Houston, Texas, is recognized as one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation. Positioned as the fourth-largest metropolis in the country, Houston has seen an influx of migration due to market growth, job opportunities, and affordable housing.
Nevertheless, with the arrival of young professionals and relocating families, neighborhoods recognized as historic African American centerpieces have been the subject of ethically governed conversations around the question: What can local business owners and African American real estate professionals do to promote financial literacy and incite interest in commercial real estate to support themselves and the communities they live in?
In this article, we’re highlighting a local Houston native who is involved in trying to give back and promote that change in the communities they grew up in by cultivating interest within its youth. I had the opportunity to sit with John Okapman, Vice President of Development at Triten Real Estate Partners, to get his take on the changes that are happening in the city and what African Americans as a community need to do to get involved in commercial real estate to ensure that they have a voice in the communities they inhabit.
John and his colleague, real estate broker Michael Pittman, realized that representation mattered as African American professionals. Prior to the pandemic, both men connected with former classmates to create BACRE, the Black Association of Commercial Real Estate Professionals. Their purpose had one cause, training young people: “One of our core desires is to get into a position where we’re able to get into some of the communities that we’ve come from, and being able to expose the benefits of commercial real estate specifically.”
BACRE wants to begin where they were influenced, in the schools. According to the Commonwealth Institute, students from public schools in low-income communities tend to be less successful in state exams and obtaining opportunities for higher education. The belief is that encouraging students while they are young to value education and financial literacy enables them to see how investing and entrepreneurship can bring both benefits to them and their communities.
African Americans make a significant economic impact in the United States yet their financial wellness lags behind that of the rest of the population. Common factors that contribute to this shortfall stem from lower median household income, lower net worth, high debt, and budgetary illiteracy. In terms of home ownership, 44% of Black households owned a home, compared to the three-quarters of White Americans who own property, according to McKinsey.
Between the calls for action in regards to cultural disparities within African American households and investing, John believes there is a sense of accountability that needs to take place as African Americans, “We can't just point to one deficiency; we as a community should also get involved on committee boards and encourage local businesses, churches, schools, etc. to host financial programs. “Minority-owned real estate investing firms should also open up the dialogue of promoting wealth and explain the leverage we have when it comes to the black buying power.”
Regarding corporate diversity, John believes that aspiring young Black professionals will widen the spectrum of African American leadership within commercial real estate and related industries. The American Institute of Architects, an organization from which John’s firm contracts architects and designers, recently appointed its first African American female president. “The AIA has existed for over 100 years, and I’ve seen the thin layer of diversity within their institution. However, this is a significant sign of progress that will open the door for more diversity and drive the conversation on how to better accommodate underrepresented communities such as Third Ward in Houston, Texas.”
Within our conversation, John quoted the African proverb ‘it takes a village…’ meaning that it will take more than BACRE to drive change and build economic stability within Houston communities.
Luckily, initiatives are already moving into action – coalitions such as Society 23 and Buy Back the Block are working locally to create ways for everyday individuals to invest in real estate and open up opportunities that give minorities the say in how gentrifying neighborhoods are built, all while creating generational wealth.
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