Photo credit: Ernst Valery
I always explain to people who ask that I was born in Haiti and immigrated to the US and landed in Nyack, NY — despite the many tears from being teased and bullied my early years in Nyack – there were just as many if not more hugs and kind words from well intentioned people, some acting from the heart.
As far back I can remember, I wanted to build homes.
My mother built our home in Haiti at a time when buying land, securing capital, working with an architect, and managing contractors was not recognized as something a woman could handle. This bias against women probably existed the world over then but was most certainly the case in Haiti. My mother proved all the naysayers wrong by not just getting through the process of building a home on her own but by finishing the house on time and under budget, the holy grail of development. I was just five then but my memory of that time and the stories I would hear of her extraordinary success throughout my life would inspire me to become a builder.
I was first exposed to architecture as a profession thanks to a trade in favors. My high school principal reached out to a celebrated local architect to see if he would take me on as an apprentice. In exchange, the architect insisted that his friend get interviewed for an open position at my high school. This was not only my first foray into architecture but it also gave me a keen understanding of what it took to pursue a passion—knowledge and experience, yes, but also the networking that is often needed to get in the door.
But I later came to find out that architecture would not meet my ideals. Architecture is reserved for the very rich – everyone else is basicially placed in simple boxes. The field needs to also address social issues and gaps in our society in order to be relevant. My childhood notion about the profession had evolved to include a desire to serve and go beyond bricks, mortar, and design.
So instead, I completed a bachelor’s degree in urban planning. In the process I took every opportunity to be in touch with people of all ages, race, nationality, religion, financial condition, and educational attainment to truly understand how I could make a contribution. The common denominator I found was that all people, regardless of identity or circumstance, want a safe place to live, work, and thrive. It also became clear that while the skills of an urban planner are great, those skills alone did not fulfill the knowledge I craved to make the scale of impact I was after.
Again, I was at a crossroads. I decided to pursue another graduate degree in public administration. Policy would allow for impact at scale – but the timing of change is long and I have a hard time watching grass grow – so it needs to be paired with skills that allow for work to be done NOW.
After many professional disappointments working for groups that developed and attempted to implement policy, in the US and abroad and not seeing how I could be make the difference I yearned to make, I began to accept that my missing link was real estate development. I wanted to be behind inspiring and functional design that responds to social problems and I could no longer see how I could do that without being at the center of the real estate development process. Being a developer puts me in a position to make things happen – including bringing a value system to the field – hence my work on Real Estate Developer Index (REDI), a values-based platform I started that evaluates real estate developers and furthers their community contributions.
What if we supported everyone in getting the knowledge they need to improve their communities? What if real estate development was not a world that only the wealthy had access to? What if we could support more people from historically marginalized communities to become developers and ultimately shape how our built environment looks and functions?
My work on REDI is meant to make the aspirations behind the above questions a reality. REDI is turning the stigma associated with real estate development on its head. We are saying that we have to create more opportunities for socially conscious developers to work alongside communities. We are working to elevate real estate into a powerful tool for addressing social and economic disparities that are created by place and zip code. We are saying that displacement does not need to follow development and that there is a way for all communities to do well.
But REDI does not have all the answers. We just know that we have to be ready to act and that we can no longer accept “business as usual.” So our commitment is to make interventions where we can in order to catapult the real estate development profession into the catalyst for change that we know it has the potential to be.
Other things I’m working on include the presevation of affordable housing, creating mixed-income/mixed-use development, building market rate housing that does not displace, starting innovation center, and working on some container house as well as a brew pub.
Despite the challenges, after I started working on my own projects, I never wavered from my values and always tried to balance the needs of community members, investors, and the environment while maintaining my skin in the game and keeping greed at bay.
Starting out as a developer was not easy. Just like my mother’s experience back in Haiti, many found it difficult to accept me as a developer. After all, society reserves certain titles for individuals with the connections that only money and privilege can bring. And as it stands today, most developers don’t have my background or look like me.
And related to that, a big challenge I see is getting capital away from the hands of people who are actively destroying the people they are getting the capital from.