Mar 11, 2016
The Brooklyn 100: James Johnson-Piett, Founder of Urbane Development
Created in 2008, Urbane Development works with underserved communities across the country to promote internal wealth generation. Johnson-Piett launched it after realizing the importance of working directly with communities to understand and then tap into their natural resources by providing tailored support. Urbane Development was named co-lead on the redevelopment of the Flatbush Caton Market, where Johnson-Piett’s team will focus on providing training, management, and business development skills to the market’s 47 vendors to help them flourish in their future space, and create a thriving Caribbean immigrant community; Urbane is also working with a consortium in Bed-Stuy to increase financial health for low-income residents.
Can you talk about your background, how and why it led you to be interested in community-building and wealth generation?
I grew up in North Philly – not dissimilar to rough and tumble Brooklyn in the 80s – went to boarding school in New Hampshire, and have worked as everything from a bond underwriter to a tarot card reader to a screenwriter to a real estate advisor and developer.
I’ve been blessed to live and experience how the haves and the have nots live. What became crystal clear to me is quality of life and all the indices that we measure against—public safety, job creation, health, environment impact—comes back to wealth inequality. So my company Urbane was built with an integrated, multi-sectoral concept that could bring together economics, public safety and health, and environmental issues at the neighborhood scale. After the first 2 years, I got clear on what my work is truly about, which is wealth generation for underserved populations. The median net worth of African-American households is $11,000; Latino households, a little under $14,000; White households… about $142,000. The level of wealth disparity is just ridiculous and negatively impacts everyone, whether we acknowledge it or not.
What was the initial idea that led you to start Urbane Development? What was your goal for the organization at the time, and what is it today?
Before I started the company, in 2008, I worked for a nonprofit in Philly helping convert delis/bodegas to sell healthier food. A couple of the bodega owners and I got invited to Terra Madre in Italy, a global conference of food communities. Everywhere we went, we visited food markets. I thought a lot about food and community. One day, I was standing on the cliffs of Vernazza, overlooking the Mediterranean, talking with the hotel owner about business and he asked me “what’s next for you?” It was then I realized I had to do something on my own, something that would penetrate the core issues we were touching on at the conference.
I asked myself how I could make peoples’ lives as good, as interesting, and as free as possible. Usually, in our country at least, that freedom and mobility comes with certain economic advantages. I thought I would get into affordable housing. It was October of 2008, I got back from Italy and gave my notice at work. There was an old carriage house in the Germantown section of Philly with an acre of land on a hill. My business partner and I thought we’d put down half and finance the rest. We were about to close when the economic crisis hit.
When I told a client of mine in Detroit what happened, she asked me if I wanted to consult on the implementation phase of the design of a “green grocer” program I’d started with my former employer. I had a similar project in Newark, so very quickly I became this guy doing program development and financing for food retail projects. I thought maybe this could become that bigger thing I envisioned on the hill in Italy, but I had no idea how to go from revolving loan fund financing for grocery stores, being a niche of a niche of a niche, to changing community development.
There was a second “aha moment” two years later. We were working with a supportive services housing developer. In this case, our direct clients were tenants with a history of mental health challenges. We partnered with the developer and the state mental health agency to create a “work as therapy” concept throughout their housing network across NYC.
One of the first stores was in Midwood, deep in southern Brooklyn. We built a 50’s-style candy store and trained a bunch of folks who lived in nearby supportive services housing to work there. It was up and running for about a year and going pretty well. Then there were changes in the sponsoring organization. The project was gutted, along with other social enterprise initiatives. The workers were devastated. That’s when I realized just how impactful the store was. As an outside consultant, there was nothing I could do. I knew Urbane needed to be a true decision maker in future projects. As an advisory firm, we also lack balance sheet strength compared to firms with hard assets. Since half my clients were real estate developers, I thought maybe we could leverage those relationships and our community development process to get into real estate.
We’re currently in engaging a couple of our long-standing target communities to participate in neighborhood-scale mixed use developments as a co-developer, including the redevelopment of the Flatbush Caton Market here in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Since you began the company, what projects and work are you most proud of?
We’re doing some interesting work with the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, on how alternative credit systems can help low-income residents in NYC. A lot of NYC residents have bad or no credit, which affects everything from getting an apartment to a cell phone, or even a library book. For example, if you pay your credit card on time, that’s recorded. But how do you measure good behaviors like paying your rent on time? That’s currently not reported to credit bureaus with any consistency. So we’re looking at the myriad of alternative credit reporting opportunities the City of New York has in its auspices, from child support payments to parking tickets, which involve recurring payments that could be reported to major bureaus at scale.
Our case study is in Bedford Stuyvesant, and its focus is identifying the ecosystem of trust in that community. What are the ways people engage in credit or “trust” transactions and how can they be codified? Is there a parallel ecosystem that can be created at the neighborhood level to supplement (or even replace) the existing mechanisms that measure credit worthiness? The implications bring us back to opportunities for individual and community ownership–of a home, a business, or land.
The promise of the Flatbush Caton Market redevelopment is manifold: provide a showcase venue for Caribbean entrepreneurs and small businesses to offer an array of unique products, services, and signature experiences to Flatbush, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the city at large; construct a true anchor development that, paired with the redevelopment of the Kings Theatre, creates an arts corridor that will showcase the best of Caribbean and mainstream cultural offerings, and channels the excitement of the food and makers movements to a community with a longstanding history of excellence in both spaces.
As with any larger-scale redevelopment, the project timeline is subject to change, but the development team estimates to deliver the redevelopment in 2020. In the interim, there will be a robust pop-up market that will continue the market operations during the construction of the permanent facility, which the existing tenants will move to after the development completes the City’s ULURP (land use) process.
In your estimation, what is the most pressing and important issue to pay attention to when it comes to community development?
Communities in the low- and middle-income bracket have demonstrated a clear desire to own and leverage either hard assets, such as land, real property, public infrastructure; and/or their own businesses. In either case, communities view the concept of ownership—of community assets by community members—as their north star.
Existing financing programs discourage or do not allow individuals and community groups to pool their capital, which would allow them to spread their risk over a more diverse portfolio of projects. Most importantly, the vast majority of financing products targeting low- and moderate-income communities are debt vehicles. There are no equity (or convertible note, credit, or other financial) products targeting underserved communities. Patient, higher-risk capital does not exist in this space; venture capital and equity products should not just be the province of the wealthy.
Potentially, the most potent aspect of equity capital is the content expertise, mentorship, and human capital investment germane to portfolio management by equity investors. Equity investors help companies stabilize cash flow, find talent, connect to new markets, and organize internal capacity in ways one could never ask a lending institution to match.
Our engagement at Flatbush Caton hopes to integrate access to patient risk capital over time with the mentorship and operational support small businesses need to grow and thrive.
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