Caroline Valvardi, VP of Marketing, Opportunity Finance Network
Professional basketball players and real estate developers Terry and Tobias Harris are on a mission to inspire fellow minority entrepreneurs and help reshape the future of quality affordable housing in Los Angeles.
Read time: 7 minutes
“Sport has the power to overcome old divisions and create the bond of common aspirations.” These words from Nelson Mandela ring true not only on the court, field, and ice but also in the vibrant communities we all wish to live in.
Today, professional and college athletes are increasingly realizing the power of their platforms, pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors outside the game, and building legacies beyond their playing careers. For many athletes, this includes engaging in purpose-driven investment in the communities they hail from, play in, and care about most as they try to level the playing field and advance equitable opportunity where it’s the exception.
However, even for athlete entrepreneurs, hurdles still remain. This is particularly true for athletes in majority-minority leagues like the NBA, WNBA, and NFL where about 70% (NBA and WNBA) and 56% (NFL) of players are Black. From exploitative advisors to negative stereotypes about athletes’ financial acumen to public opinion that they don’t have a right to express their views, athlete entrepreneurs face their own unique challenges with accessing capital, building successful business enterprises, and investing in change.
Yet athletes are competitors, and for the many athletes investing in their communities, there is too much to lose in the longstanding fight for equity by throwing in the towel. As we honor Black History Month, we highlight two brothers with a mission to expand economic opportunity and inspire fellow athletes and entrepreneurs of color to do the same.
Q&A with Terry Harris, Athlete and Affordable Housing Developer
Photo: Tobias Harris (left) and Terry Harris (right)
Recently we caught up with Terry Harris, former professional basketball player for the NBA G League’s Delaware Blue Coats and now real estate developer alongside his brother Tobias Harris of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers.
He shares details about the brothers’ latest projects in Los Angeles as they pursue their goal to develop 1,000 units of affordable housing this year, challenges they’ve faced as minority developers and athletes, opportunities to collaborate with CDFIs and other mission-driven financial institutions, and more.
Tell us about your journey going from playing basketball to developing real estate.
I started my career playing basketball in the NBA G League for the Delaware Blue Coats, an affiliate of the Philadelphia 76ers. Things began to evolve during my first year in the league after I decided to buy and fix up a distressed property in Wilmington, Delaware.
At first I wondered if I would even find a renter, but I was shocked when I got messages from over a hundred people interested in the property. This experience made me realize the high demand for quality housing and motivated me to pursue real estate as a full-time career.
My real estate journey started as a little flip in Delaware and has grown into a true passion with more than 270 units of affordable housing currently in development through my company Visionary Development Group, and aspirations of building skyscrapers in New York City one day.
Why did you decide to focus on affordable housing?
About five years ago I moved to Los Angeles, and I kept fixing up houses. I mainly focused on desert luxury homes in Joshua Tree, which is about two hours from LA — without traffic. But as I experienced LA more as a resident and got to know its communities better, I realized how unaffordable the city is. Also, as I saw more and more housing-related policies from the mayor and city, I understood the seriousness of the crisis.
Growing up on Long Island and in other areas I’ve lived, I rarely saw people sleeping in cars or on the street. Sadly, I see it all the time in LA. A big part of my focus now is on making housing in LA more affordable, and high quality.
How did your brother Tobias get involved?
Tobias has a keen eye for business and has always been interested in real estate and the importance of owning assets. He’s also always believed in any endeavor I’ve gone all in on — whether it’s been my basketball career or my business journey. So when I shared the opportunity with him to build quality affordable housing in LA, he was in.
I’m proud to be doing something I love and helping to fulfill a need in my community, and I’m doing it alongside one of the best big brothers you could ask for. It’s a win-win-win.
Tell us about your affordable housing projects that are underway.
We currently have over 270 affordable housing units in development. The units span three properties – 33 units, 74 units, and 165 units – all in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Echo Park is an area that’s growing and has a lot of amenities, including good restaurants, wellness facilities, walkability, and more. We want to make cool things for the community and give our tenants access to all the great things LA has to offer.
We’re not interested in simply putting up a box in distressed areas. If we’re going to put affordable housing anywhere, our mission is to develop desirable homes in desirable areas where our tenants have the opportunity to create better lives for themselves and their families even if it means we have to pay a higher price to acquire the land. Our goal is to have 1,000 units in development in neighborhoods across the city by the end of 2024.
What challenges have you faced with accessing capital for your real estate projects?
A lot of people in the real estate business look at us as athletes only, but we’re more than athletes. We want limited partners, family offices, financial institutions, and other investors we approach to see us as top developers and not just athletes throwing money into a different avenue. We’re doing the work. Tobias and I have a proven track record in real estate development. We also have a seasoned team, including our business partner Andrew Slocum and mentor Ricardo Pagan.
Breaking into any field for any athlete can be difficult, but trying to do it in development at the highest level is the barrier we’re trying to break right now.
How can CDFIs play a role as you pursue your goal to develop 1,000 units of affordable housing?
CDFIs can help us in several ways, especially in pre-development. They can help us take down more assets, get through the entitlement phase on more projects, and cover an array of pre-development costs. We’ve learned that real estate development isn’t all about how much you have in your pocket. It’s about the partnerships and capital sources you can bring together on deals.
The right CDFI partners can help us get to our goal of 1,000 units of affordable housing and more. We strongly believe in what we’re putting out there and we believe CDFIs can be that piece of the puzzle that helps us overcome the challenges we face as minority developers and athletes. We want CDFIs to know we’re out here and we want to work with them.
Black and Latino developers make up less than 1% of the real estate industry in the United States. What advice would you give other existing and aspiring minority developers who may feel discouraged by that statistic?
Take action. A lot of minorities think we can’t do these types of things and be successful developers or entrepreneurs, but there’s no reason to think that, especially in this day and age. If one bank says no, there are hundreds of other banks and CDFIs that could say yes. Nothing should hold us back. We have the ability. With the right knowledge and the will, anybody can make it happen.
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