A Helping Hand for Housing: An Interview with LGW Member lisa wise ('20)

April 10, 2023

As DC and the surrounding region grows, housing access and affordability is of increasing concern for leaders. After she led the Our Region, Race + Real Estate panel, we sat down with LGW Member lisa wise ('20) to discuss her work in the field, and what we all can do to help.

Could you give us a short – or long – background about what you do, and the kind of work your organization does?

I'm the founder and owner of Flock DC, a family of real estate management companies. After George Floyd was murdered we realized that we needed to do more learning around real estate and racism, and how it has impacted the intergenerational or the interracial wealth gap. We have done a lot of work internally around being an anti-racist workplace, one of which was reading The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. It really inspired us to think about what our role is in the industry, to stand up and say that intentional segregation, intentional zoning, intentional predatory lending, all those things originated with the real estate industry. We're all about property value and yet I look around and I don't see anybody talking about that. I'm just not hearing them say a word about it, and I understand that people think, oh well, that wasn't my responsibility. But it's everybody's responsibility to work toward brighter future for all. We had a microgrant program called birdseed many years ago that was designed to give a doer, a maker or a disruptor in the city a no strings attached $2500 microgrant. We made it really simple, without a need for crazy qualifications, just a quick application. We didn’t want to create a burden for the applicant.

That got us thinking about down payment windfalls, and how intergenerational wealth often provides financial support that’s inaccessible for people of color. So in 2020 we hatched a plan to start giving microgrants of $10,000 to $15,000 for down payments to create pathways for BIPOC homeownership. It’s not a loan it’s a gift, as we don’t believe people should have to jump through hoops just to realize their dream. We have given grants to eleven people so far to close on houses, and we have ten more who are currently looking for homes. Right now we’re looking at ways to increase the grant amount. We’ve also expanded the project to Philadelphia and currently have hundreds of applications.

DC continues to experience exponential growth, and with that growth people tend to get left behind. Where do you see the intersection of housing justice and fairness with this kind of growth? Where are the areas that need to be addressed?

We need policies set aside to make sure that we're creating more affordable housing in the region. Developers need to be part of that conversation, and it needs to be public/private dialogue created between the developer and the city. We need to have a matrix of solutions. It's not going to be one thing or the other. We need policy. We need to have higher mandates – look at what we've done in terms of carbon reduction, we should do the equivalent in terms of housing. We need private citizens to do things like put their homes in Land Trust, which sets them aside for affordable market rate housing. And there are a lot of things you can do as an individual. There are a lot of different organizations that support fair housing in the community, mine included, that could use your help as an individual, for fundraising and awareness. You can talk about redistribution of wealth, about how we can’t have people at the top owning everything, and about your own privilege. Think about earning less and giving more.

Housing and jobs have to go together. So we also need to think about making sure that people have access to good, well-paying middle-class jobs. DC has a comparatively generous livable wage, but only if you don’t live in the city. Then you factor in the cost of commuting and you’re really diluting your wealth or your ability to earn, or your ability to even get by the farther you are from your job. People need access to these jobs and the opportunity to live in the city.

Is there anything that’s happening in the city that interests or concerns you? Any big things to look out for, good or bad?

People coming into this market and just buying everything with cash, people that are not impacted by the increased interest rate, because if you're buying with cash, it's the best possible time to buy. We have a lot of foreign investors that come in and just sit on property. We also have a lot of abandoned property, such as city buildings with no tenants. What will it look like as our downtown becomes repurposed for residential environments? There could be an interesting sea change in the way that we're looking at real estate and how we look at moving people into living spaces that were not intended for residential use.

Just quickly going back to your process of just getting money into the hands of buyers, was there a particular motivation behind that? We've talked about it before, but how did you reach the decision to handle it this way?

When I was in graduate school at the University of Arizona I had a close relative who passed away, and while he was ill he gave me his Honda Civic. I sold it for $8300 and turned around and used that as a down payment on a duplex. It totally transformed my life, and gave me the opportunity to build a family of companies. It gave me the freedom of housing security, of ownership, the stability of a growing asset. And I’d like to give other people that opportunity for stability and growth. The down payment is often the hardest part of buying a home, it can take several years to save $10,000. So the impact of our microgrants are not insignificant, and we’re hopeful that this contribution has a generational impact.

LGW Members and Partners represent a vast array of industries. Are there other ideas across other sectors that can help? What can LGW Leaders do?

They have to be openly discussing race, and they need to be openly making contributions to organizations that are making a difference. It's very easy for companies in particular to check the box one year and uncheck it the next year because nobody's paying attention. So we need people to be putting their money where their mouth is. And we need companies to stretch a little bit more and ask themselves if they're sponsoring or supporting the right organizations, or whether they want to reconsider and redistribute their giving to birdseed instead? You know we're all guilty, you and I included, of being part of this sort of gala culture. And these galas raise money for good things, but maybe just rethink how you're cutting that pie up. If it's part of your giving strategy or your marketing strategy, think about how you might actually just make a direct contribution to people buying homes.

Are there any additional resources you recommend that people can look into to learn more about these issues?

The Color of Law is one of the best books you can read, and just reading in general is hugely important. Go to sites that will articulate how to learn the accurate history of racism and real estate, or racism and fill in the blank industry, and you can learn more than you ever wanted to about what we've done to people of color in this country. To learn is to open your eyes, which is to see some solutions you can engage in. There are things happening everywhere, and there are a lot of people not paying any attention. So if we can inspire people to pay more attention, then I think we'll get closer to solutions.

The late David Harrington (‘15) was an outspoken champion of housing fairness in our region. Let’s do the work, and let’s honor David.

A $10,000 down payment gift will be made to first-time BIPOC home buyer in Prince George’s County with the support of birdSEED. But…

We need your support.

This is a no-strings attached grant, offered without hoops and hurdles. birdSEED, a volunteer run, housing justice foundation, will manage the gift. If you are interested in donating, please email leslie@birdseed.org for information on ACH transfers or donate right on the site.  Donations are 100% deductible and 100% of the funds go directly to the birdSEED foundation’s housing justice grants for first time BIPOC home buyers. When you give your gift, just note David in the memo.

Dr. Marla Dean ('20) is birdSEED's National Board Chair. birdSEED's Advisory Board also includes LGW '20 members Rashaan Bernard, Paola Moya, Koube Ngaaje, Lupi Quinteros-Grady and Tatiana Torres

A Helping Hand for Housing: An Interview with LGW Member lisa wise ('20)