Building Up Communities of Color Three Black real estate professionals committed to investing in low-income neighborhoods share their successes and struggles

By Mary Braswell

Former Los Angeles Laker Devean George’s second career as a builder of safe and affordable housing for communities in need was inspired, in part, by his conversations with children.

In his 11-year NBA run, including three championship seasons in L.A., George used his platform to connect with young people across the country — “to really open up kids’ minds to dreaming and thinking there’s another world outside their four walls.”

But the encounters often came with a reality check, George told a UCLA Luskin Lecture audience on May 9.

“I’m thinking to myself, I’m going to talk to kids and say, ‘Hey, eat your vegetables and you’ll grow like me and get good grades,’” he said. “And they don’t really know where their next meal is coming from or where they’re staying.

“They’re staying at Grandma’s house tonight or with their mom’s boyfriend tomorrow, or they’re somewhere else so they’re missing school.”

The stark need for safe, stable housing options across the country led him to create the George Group North development company and Building Blocks nonprofit in his hometown of Minneapolis. His first housing venture there includes a gathering space for youth, with homework help and food provided by the local school district.

At the Luskin Lecture at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles, George came together with two other Black real estate professionals to share the struggles and successes of building up neighborhoods of color.

Malcolm Johnson launched Langdon Park Capital in Los Angeles in 2021, with a focus on preserving and upgrading existing properties to house low- and middle-income families. He, too, transitioned into the real estate industry after a stint in professional sports, as a wide receiver for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Malika Billingslea is a senior development advisor to NEOO Partners, a commercial real estate firm based in St. Paul, Minnesota, that works to elevate Black voices in the industry. “This rings true every time I think about affordable housing: If you don’t ask me, it’s not for me,” Billingslea said.

The lecture was part of a larger conversation about housing development and social justice taking place at UCLA Luskin, which is launching a new master’s degree in real estate development in fall 2025.

Housing scholar Michael Lens moderated the dialogue, making this foundational observation: “If we’re going to have a conversation about Black people building housing in Black communities, we need to start by talking about why so few Black people are working in development, really in any capacity.”

Nearly 111,000 of the 112,000 real estate development companies in the United States are white-owned, and only 2% of their chief executive positions are held by Black men — “and surely the number is even lower for Black women,” said Lens, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy.

“That’s why it matters for us to be in the room — and not just in the room but making decisions,” said Johnson, who is a UCLA supporter through the Ziman Center for Real Estate.

He did point out that racial awareness can be a significant business asset when competing for capital.

“That is the reason that we’re able to make smart investment decisions in the Crenshaw District, Highland Park, Leimert Park, Prince George’s County, Maryland, the East Bay. We actually have on our investment committee people with cultural competency in those submarkets,” he said. “So it’s not just diversity for the sake of diversity. That’s what investors will respond to.”

Johnson’s company is named after the recreation center that served as the heart of the diverse Washington, D.C., neighborhood where he grew up. Now, each of the buildings he has refurbished bears the Langdon Park name.

“There’s something powerful about owning in your community … but the economics mean that there are far more renters by necessity today, and that’s who we serve,” Johnson said. “So our idea of ownership is how can you take pride in the building? … We provide amenities that meet their needs, just like you would have if you owned a single-family house.”

The panel offered up a wish list of policy changes that could remove barriers to housing justice.

Federal tax credits are supposed to encourage the development of low-income housing, Billingslea said, but “anybody that knows anything about tax code knows it’s ridiculously complex for no apparent reason.”

Intentionally or not, the system of bidding on projects often excludes small minority businesses, George said. The panelists called on lead developers to show diligence, flexibility and creativity to bring diverse talent into the fold.

Johnson said rent control ordinances can have the unintended consequence of curbing cash flow that can be reinvested in a building’s safety upgrades, renovations and tenant amenities, which then make the surrounding community more secure.

“Who’s ever been to a housing project and said, ‘This place looks like it has a lot of hope just because the rents are really low?’” he said. “That doesn’t work. A bunch of poor people with a low tax base means poor-performing schools, it means potholes that don’t get fixed, police that don’t show up.”

George underscored the impact of embedding social supports into housing ventures, a hallmark of his first model housing project in north Minneapolis, which opened in 2016. Professional athletes from around the country have asked George if he could help replicate the project in their own hometowns. And that’s why he now has housing projects in cities like New Orleans.

“Other football players and basketball players that I know were saying, ‘Hey, why don’t we get past the transactional things we’re doing for our communities, the turkey drives and the toy giveaways that are here today and gone tomorrow,’” George said. “What are we going to do for our community that can last? What can we do for our community that can be uplifting, bring more resources and provide jobs?”

Attended by government, nonprofit and philanthropic representatives, as well as students and members of the public, the lecture was co-sponsored by the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, the UCLA Bunche Center for African American Studies and the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate.

Housing for Black People by Black People

School Travels to State Capital for Research Briefing and Alumni Gathering Back-to-back events in Sacramento provide networking opportunities and showcase scholarly works

In mid-February, a contingent of more than 30 people from UCLA Luskin made the trip to northern California in an effort to connect with alumni, government officials and policy experts involved in state government.

The two-day gathering in Sacramento was envisioned as the first of what will become an annual feature of the Luskin’s School’s outreach efforts, pairing an alumni get-together in the state capital with a research-focused briefing for elected officials and their staffs.

The UCLA Luskin Briefing at UC Center Sacramento took place during the time when new bills were being finalized for the next legislative session, and the hope is that the research of UCLA Luskin and its various research centers can put current and future legislative leaders in a better position to make data-informed decisions.

“It was very well attended by elected and appointed officials,” noted Interim Dean Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, who made the effort a priority for this academic year and actively participated in the planning process. “The elected officials I talked to afterward were very appreciative for the event and told me that they hope to see more such events from our School.”

Two briefing sessions were held. A session on water management highlighted research by Adjunct Associate Professor Gregory Pierce MURP ’11 PhD UP ’15, co-executive director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. A session on affordable housing was led by Associate Professor Michael Lens, associate faculty director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.

The briefing and the Alumni Regional Reception, which took place the evening before, brought together faculty, staff or alumni from all four departments — Public Policy, Social Welfare, Urban Planning and the Undergraduate Program — as well as members of the Luskin School’s Board of Advisors.

A group of about 20 current Master of Public Policy students also made the trip, getting an opportunity to connect directly with alumni whose footsteps they may hope to follow, including Assemblyman Isaac Bryan MPP ’18, a member of the affordable housing panel.

Find out more about the briefing and view the bios of the 12 people who participated as speakers or panelists.

View photos from the alumni reception

Sacramento Alumni Regional Reception 2024

View photos from the research briefing

Sacramento Briefing 2024

 

Prospects for Progress on Affordable Housing Solutions

UCLA Luskin’s Michael Lens spoke to the podcast Health Affairs This Week about the roots of zoning policies that have kept neighborhoods segregated by race and income, and the prospects for progress in addressing the nation’s affordable housing crisis. Efforts to change zoning laws to accommodate more housing units have historically been met with strong resistance, but Lens said the conversation has shifted just in the last decade. Now, there is widespread acknowledgment that “we need to do something somewhere” to provide residents with safe and affordable shelter. “The problem is that we have let this go on for so long, this lack of housing production and increased housing costs for people from the poor to middle class,” he said. But Lens pointed to states and cities that are upending zoning restrictions that have long kept a lid on housing development, and concluded, “This is a really good time for hope.”


 

Public Affairs Chat with the Chair

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Join us at the Winter 2024 Public Affairs Chat with the Chair for an opportunity to speak with the Public Affairs Department Chair, Dr. Michael Lens, Luskin faculty, Luskin counselors, and your peers! Faculty will hold roundtable discussions on a range of topics including your interest in the Public Affairs major, research, involvement, and career readiness.

Students interested in the Public Affairs Major are encouraged to attend.

  • Date: February 8, 2024
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Learn more about the Public Affairs major at www.luskin.ucla.edu/undergrad or schedule an appointment with a Luskin undergraduate counselor.

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Modernizing Zoning Laws as Population Expands

Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to the Post and Courier about land use and zoning ordinances at the center of a dispute over a South Carolina turkey-shoot business. A neighbor’s complaint about the business — which invites customers to shoot at targets, with a turkey awarded to the best marksman —prompted a review of zoning decisions made decades ago. The turkey shoot was found in compliance with the law, which did not require a buffer between the gunfire and other properties and did not regulate hours of operation. But officials were left to ponder how to preserve the county’s character amid a rapidly growing population. The episode casts light on recurring frictions over land use ever since the U.S. began to rapidly suburbanize in the 1940s and 1950s. Governments have grappled with how to modernize zoning regulations to accommodate more development, Lens said. “It just involves a lot of trade-offs.”


 

Housing Shortage Persists Despite Population Decline

UCLA Luskin’s Michael Lens spoke to the Los Angeles Times for an article explaining why California housing prices have defied the laws of supply and demand, with mortgages and rents remaining stubbornly high even though the state’s population has declined in recent years. One reason is that, for decades, the pace of housing production did not keep up with demand, creating a backlog made even more enormous by the surge of Millennials now seeking to enter the housing market. “The cost of living in California and Los Angeles is so high … that we know a lot of people can’t move here and we know a lot of people can’t remain here, because they are priced out,” said Lens, a professor of urban planning and public policy.


 

Lens on Housing Density Reforms in Los Angeles

Associate Professor Michael Lens wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times on housing and land use reform in Los Angeles. Lens argues that L.A.’s geographic sprawl can be beneficial in terms of balancing housing density “that works for Californians.” Land use laws that discourage building for density can be reformed to provide alternatives to single-family neighborhoods by re-framing planning for housing around job-rich, medium-density urban hubs. “This does not necessarily mean obliterating the urban forms and communities that have been built in the past century. But without some densification, we’ll keep pushing people and development into the Inland Empire and other outlying areas (which is already happening),” he wrote. The result is “more punishing commutes and, in all likelihood, still expensive housing.” Lens also was quoted in an L.A. Times article about landlords’ objections to a continuing rent freeze, saying the pandemic sent policymakers “reaching for the emergency button,” but now the city should look at policies like expanding housing subsidies rather than extending the freeze.


 

Lens on L.A.’s Skyrocketing Home Prices

A Los Angeles Times article and KNX News report on L.A.’s soaring housing prices turned to UCLA Luskin’s Michael Lens for context. The newspaper reported that the median home price in Los Angeles had risen to just under $1 million, a 30% increase over the past five years. “Even if it is an arbitrary number, it’s an astounding one,” said Lens, chair of the Luskin School’s undergraduate program and a scholar of urban planning and public policy. Driven by scarcity and demand, the rising prices also impact the rental market, Lens said – but he added that state programs to increase the overall housing stock are falling short. His proposed solutions included “getting rid of single-family zoning and upzoning those neighborhoods,” removing “onerous parking requirements,” and scrapping rules on minimum setbacks and other burdensome mandates. Altogether, the state should fix “a lot of boring zoning things that together make the cost of building more housing more expensive,” Lens said.


 

What Does Subsidized Housing in L.A. Need? ‘More of Everything,’ Lens Says


 

Lens on the Population Exodus in Northern California

Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about a stark population decline in California, specifically in cities in Northern California. Factors such as the Bay Area’s tech-rich economy have led to an increase in remote work, resulting in an exodus of employees to less expensive locales. “Hundreds of thousands more people would desire to live in the Bay Area — if not millions — and Southern California if we made it easier to accommodate those people through more housing units and presumably more affordable housing,” Lens said. Many remote areas saw an influx of people, but Lens noted that an increase in housing is mostly needed in major cities. Urban centers can grow more efficiently, he said, adding that moving to places with lower population densities could also lead to longer commutes.