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Ex-black athlete joins elite New York real estate developer club

When his playing days in the National Football League ended in 2012, Jamar Adams was heading for a job at Goldman Sachs and was considering applying to the Ross School of Business at his alma mater, the University of Michigan.

Then a friend arranged a reunion for him with Stephen Ross, the billionaire president of The Associated Companies, one of New York’s biggest real estate developers and the Ross School benefactor. Ross also owns the Miami Dolphins football team. The young black athlete and the Jewish mogul in his seventies hit it off.

“He sort of gushed out, ‘Hey, why don’t you come work for me? Adams recalls, who at first didn’t take the suggestion seriously. “About five minutes later he said, ‘You know what? You should really come and work for me. ”

So began an unlikely journey into the real estate world for Adams, 35, which culminated this month with the launch of his own business, Essence Development. He will specialize in affordable and labor-intensive housing which tends to be overlooked by many other developers.

“I want to sit at the table to help make the decisions about how we are building the next generation of affordable housing – from a sustainability perspective as well as how we make it user-driven.” Adams explained. “You only get that if you sit at the table, and you don’t sit at the table if you don’t own it.”

For black Americans, joining the elite club of real estate developers Adams aspires to – that is, giants like Ross who literally built the New York skyline – has been extremely difficult.

The biggest success may be Don Peebles, a college dropout who turned a relationship with Washington Mayor Marion Barry into a real estate empire on the east coast. After Peebles, there aren’t many others.

“Black developers and minority developers are significantly under-represented in the real estate community,” said Sam Chandan, dean of the Schack Institute of Real Estate at New York University, who has championed a greater diversity in the industry.

If not out of outright racism, minority promoters have been thwarted by a lack of capital and a scarcity of high-level business and government contacts that are essential to bring large-scale developments to life.

“You have to have the network,” Chandan said. “The complexity of development means relationships with the community, with construction companies, with brokerage firms – this well-established network is a critical ingredient to success.

As a black athlete growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Adams found he had many potential role models in professional sports – but few other careers.

In high school, his mother forced him to join Saturday meetings sponsored by 100 Black Men, a mentoring group that matched him with a black executive from Wachovia Bank and opened his eyes to the possibility of a career in business.

“That’s the challenge,” Adams said. “When you’re young you want to be able to look up and see someone who says to you: I can be like them. And we just don’t have representation in many areas. ”

Jamar Adams pictured with Related Chairman Bruce Beal

Adams attended Michigan on a football scholarship, becoming the first member of his family to graduate from four-year college, before spending two seasons in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles.

Related is known for daring and glitzy projects such as the $ 25 billion Hudson Yards on the West Side of Manhattan – a luxury office, retail and condominium development that has become a ghost town by the pandemic. But Adams went to work in his affordable housing division, which was Ross’ goal when he founded the company in 1972.

Affordable housing, incidentally, is the same job that a Queens developer named Fred Trump used to build a family fortune. It requires cost discipline as well as the ability to manage government subsidies and incentives.

While materials and budgets may differ, Adams argued that luxury and affordable projects weren’t entirely separate. For both, the key to success was understanding the user and providing the right equipment.

In Hudson Yards, it could be an Equinox hotel. For an affordable project, these amenities might include on-site health care for low-income beneficiaries, childcare services, and luring a health-conscious grocery store.

“People are trying to commodify affordable housing. They say, “Look, you’re throwing something up there. You get the links, you get the [tax] credits, you build the same thing over and over again. But with affordable housing, you have to have the same intent and focus as when you build homes at market rates, ”Adams said.

Related is known for his bold and glitzy projects such as the $ 25 billion Hudson Yards in West Manhattan © AFP via Getty Images

From Ross he says he learned a lot, especially the art of selling. “He’s the Pied Piper,” Adams said, describing the older man’s ability to influence an audience. He was not troubled, he said, by Ross’s decision to host a 2019 fundraiser for Donald Trump. The event sparked a backlash among progressives, who accused the developer and his friends of rescuing a president they said encouraged racism.

“I am not a Trump supporter. But I’m a Stephen Ross supporter, ”Adams said, recalling how his mentor took a chance on him years before the current outcry over racial injustice.

Affection is mutual. “I remember going to that first meeting with him, hearing why he went to Michigan and knowing the success there was, and I could feel that his character, his intelligence and his ambition would prepare him for success. “Ross said.

All in all, Adams helped lead the construction or rehabilitation of over 5,000 affordable and middle-income housing units during his career at Related and became Vice President.

He began to envision a new path after the police murder last year of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis, and the racial injustice he exposed. For Adams, it was realized that he had attended too many affordable housing meetings in which minorities were barely present.

“I have always seen non-blacks and non-minorities able to make housing decisions for low-income and affordable residents,” he said.

When Adams informed Ross and Bruce Beal, president of Related, of his plans, the two asked to join its board. Their presence should help when it comes to a lingering complaint from minority promoters: funding. Time and time again, Adams has been warned by others in the industry that – other things being equal – a white developer would get better loan terms.

Another challenge is the economy. A historic crisis precipitated by a once-in-a-century pandemic may seem like an inopportune time to start a new development endeavor. It certainly clouded the outlook for Hudson Yards.

But Adams is convinced the need for affordable housing has only increased as the coronavirus has put millions of people out of work and threatened with eviction of families. The Biden administration has spoken of creating a $ 100 billion affordable housing fund as part of its plans to address the shortage.

“I think now is the perfect time,” Adams said, with all the confidence of New York’s top developers.

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