Prioritizing Equity and Inclusion in Real Estate with Gina Merritt - Ep. 45

This episode of the Social Enterprise Alliance Podcast aired on Tuesday, June 11th. This episode can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Gina: [00:00:00] Part of the government's focus is to help everyone. They should partner with social enterprises that actually can take the responsibility of vetting people and making sure that people who are actually ready, get the employment placements and supporting the people that don't. And I think governments need to understand there are organizations like ours that are out there that can help them with that solution.

Wouldn't it be great if every community had a system where a person could get some support with transportation to their new job for the first couple of weeks? Wouldn't that be great if we had some kind of system to ensure that people who want to work can get a head start, right? It's hard to start the job, then you're not getting paid for three or four weeks and you still got to figure out how to get to work.

Hello everyone and welcome to 

David: the Social Enterprise Alliance podcast. I'm your host, Dan Mantz. I'm your host, Dan Mantz. Today's guest is Dr. Gina Merritt. Gina is the founder of Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures and has over 26 years of hands on real estate [00:01:00] development, finance, construction, and asset management experience.

Through this work, she has participated in the development of over 8, 200 units of housing and has underwritten approximately 4. 5 billion in real estate development transactions. As an experienced owner, developer, and asset manager, Gina and her team bring practical experience to their municipal nonprofit and institutional clients to provide unmatched real estate advisory services.

Gina is also the founder of Project Community Capital. A social capital platform that connects people in low income communities with jobs ensuring that subcontractors who have socioeconomic goals from state and federal funding can meet their requirements by connecting them with individuals who are ready to work.

Please welcome Gina to the podcast.[00:02:00] 

Well, welcome Gina. We're just so thrilled that you're here today to join us for the Social Enterprise Alliance podcast. Welcome. 

Gina: Thank you so much for having me. I'm happy to be here. 

David: So as we begin, just want to hear about your story and how you got involved with Social Enterprise. 

Gina: Actually, it was recommended to me by a colleague a little bit after I got out of my doctoral program.

I went to USC to work on a platform that I created, believe it or not. A decade ago, but wanted to redesign it based on some best practices around social innovation. So USC has a department of social innovation in their school of social work. And once I went and did that work, people started talking about SEA, SEA, you gotta join SEA for, you [00:03:00] know, to be amongst like minded people.

That's how I got to SEA. 

David: Well, whoever those people were, thank you. Cause we're glad that you're part of our. Call SEA home. So that's really great. Well, you've done a lot of work with Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures. What is the history and the impact that you're trying to have with that? 

Gina: Sure. So Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures, which we affectionately call NREV, is a real estate development organization that specializes in affordable housing.

Based on doing that work, I became frustrated with contractors and developers meeting socioeconomic goals for affordable housing, right? The government invests public dollars into projects, and one of the goals for the government is to ensure that people from the surrounding community are able to obtain employment.

And what I found is that general contractors and subcontractors, they're so focused on building their building, right? They don't really spend a lot of time vetting people for [00:04:00] employment in order to meet those goals. So what winds up happening is people from the community wind up working 2 3 days or 3 4 weeks in their jobs.

And it's generally because there's a whole group of folks that are not ready to work that need supportive services to get ready to work. But then there's a whole group of people that actually are ready to work. They're the people who are not counted in the labor force and the unemployment rate. Those are the people who have lost hope because they've looked for jobs for a long time and they've just given up.

They can't find any. Our platform then was birthed out of that. Project Community Capital. We affectionately call that PCC. And PCC focuses on making sure that certainly our projects and when we're hired by third parties, as we often are, to ensure that those projects meet their socioeconomic goals, we wind up interviewing hundreds of people for jobs.

That way we are able to find people who are overlooked and underestimated. There's a whole group of people in the [00:05:00] communities we serve who are actually capable of working. It just takes some time and some vetting to find them. You find those folks and then you can get them employed on a construction project and will last the whole time.

We have rates of 94 percent to 98 percent retention on our projects, which no one has. Why? Because we spend an inordinate amount of time finding and locating people who are ready to work now. And what my social innovation program did for me is made me focus on, Okay, Gina, you're doing a great job of placing those people who are ready to work.

What happens to everybody else? So our platform then was based on the collective impact model that was generated out of Stanford University. And now we have a collective of non profit organizations, all doing social impact work. And those folks help us get the people who are not ready, ready to work. We then turned it into not a construction only platform, but now we help people with general [00:06:00] employment.

We have placed a ton of people in permanent jobs. People from underserved communities who otherwise would not know how to access employment. And we do that by leveraging social capital. So we have friends in high places. We have high value social capital. And we bring that high value social capital to the neighborhoods we serve.

And when we find people, whatever they're interested in, we call up our friends. And we say, Hey, we know you have jobs. We have people. So why don't we connect you to, just like any of us on this call, when we want something, we have friends we can call to get that thing, right? The communities we serve don't have the same level of social capital to gain employment and pay.

And so, that essentially is our platform, and that is why we are joined with SEA, because we are doing this significant social impact work around the communities in which we're building affordable housing. 

Lauren: Wow, that's fantastic. It's awesome to hear about the multi level impact that you're having, so it's like workforce [00:07:00] development, it's also staffing and hiring, and then it has social impact and social value as well in the realm of housing.

Affordable housing. I'm just so curious. Obviously, this idea has developed over a lot of hard work and, uh, dedication, and the platform that you referenced when you talked about your doctorate, was that kind of the early stages of Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures? 

Gina: Well, Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures has been in business 23 years.

Wow. We founded Project Community Capital On our first project, we were hired to manage the development process in 2010, is when we formed it, because we actually closed on the project in 2011. 2010, the owner was like, I really want to make sure people get hired on this project, and they stay hired. So, that's when I put this whole platform together and not until I went to my doctoral program did I realize that was called an intervention.

I was like, oh really now, is that what it is? They taught me that language that I created this intervention, right, this innovative [00:08:00] way of ensuring that people were hired from the community and stayed the whole time. And I really had to fight the systems, right? I mean, social innovation is about disrupting and dismantling systems.

And that's what I did because even in that project, the system was. You have to wait until construction starts before we refer these people to you to be hired. I was like, it's too late then. I need to screen all those people now so that I know I have a database full of people that are ready to work. So when a contractor requests a person, they're there, they're ready, and they're able.

So, that's exactly why I did that, but yes, it was born out of NREV's development work and this one particular project in 2010. And then, getting my doctoral degree, I redesigned it to add the supportive services work. And now we're doing all kinds of things. We've actually saved a few people with suicidal ideations and got them mental health care.

And then once we've gotten them mental health care, we've actually gotten them jobs. There are so many studies out there that [00:09:00] will talk about the propensity to work being tied to mental and physical health. You can't have one without the other. You have to have your health. And of course, we know once you work and earn income, then you have income to take care of your health.

And so it's very much aligned. So we make sure in our services that we offer mental and physical health care as part of the work we do. 

David: Let's talk more about the systems that you see. So. When you think about systems, what were the challenges? What were the biggest challenges as you got started? And what systems do you see today that really need the attention from social enterprise?

Gina: Oh boy. 

David: I know that's a big question. 

Gina: Well, yeah, it is so big. Um, I can just talk about a few of the examples of the systems and how we write, how we've been disruptive and where. All of us need to support the disruption of these systems, right? One is in the government referral process for employment. Part of the government's focus is to help everyone.

And so what the challenge was in that [00:10:00] case is that the government referred everyone for a job, and people who weren't ready actually got jobs, and that's why they only lasted two or three days or two or three weeks. So that needs to be challenged in the way that, if that's the government's stance, which is fine, they're the government, they should partner with social enterprises, That actually can take the responsibility of vetting people and making sure the people who are actually ready, get the employment placements and supporting the people that don't getting away from this sort of free for all referral system, I think is important.

And I think governments need to understand there are organizations like ours that are out there that can help them with that solution. I would say another interesting thing is a couple of other systems we've dismantled, or at least we've tried. We had a gentleman, we got him a job and for three weeks he was being driven to work by his brother and he was a returning citizen.

And after three weeks his brother was trying to get him to sell drugs again and he refused to do that. So then he had no way to get to work. So we gave a few hundred [00:11:00] dollars of transportation passes to help him get to work. But wouldn't it be great if every community had a system where a person could get some support For With transportation to their new job for the first couple of weeks, wouldn't that be great if we had some kind of system to ensure that people who want to work.

Can get a head start, right? It's hard to start the job Then you're not getting paid for three or four weeks and you still got to figure out how to get to work Right. So the way we disrupted that is we gave the money and then he was able to save enough money Then to take care of himself and work then I'd be enough two weeks after that He came to us because the child support department took all of his money out of his bank account Even though he had a child support payment plan in place, those two systems weren't talking to each other.

So one part of the system went and swiped the money, while the other one was already taking the money. So what we did there is we wrote him a check for the amount 1, 350 and sent it to his father. And then we called the [00:12:00] head of child support and talked to them and they agreed, like the systems, you know, don't talk to each other.

The child support department connected the local office with our client and they worked it out so that wouldn't happen again. That is still disrupting the system. But there ought to be something in place that prevents that from happening, right? And or gives the money back. So we are the people who are looking into those systems and helping people navigate them.

We not only provide advocacy, but we're trying to do the reparations. And we're doing that right now, out of our own pocket. We started a non profit called WFL Collective, Workforce Leverage Collective, where all of these, um, non profit relationships are housed through MOUs, but we really need philanthropic dollars to help us with this disruption because right now we're paying for it out of our pocket and we're limited in how many people we can help.

But those are the systems that we all need to attack. We need to attack them head on with the legislature. But we also need immediate reparations, right? If we did not give [00:13:00] that gentleman a few hundred dollars to get to work, and if we didn't send him that money back as a returning citizen from prison, where would he be right now?

Maybe back in prison? And that was a year ago! This gentleman has not asked us for one other thing. Right? I mean, people think that once you start doing these kinds of handouts that somebody's gonna be there all the time with their handout. But no. There's a whole population of people who just need a little bit of help and have dignity and pride in their work and trying to take care of themselves.

And so it is our job when we see those systems, one, to speak up and to challenge that government, municipal, agency, whatever institution. But also if we can help fix the problem like right away, which obviously is the harder thing to do. I mean, they're both hard. One is longer term and one is a lot of money.

But. In our case, those are the ways that we're trying to disrupt. We had a woman, for example, one more story. We met in public housing. She had three to four jobs at any given time, [00:14:00] working 80 hours a week. Okay? One of them was a 12 hour shift in an emergency room in a hospital, which she did through COVID.

She had to live at home to have somebody help take care of her son. When we met her, the last job a government agency tried to refer her to was to be a barista at Starbucks. She was like, what am I going to do with that and all these other jobs I have? So in all the jobs, she was making 64, 000. And although that seems like a lot, obviously, if she had one job, it would be You know, maybe one third or one fourth of that.

Right. And that's the point we wound up using our social capital to get her a job and the job she applied for, she wasn't qualified for in terms of skillsets. She wasn't quite prepared to be an office manager, but the company loved her so much. They created a job for her as administrative assistant in 18 months, she received three or four pay raises.

So she went from 64, 000 to 77, 000 plus additional benefits. What we did for her, in terms of dismantling the system, is she had credit cards with debt on them, trying to take care of her family, and she wanted to [00:15:00] qualify for a house. So we went and paid off her debt, so she could. So, we're disrupting the systems at every level from zero to home ownership.

Lauren: Wow, that's amazing. I think it's really special too that your organization is able to have such individualized impact and like you meet your people and you're talking to them where they're at, you know, and you're taking care of them and their individual and personal needs. I think that's really powerful and really special.

Gina: appreciate that. Yeah. It's amazing. I appreciate that. Because most of the time what we're up against really, especially when we're competing for grants and things. We're up against people who want to say we've placed a hundred people or we've placed on your people But are those people still working because what you don't find is people doing this kind of work The little bit of money that you need to add to a person's journey That if you do that in the first six months of that journey, it changes the complete trajectory of someone's life And most of the people that we get hired, uh, they get [00:16:00] raises within the first, they get two raises on average within the first year because they're so ambitious.

They just needed the connection to that opportunity and they needed a little help along the way. 

Lauren: Wow, yeah, that's like completely transformational. That's really inspiring. On a, like, a slightly different note, but kind of related to, like, I'm curious, so you're in real estate as part of what you do. You know, there's obviously many facets to what you do, but real estate is kind of a, I would say, a more established industry.

So how do you take a more established industry and then Make it into something that prioritizes Impact and like what has your experience been with that? What obstacles have you faced within like an established industry? 

Gina: That is very interesting. Um, well, what's interesting is that right now? We have six hundred million dollars worth of projects in our portfolio and in every project We have a line item for human capital services, and we're [00:17:00] gonna Provide PCC implementations to all of our projects.

Right? And so what we are doing is really trying to demonstrate by example that this can be done. We've won 19 awards in the last 20 months for this work for connecting economic empowerment to housing. And so I think that in itself is disruptive to the industry. And every time I want a panel. I get to talk about that, whether the panel is about social impact or not, I talk about this and I think we are setting the example.

I'll tell you one county we're doing business in, the county leadership said to me specifically, he said, Gina, all projects in our county need to be done like yours. So to me, that's the beginning of change, right? When the government can recognize the work that you're doing and how valuable it is, I think that's where change comes from.

So I. Any opportunity I get to sit in front of [00:18:00] government officials, especially, and talk about the work we do, I do it. And they, and it looks like they're seeing it. Certainly in the markets that we're working in, people continue to say they value us, and they continue to put money into the projects because of it.

And honestly, I think that part of what I'm suggesting there is that governments require these services for affordable housing. Because the other thing that's very interesting, And the, the thing that I'm preaching now as part of this holistic approach is that the other thing we know about affordable housing is many, many people that move into affordable housing never leave.

And what I'm saying is there's gotta be an incentive for them to leave. There's gotta be an incentive for them to leave, do better, own a home. So part of what we do for the residents that live in our affordable housing, not only are we helping people that are completely unemployed and have lost hope, we're also helping the people that live in our properties.

Level up whether that's through education and training to get [00:19:00] better jobs Obviously you can't remove a person from affordable housing if they make more money But maybe the choice will be wow i'm making enough money I can actually go buy a house or I can go live in a different neighborhood or I can pay More money now and be and have different a different level of amenities.

Whatever it is That's what we should be focused on services, as well as getting people out of affordable housing and making space for the next generation of people who will need it. 

David: Yeah, well, I think you, you hinted at the, my next question, which is where do you see Northern real estate, urban ventures going next or project capital, community capital going in the next few years.

It sounds like you're hinting at that. How do you see that coming to life? How do you see that graduating model really being embodied? And is there a way that like the foreman said, Hey, we, every, every project needs to have this. Is there a way that you see yourself pushing into more and more connection points like that?

Gina: Yeah, my, my goal really is to, and I [00:20:00] have not done this as of yet. Really lobby a bunch of developers and contractors that I know to engage PCC. We're working on one or two major contracts right now that I'm trying to lock down. And we're also getting our pipeline of projects on track. Due to the economy and the high interest rates, some of our projects have had large financing gaps.

And I've spent a lot of my time trying to solve for those. But it looks like many of those are now solved. So, I'm expecting in late spring to really Start lobbying all of the people I know to engage us because I think to your point. It's very important that these services are included in all affordable housing and lots of developers national local Affordable housing developers.

That's not their bailiwick necessarily, right? I think they're interested in doing it, but it's just not what they do And so I have no problem taking that off of their hands and making sure that the communities they serve have economic [00:21:00] benefits into Perpetuity, right? And so to your point, that is the next phase.

The next phase is to really push on third parties to hire PCC to do this work. For NREV, we're always going to have this in our portfolio and I've built millions of dollars worth of projects for other people, thousands of units for other developers, national developers. And just now, since 2020, since George Floyd was murdered.

I now have the opportunity to own my own project. So my pipeline is full of 600 million dollars worth of projects And only one of them as of last year is in in the ground two of them will go on the ground this year And so once my projects are actually developed and fully leased, the next part of what NRUV and PCC will do is then to work with those residents to make sure they make more money and buy a home if they wish.

That really is the next phase will be to basically expand the model to ensure that people wind up in homes and creating [00:22:00] generational wealth. At the end of the day, again, I don't want people living in our units forever. I want them to go own homes and have wealth to leave to their children. 

Lauren: Yeah, that's amazing.

I think you use the word holistic and I just think that's what you're doing is extremely holistic. Like you're looking at every part of the person and every part of the systems that are working against them in many cases and then finding the ways to fix that. It's really exciting and I'm very excited to see what you all continue to accomplish.

I appreciate 

Gina: it. And, and that's why scaling is so important to us now, to your point. It takes a lot of time and effort and individualized and, and that's really what it takes to make change. Right. And so we're hopeful this year. To also be able to raise enough money for our platform so that we can help any person off the street who wants the support that we have to offer.

And you're right, holistic. We're doing all the things, you know, part of that is that's just the way my brain works. Okay. I can't just do one [00:23:00] thing. I got to do all the things. 

Lauren: Well, speaking of like raising money or, you know, what are the ways that our listeners who are also inspired by your work, how can they support you?

How can they get involved with the work that you're doing? 

Gina: I appreciate that. Well, certainly if you'd like to donate, you can donate to our nonprofit WFL Collective online and that's wflcollective. org. No donation is too small because we help people like buying a pair of work boots. So, if we had two 25 contributions, we could buy somebody a pair of work boots.

So, uh, we would be grateful for that. And then certainly we just launched a, and hopefully it's on our website. If not, it's certainly on LinkedIn and you can probably find the launch on Instagram. We also launched a volunteer program for Project Community Capital. And so please find us, I'm almost certain it's already on the website, if not, it's certainly on LinkedIn and Instagram.

So if they can look up project community capital [00:24:00] in both of those places, you will find a link to join our volunteer program to volunteer time as little as an hour a month. You could coach a person who we've put into employment. You can interview somebody who we're screening. It will help us scale. So if you want to have impact and you have an hour a month.

You will be making a great impact on someone's life. 

David: Yeah. That's so cool. You know, cause it's, yeah, again, even that approach of like donation is a holistic approach. It's not just the money. It's also how do we get involved on the ground? Well, Gina, we really appreciate you being on with us today and just are inspired by so many ways that you're looking at all the different angles.

That graduating model, I think is just amazing. And like you said, generational wealth, when you can pass that on, That's when we can really start to break down the systems that you're talking about. So I just really appreciate all the hard work that you're doing. 

Gina: Thank you. I appreciate you giving the time to me to share [00:25:00] today.

So thank you.