. But one was not yet complete. It was about 75 percent done. And the other one was basically complete.
Eve: [00:14:21] Oh yeh, almost done, yeh.
Charmaine: [00:14:24] We were just starting sales. So, it was, you know, lenders were not feeling it.
Eve: [00:14:33] That’s really painful.
Charmaine: [00:14:33] Oh my God.
Eve: [00:14:34] Oh, that’s painful, you know.
Charmaine: [00:14:36] It was awful. And it really, I think took me a good 10 years to recover both financially and emotionally from it. Frankly, it was really, it was devastating. It was, you know, I talked to, I was talking to one of the local developers here who’s done well and I think comes from wealth. And that, he said to me we were at a conference or something and he said, I personally lost six million dollars. And I’m like, oh, really? Well, I kind of lost everything except for my house. And so, you know, sorry, but our pain is not equal.
Eve: [00:15:09] Yeh.
Charmaine: [00:15:09] So, it, yeah, it’s, that’s the difference, you know for me in a way that crystallizes the difference between being a Black woman who comes from where I come from, with my sensibilities. Right? Not just, I didn’t get into development, too, I mean, I think maybe initially I did kind of get into development to become a rich person and, you know, prove that that’s possible for a Black woman to do that in the industry. But it’s the difference between being, you know, someone who doesn’t come from resources versus someone who does. And who is then able to build more races on top of those resources, that provide the cushion that you need when the shit hits the fan. So. It was a crystallizing experience for me that way, in terms of, the just the stark difference. Everyone was not impacted equally by that. What happened, for sure. Since then to, that my daughters were born in 2008. I was lucky to, you know actually marry later in life and have these two girls with my husband. And that was 2008. While the world was crashing down around me, I was also pregnant and with twins and …
Eve: [00:16:20] Oh!
Charmaine: [00:16:20] So, they were born in late 2008 and I spent the next few years just rebuilding, basically, and working on a really interesting project I worked on exclusively for a few years, which is a master plan and community work and both, internal community work with this public housing project in San Francisco and, and the surrounding community to re-envision what was a 600-unit project over 39 acres into what would be, what will be a 1600-unit mixed-income project and …you know, in addition to working all the physical planning, working with the community to get their buy in and support, and working with the folks who live in the public housing to help them envision a better future, and to bring a new way of working with very low-income people. That’s ongoing, and that is really, I didn’t do on my own, or at all. There were many other people involved in this community building effort and really, in recognizing the trauma that comes with generational poverty and all the, you know, the things that happen to people who live in poverty and that keep them down. And so, that has been, and continues to be, a reasonably successful effort to lift, not just rehouse people in better housing, but to sort of lift them up and provide, protect the developmental health of the littlest ones, in particular, by also helping their parents.
Eve: [00:18:06] yes.
Charmaine: [00:18:06] So, that was a really great opportunity for me to do this amazing work on what will be a transformative project in that part of San Francisco. And now I am doing development on my own or with others and co-development capacity. And I’m still doing, I’m doing development consulting work. That gig with the nonprofit, where I did the master planning work and all that other work, was a consulting gig. And so, you know, really just the last many years been about finding the balance between supporting my family in this insanely expensive town and reinvigorating my development career as a principal, which is where it’s at for me because I like to create things, you know.
Eve: [00:18:52] Yes, I know that.
Charmaine: [00:18:54] And in order to create, you need to have some measure of control …
Eve: [00:18:57] Yeh.
Charmaine: [00:18:57] … which is when I started my business, in 2004, that was a moment when I was just on fire with, with passion to make buildings and be a part of transforming neighborhoods.
Eve: [00:19:10] Yeah.
Charmaine: [00:19:11] And I feel like I’ve kind of rediscovered that, that passion in the last few years.
Eve: [00:19:16] It’s such a great thing to make, like something happen out of nothing.
Charmaine: [00:19:20] Exactly.
Eve: [00:19:20] It’s so great. There’s really nothing like it.
Charmaine: [00:19:22] Yeah. And it’s, I mean, that’s really, I’m just a very, you know, goal oriented, like I can see it and touch it and feel it at the end of it, I’m so happy. If I can’t touch it, see it and feel I’m like, what am I doing? What is, what is this?
Eve: [00:19:35] Yes.
Charmaine: [00:19:37] So. I’m definitely a … touch feel person and love, love to see the results.
Eve: [00:19:43] Oh yeah, me too. So, you are a Black woman in an industry that is incredibly, heavily dominated by white men, and I know that’s impacted your work, but I’d love to hear from you … how.
Charmaine: [00:19:59] You know, I will start answering that question by talking about a TV show I watched last night, which is a new show on Hulu called “Woke.” And it’s really interesting. I suggest you check it out. It’s …
Eve: [00:20:16] I will check it out. I’m writing it down.
Charmaine: [00:20:18] I think it just dropped last night. And it’s based on the life of a cartoon artist, named, I think, Keith Knight, who invented these cartoon characters. And I don’t know if the true story is butter and toast, but those were the characters, the cartoon characters in his strip, that he was, that this show was talking about. And how this guy, this Black guy thought that he was kind of exempt from, you know, the impact from being impacted by Blackness in this country until he was taken down by some cops and, you know, thrown to the ground and guns at his head because they thought that he was a mugger who had just been reported, and how that experience transformed him, and his thinking, and his perception of himself in the world. It’s the first one, I just watched the first one, and I’m like, oh, my God, that’s kind of me in my 30s, you know. I thought, oh, my God, I’m, I’m smart, I’m driven, I work hard, and therefore I will succeed in this business. And, you know, while there’s always, you know, when you’re a Black person who comes from poverty in this country, I think there’s always another part of you that’s back there saying, hh, that’s not going to happen, Come on. But I, basically I would say I took for granted, for a very long time, what a disadvantage I was at being a Black woman in the business. I thought my smarts was enough. And it, you know, it’s just not.
Eve: [00:22:01] And, It should be enough, right?
Charmaine: [00:22:02] Well, yeah. In a in a in a perfect world.
Eve: [00:22:06] In a perfect world. Yeah. Yeah.
Charmaine: [00:22:08] But, you know, in a way I, I think it was liberating to not see that limitation, like, at least not ostensibly. I probably felt it more than I saw it. And you know, and I, I built a great reputation here in this city and this region, parts of the region, anyway. But what I would say honestly and truthfully, and this is, this comes from somebody who was really hard on herself a lot of the time. If I were a white dude in this business with my skills, ability, talent, vision, I would be, you know, five times richer than I am. And have more opportunity thrown at me than I do. You know, it really just took me a really long time to actually come to that conclusion because I’m so driven, and have, and took so much for granted, frankly, about what my smarts and what my drive would get me. That said, you know, if I look sort of relative to where I come from, what my background is, you know, my mother picking cotton, my stepfather working eight thousand jobs to support us, I’ve done well, especially in this region where it’s so hard to live. But would my career have taken a different path if I were a white dude? Absolutely. And I, I think there’s a level of just not being taken seriously as a Black person in this industry. It’s not even at that level. It’s almost just like it’s not not being taken seriously. It’s just not being seen. And, and …. you’re, it’s not like you’re invisible, but it’s almost like you’re invisible. Because there’s a presumption that especially as a Black woman, I mean, there are some Black men in this industry in the Bay Area who’ve done well. Not many. I’m going to say three.
Eve: [00:24:17] Yes.
Charmaine: [00:24:17] But as a Black woman, I think it is just, it is just a given on a very subconscious level, for most people that you are not, you don’t have what it takes to, you know, to do what white men can do in this business. And I think it’s on some level that is something that I internalized at some point in my career. And in addition to, just all the internal stuff that Black people experience in this country, you know, from living in generations of the degradation of racism, that you see and that you don’t see. Right? It’s almost the unseen stuff that is worse than … and you’ve heard, probably heard people say, I’d rather be Black in the south where the racism is just in your face than be Black in the north, where it’s, it’s implicit and unspoken, but very real nonetheless. It’s hard to know, you know, what we were talking about before we started, you started to start recording, it’s hard to know what you don’t know. It’s hard to know how your life and career trajectory would be different if you were who you were in a different body …
Eve: [00:25:33] Right.
Charmaine: [00:25:34] … in the body of a white man. So, it’s, You know, it’s complicated.
Eve: [00:25:40] It’s actually quite heartbreaking.
Charmaine: [00:25:42] Yeah.
Eve: [00:25:42] You know.
Charmaine: [00:25:43] Even before the events of this year, I’ve been, and when I started out in 2004, it wasn’t like I didn’t understand that I was a Black woman in the business. I did. And part of what I really wanted to prove, and want to prove is that a Black woman, you know, a smart Black woman who is hard-working and can accomplish anything, basically, like no limitation. There are no limitations, you know, and there are, obviously. But there’s still that drive in me to prove that a Black woman can be a serious success in this business. How I’m defining that, now, is probably different than it was then, because I am really about creating a different kind of world. I’m not, you know, when I was younger in the business, I was like, this is, I’m going to make a ton of money, I’m going to prove, because the measure of success in this industry is wealth. I’ve had this conversation with my husband many times. It’s like, what a success look like in the development business. If you are a white guy, it looks like, or if you’re anybody, it looks like how wealthy you are and how much money you’ve made. And the world is just the direction that we are moving in. I feel like it is really vital that people like me, and everybody, deploy their talents in the interest of the whole and not just themselves. That’s the world I want my kids to be able to grow up in, is a world that’s not a winner-take-all world, and so, that’s really kind of how I’m thinking more, lately, is how can I deploy my talents in a way that’s going to help to create that world where development can be a force for real transformation. And what needs to happen in the industry for that to happen? What conditions need to exist for that to happen? And there’s so many different parts of it, I know that you are familiar with because you’re a developer.
Eve: [00:27:48] you know what you’re saying really rings for me, too, I think when I was younger, I always thought I would figure out a way to fit in to the structure of the world the way it is. And quite a while ago, I heard the first female three-star general of the Army speak, and someone in the audience asked her like, well, how do you fit into that power structure? And she, she drew a circle on a chalkboard and she said, OK, here’s the power. And you keep the circle, and you keep trying to get in, and you keep trying to get in, and you keep trying to get in. And eventually you give up and you go over here, and she draws another circle, and you make your own circle of power. And I think that, you know, there are some people who are never going to change that first circle, but then there are the rest of us who want to do something different.
Charmaine: [00:28:35] Yeh, yeh, and it’s really about building a movement and, or being part of a movement, and helping to build a movement to a more equitable way of developing …
Eve: [00:28:44] Yes.
Charmaine: [00:28:44] … our world. And I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few years about just how there’s sort of two, especially here in the Bay Area, there’s really two kind of extreme ends of the spectrum. Where we have a really robust nonprofit community on one end, which is largely, mostly comprised of white people, just as an aside, and a very robust market-rate world of development, which is mostly, also, white people …
Eve: [00:29:15] Also white people …
Charmaine: [00:29:15] … more women on the nonprofit side, for sure.
Eve: [00:29:20] Yes, absolutely, because they paid less. Right?
Charmaine: [00:29:23] Yeah, exactly. And, and they are, you know, they’re just, I don’t know, I don’t know what the difference is. There’s so many differences between women and men.
Eve: [00:29:31] It’s the same profile in Pittsburgh. I have to tell you …
Charmaine: [00:29:34] Yeh.
Eve: [00:29:34] … it’s exactly the same.
Charmaine: [00:29:36] Yeh.
Eve: [00:29:36] It’s really interesting.
Charmaine: [00:29:37] But there’s a sort of middle ground that’s not occupied. And I think that there is a middle ground. I think there should be a middle ground, and that it should be occupied by people like me who want to use their talents to develop in a more equitable way. Which means in a way that really is not profit driven, but in a way that is driven by market principles, in a way. Because I do believe, personally, and I, this may be a controversial statement, I think that the non-profit world is not driven by the same principles that the for-profit world is.
Eve: [00:30:14] Oh, no, I totally agree, I totally agree.
Charmaine: [00:30:16] I’ve been on both sides. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen how I treat my money, like actually my, you know, versus some …
Eve: [00:30:26] No, absolutely.
Charmaine: [00:30:26] … government entity that’s like three, you know, three things removed from me. So, I do believe there is a real difference. And I’ve been on both sides, and I developed for my own account, and I know how to drive a deal and move in to reduce the cost to the lowest possible amount while producing something that I don’t have to be ashamed of.
Eve: [00:30:49] Well, you’re driven, you’re driven by urgency, and much of the nonprofit world is not, because they don’t have to worry about the costs and staying alive in the same way.
Charmaine: [00:30:59] Right. The cost or the time.
Eve: [00:31:01] Yeah. Yeah.
Charmaine: [00:31:02] And I’m not blaming anybody or anything. This is just the system that we have created.
Eve: [00:31:08] Yeh.
Charmaine: [00:31:08] And I really believe, I believe very strongly, and I’ve been talking about this for, you know, a few years now, that I believe that there is a third way to do development. You know, where I am not interested in trying to, I don’t want to generate tons of profits for anybody else. And I don’t want to generate, I don’t need to generate tons of profit for myself. I would like to make money, a reasonable amount of money, that is commensurate with whatever the level of risk is that I’m taking. And the less risk I take, the less money I make. And the more, the less profit somebody else makes, the more we can use that for the benefit of the people we’re developing for. And I’ve been thinking about that …
Eve: [00:31:50] Yeh.
Charmaine: [00:31:50] … largely here in the context of missing middle housing, which is truly missing, like, gone, like doesn’t exist.
Eve: [00:31:58] Really.
Charmaine: [00:32:00] And I don’t know how you do missing middle housing. It’s really a fee-driven business. It has to be in, if your heart is in the right place and you’re coming at it from the right perspective and in the interest of long term affordability, and not just, you know, a five, 10, even a 15-year old and then flipping and realizing gains … I think you really you really are coming at it from that perspective of, this is a fee business, this is a fee driven business, which nonprofit development is too, but it’s a fee-driven business that brings market-driven principles to the production.
Eve: [00:32:38] Yeah, so you produce something and then it has a life of its own.
Charmaine: [00:32:41] Yeah. And there are many, many elements to this. A lot of people are talking about, you know, modular is one aspect or building innovation, since we build buildings like cave people did, basically, to a large extent. And innovations in financial markets, which means really bringing people into financial markets who are not looking at achieving the, a typical kind of market return that you would get if you were investing.
Eve: [00:33:09] Yeah, well, that’s that’s the key.
Charmaine: [00:33:11] That is the key.
Eve: [00:33:11] That capital is less greedy.
Charmaine: [00:33:13] Exactly.
Eve: [00:33:13] Yeh.
Charmaine: [00:33:14] Taking the greed out of the bit, of this part of the business. And I’m a pragmatist at bottom. And so I’m like, we live in a capitalist world, in society. I’m like, that’s, let’s just say that, that’s what we are. We’re going to, that’s always going to be a big part of who we are and how we live. And, you know, the nonprofits are doing God’s work. But I do believe there is room for a third way to approach how we get stuff done. And we just have to bring, bring all of the all the, you know, creativity and passion, and bring others along into … Being real about it. Because in the world of social impact investing, I, I hear about it a lot. I have not, I can ,I can’t tell you that I’ve seen one development that I think benefited from whatever that is, at least the kind of development I’m talking about. There’s like a new organization in San Francisco that is attracting, I think, real social impact capital. It’s still money coming from wealthy people who expect a return, which I actually find that, slightly appalling, because I, I do think that if, you know, the one or even the five percent deployed even a portion of their capital in a way that was like, eventually give me my money back, and I don’t expect you to give me any return on it, but I’d like it back someday.
Eve: [00:34:46] I don’t mind a return that keeps up with inflation, but I’m with you completely. I posted on Small Change, I’ve listed projects that are affordable housing and heard complaints about the return not being high enough. And I’m actually, how can I say, unhappy with where we are, because I think the return should be as low as three percent …
Charmaine: [00:35:08] Yeah.
Eve: [00:35:08] … to really build affordable housing. And yet, I have to admit, I’m scared of listing a project with a return that low. I had a conversation with an amazing developer of a project just like that that really, you know, should be on that platform. And I don’t know if anyone’s going to invest.
Charmaine: [00:35:26] Yeah.
Eve: [00:35:27] Because it’s not enough money for them. So, if they really want impact. I mean, don’t people understand that the higher the return on equity, the less affordable the housing? Because, I don’t …
Charmaine: [00:35:38] I think some people do and some people don’t. And I think there’s a significant education aspect to this that has to occur so that people do understand that there is a direct relationship.
Eve: [00:35:50] Yeah.
Charmaine: [00:35:50] I think that we will eventually, hopefully be in a world where there is a concept of ‘having enough.’
Eve: [00:35:57] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Charmaine: [00:35:58] If you have a net worth of 100 million dollars, that’s enough. And you can then use the rest of whatever you have in a way that is to the benefit of the general good. And those who don’t have.
Eve: [00:36:11] Yeh.
Charmaine: [00:36:11] And that’s really what we need. We need a paradigm shift in how we think about our individual responsibility as citizens of the world.
Eve: [00:36:22] Yeh, and then, of course, there are the small investors who’ve never had a chance to invest before. You know, where that 500 dollars …
Charmaine: [00:36:29] Yeh.
Eve: [00:36:29] … really matters, maybe even more than the millions of the billionaire. Right? And I want them to get a return. It’s very difficult. It’s very inequitable.
Charmaine: [00:36:39] Yeah.
Eve: [00:36:39] So my next question would be, well, you know, what would you change to make the real estate industry a more equitable place for Blacks and women? Maybe just ignore the rest of them?
Charmaine: [00:36:52] Yeah, you know, I mean, that’s obviously, there’s no magic bullet. There’s no, I mean, we’re seeing now in 2020 how deeply ingrained white supremacy is in our culture. A couple hundred years after slavery ended. So, I am not naive about the, and I don’t like to be airy fairy and unrealistic about the possibilities. You know, I think that one thing I see in San Francisco happening is that, at least in the nonprofit world, is that nonprofits are making an active effort to hire more Black people on their staffs, which I applaud, especially if you are hiring people and then supporting them in the way that they need to be supported, and not just having people be window dressing. So, how do how do we change the hearts and minds of Americans who don’t even perceive themselves as being racist, but who have, you know, probably relatively deep implicit bias, which is a lot of what I was talking about earlier that I have experienced with, that I didn’t even know I was experiencing, right? Is the deep, implicit bias of people who think that Black people are not as smart and not as whatever, as others, as whites or Asians, if it is a true awakening or call to action or whatever that’s happening now that’s also, you know, both sides are kind of awakened. Right?
Eve: [00:38:13] Right.
Charmaine: [00:38:13] But if it’s happening and this leads to a reckoning that is not, hopefully, violent, and that doesn’t tear us apart, I think that this is a very good thing because I do see more white people that I know than ever before trying to examine their own racism and … people who never thought of themselves as racist, which is very important because if you think you’re not racist and you’re white, you are not woke, you are not awake. And so it’s very important for, and it’s not a blamey thing, it’s just like, this is the work. This is the work that must be done, if we’re going to change this world so that Black kids have an opportunity anywhere near what a white kid can have in this country. And, you know, begins at that level of zero, you know, like birth and what you are born into. What happens to you between the ages of zero and five, how your psychology is, develops and it’s impacted by that and other things, and your sense of agency and capability and power in the world. That’s got to start at zero. It is remediable to some extent along the way. Right? And I’m kind of proof of that.
Eve: [00:39:38] Right.
Charmaine: [00:39:39] But, you know, that’s like one level of what has to happen. And, and making opportunities or providing opportunities for more Black people and people of color consciously, and not just consciously in the hiring and then bringing in, but then once people are in, giving them what they need, helping them to succeed and not just taking for granted, we did the hire, now we’re done. So, there’s that level of building opportunity. And I think that we need more Black people in the industry and just getting more Black people in the industry and whatever ways that happens will be a good thing. I did not know until, maybe until I was in graduate school what a developer was.
Eve: [00:40:32] Yeh, I was a bit older, actually.
Charmaine: [00:40:34] Yeah, right. I mean, it’s like, it is amazing how many people who I told them, when I tell them I’m a developer, they’re like, what is that? Still. Right? So …
Eve: [00:40:43] Yeah.
Charmaine: [00:40:44] So, teaching these little, kids at a very young age, what the opportunities are in life in general outside of the what everybody thinks of as being a doctor, a lawyer, you know, or a business person, in general, that there is this whole world where how our physical world is created, that is dominated by this industry.
Eve: [00:41:09] Yeah. And, you know, real estate surely should play a really big role in, in shifting generational wealth as well. I’m not, I’ve been thinking about that, and I think there are ideas, all sorts of ways that that might happen. I’m not exactly sure how yet, but wealth has to do with property …
Charmaine: [00:41:30] Right.
Eve: [00:41:30] … not just cash.
Charmaine: [00:41:32] That’s right. That’s why the wealthiest people own, families in this country up until recently, were real estate families, by and large.
Eve: [00:41:40] Right.
Charmaine: [00:41:42] Now it’s tech. But …
Eve: [00:41:43] Yeah. How do you teach that? How do you make that shift, make that happen?
Charmaine: [00:41:50] You heard me say earlier that, you know, and I have this conversation. I’ve been having this conversation with a guy I met recently who’s a Black guy, who’s doing some investing, and he is about, you know, sort of the wealth building, as a Black person in the, in the industry. And I get that, and I understand that, and I don’t not support that, but I cannot really abide wealth building amongst a very few people, while other people are out in the cold.
Eve: [00:42:25] Yeh.
Charmaine: [00:42:25] That’s not sitting right with me anymore.
Eve: [00:42:29] Yes.
Charmaine: [00:42:29] So, I’m torn about it. I mean, you can hear it in my voice. I’m torn about it because I do want to see more Black people succeed, but I want to see a lot more Black people succeed. You know, not just a few.
Eve: [00:42:44] Yeah, yeah.
Charmaine: [00:42:45] So how do we do that? We spread the wealth. You know, we have to find ways to spread the wealth. And that goes back to my comment about needing a paradigm shift in how we think about our responsibilities as humans on the planet, to each other and to our children and to other people’s children. I’m interested in building wealth. I’m just not interested in building …
Eve: [00:43:12] Uber wealth.
Charmaine: [00:43:12] … yes, I’m not interested in being, you know (laughter) how many people in the world can have a net worth of ten million dollars? Can everybody? You know, is that a possibility? Is that a..
Eve: [00:43:27] It’s an extra interesting calculation to do if you.
Charmaine: [00:43:30] Yeah. Is that a theoretical possibility even, you know? And …
Eve: [00:43:30] That’s really interesting. Or even a million, you know.
Charmaine: [00:43:38] Yeah. What are the, what are the trade offs there? And I don’t know what they are. I just know that everybody can’t be rich. So then, you know, then I back off, I keep backing away from that, what can everybody, what is enough? And I start with, I really start with, like housing. There’s some things people should just absolutely, simply be entitled to. And housing, stable housing, stable, sanitary, decent housing is one of those things. And access to an education and the resources that you need to learn, that are not just about teachers and schools, but if you need, you know, help with your mental health or whatever you need help with to be somebody who’s able to learn and be a real contributor. These are basic things. And then we, we do these basic things, we build a better world where there will be more of everybody, more opportunity for everybody.
Eve: [00:44:39] Yes. Well, you’re going to make me cry, so I’m going to try harder. I hope everyone who listens will try harder, too. But I’ve really, really enjoyed this conversation. I feel awful ending it. But I’m going to now.
Charmaine: [00:44:56] Well, I’m looking forward to talking more with you. Yeah.
Eve: [00:45:00] I would love to meet you in person. And maybe there’s some joint venture we can do. I love doing development and I love hearing about what, what you’re working on. So, thank you very much.
Charmaine: [00:45:10] Thank you, Eve. It’s really great talking and, we will be in touch.
Eve: [00:45:23] That was Charmaine Curtis, a real estate developer, a Black woman in a largely white, male industry. It’s hard enough to be a real estate developer and make a living at it without those additional two strikes against you. But that is exactly what she is doing.
Eve: [00:46:03] You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access the show notes for today’s episode at my website EvePicker.com. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities. Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, Charmaine, for sharing your thoughts. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker, signing off to go make some change.
Images courtesy of Curtis Development