Ten Things to Consider Before Getting into Real Estate Development

1. Check the fit: Values. Have a frank discussion about the values and practices that are most important to your group. Which of those are likely to be challenged by your involvement in this project? How will you address those challenges when they arise? Can you imagine moving from being an advocate for a resident whose landlord is demanding overdue rent to having to evict that same family for non-payment in order to meet your mortgage obligations? The objective here is not to predict every eventuality in advance, but to prepare the group for those conflicts.

2. Check the fit: Vision. Undertake a two-part visioning exercise. First, focus on a common vision for the community. Second, develop a vision for the housing project and its potential effects on the community and the organization. The vision should be a practical one, tempered by the group’s capacity, the community’s current situation, and the availability of resources.

3. Check the fit: Strategy. Development work – on the scale at which most small groups are able to pursue it – is of real value only in the context of empowering people. How will you make sure the two are connected? Is the development project necessary to your other objectives? If the organizing context is threatened by the development, or there is little chance the project can complement the organizing objectives, then maybe you shouldn’t do it.

4. Check capacity, and start addressing problems early – before a lender turns you down because of them.

5. Carefully assess risk. Even if you survive a failed project, local supporters and funding sources will be less enthusiastic about your organizing and community building work.

6. Consider other options. Look for ways that don’t involve becoming a land owner, or that limit that aspect of your role – you might find you get more done for the community through an alternative approach. Partnerships with good-guy developers or the private sector can help a group secure community control over a project without being the primary landowner and developer. Pushing public agencies and private developers to do right by the community is another way to influence development.

7. Get help early, both in understanding development and increasing capacity. Try to get it for free, or at least to get someone else to pay for it.

8. Use outside consultants, but clearly define their roles and manage them closely – they don’t know what’s best for your organization.

9. Plan ahead, and thoroughly. You can’t possibly have any time, energy or emotion left over for organizing and community building if you haven’t planned well for managing your development projects and they are instead managing you. Involve the community in all stages of making these plans.

10. Above all, don’t lose sight of who you are and where your true strengths lie.

[See also: So You Want to Be a Developer.]

Series NavigationGoing the Other Way: Adding Organizing to Development >>Fundraising: Federal Funding for Community Economic Development >>
Bob Brehm served as director of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation from 1978 through 1995. Since then, he has taught practitioners in communinity and organizational development and consulted for community groups.


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