Newark Mayor Ras Baraka understands the importance of developing abandoned properties. However, he also understands the necessity of developing using faces that accurately reflect the community.
“To be able to (develop) with local folks, black and brown developers, women developers … (they) are part of what we are trying to do in the city,” he said.
Through the West Ward Neighborhood Development Plan, he hopes to achieve this goal by partnering with six minority developers to restore 45 sites on 21 blocks in the West Ward.
“Minority and women small developers are eager to redevelop neighborhoods that the downtown developers ignore,” Baraka said. “We provide them with opportunity to do so by selling land at low cost, providing grants to first-time homebuyers, providing subsidies and streamlining regulations.”
These developers were introduced to the city via a virtual community meeting hosted by the mayor and West Ward Council Member Joseph McCallum. Deputy Mayor Allison Ladd and Affordable and Sustainable Housing Manager Jerrah Crowder assisted with moderation for the meeting.
One of the mayor’s key points of emphasis was getting developers from the Newark area who knew the needs of the city’s citizens.
“I went to Miller Street (School), I went to Maple Avenue (Elementary School), I went to University High School,” said Siree Morris, one of the developers from Ascension Capital Partners. “I’m Newark through and through … I don’t plan on going anywhere, and I plan on doing a lot more from a development standpoint.”
Gender diversity was a goal of this program as well, as three of the six developers are women. Jamilah Muhammad of Rising Plains LLC expressed optimism for the future of female developers.
“I hope that the platform and the footprints we leave as women is encouraging for the next set of women,” said Muhammad. “We’re not the only three women developing in Newark. There are women developing all over.”
A concern from city residents in the past has been that their needs are not being heard in the decision-making process when it comes to developing affordable housing in Newark. To combat this problem, the program began with a community meeting in the West Ward, which Anton Campbell and Dandley Alexandre of DDA Pioneer Investment Group saw as an advantage.
“It was amazing,” Alexandre said. “They had members of the community actually come in … the members of the community actually gave us input … we loved it.”
The importance of developing sustainable commercial properties within the community, as well as affordable properties, was not lost on the developers. Benedict Guerrier of Alpha Development & Investments emphasized the importance of developing local businesses and storefronts.
“A lot of us build properties, but we don’t build some of the ancillary things the community needs,” Guerrier said. “This is an opportunity for us to open up delis and other things as the bigger giants are starting to creep into our communities.”
Toward the end of the community meeting, Newark Program Coordinator Andrea Mason joined to facilitate some questions from the audience, mostly about the importance of keeping Newark residents involved in all aspects of the development.
The developers share this goal, as Narelle Myke of New Age Investment Properties spoke on the requirement in the initial agreement with the city to contract local workers.
“As part of our redevelopment agreement, there’s a certain percentage of contractors, suppliers and the workforce (from Newark) that we are required to have,” Myke said. “We all can agree that we fully would like to fulfill that expectation, if not go above that requirement.”
All of the developers invited to participate in Mayor Baraka’s West Ward Neighborhood Development Program agreed that, at its core, the redevelopment has to be all about changing the community for the better. Guerrier has been doing this through Regal Real Estate School, which he founded to help members of his own community see the true worth of the properties around them.
“To me, if we don’t teach and give that certification out, a lot of us don’t see the value in our own communities,” he said. “We have so much value in our city and its crazy that other people get to see it but, because we don’t have that trained eye for it, it kind of gets swept under the rug.”
Myke added that this type of affordable, eye-catching housing development is long overdue for the community.
“I like to have fun with my projects,” Myke said. “It’s, in my own way, bringing some individuality to the projects as well as revitalizing the community and making sure that I am mindful of elevating the design of the homes in this community, because we deserve it.”