by Beverly Aarons
Global pandemic, year one: Many businesses are shuttered or providing restricted service, but Seattle’s real estate market is still booming. We even have the most cranes in the sky — again. Despite the strained economy, Seattle housing prices continue an upward trend.
When thinking about Seattle’s construction boom, most people think of overpriced housing, gentrification, and the displacement of People of Color, especially Black and Indigenous. They most likely wouldn’t imagine a Black person as an emerging power player in that realm. But GardnerGlobal, Inc., a Black-run, privately held holding company that’s been around since 2009 is consistently challenging assumptions about who has the right and the power to take a slice of Seattle’s real estate pie. Its subsidiary, Onpoint — a real estate services company providing brokerage, HOA management, and development services — recently purchased Mount Calvary Christian Church and has a plan to develop over 200 units of multi-family, mixed-use housing. Forty percent of the units will be affordable, earmarked for renters earning 50–80% Area Median Income (AMI).
When I heard that Jaebadiah Gardner, the founder and CEO of GardnerGlobal wants to reshape the inner narrative of Black people’s relationship to wealth, I knew I had to speak with him. In our telephone interview, Gardner shared his journey to the land of development power, his relationship to wealth, and what he thinks it will take for Black Seattle to cultivate prosperity in this city.
So how does a 1980s Black and Mexican kid, born in Los Angeles in the chaos of a crack cocaine epidemic, end up a successful real estate developer in Seattle, the hottest market in the country? Well, it wasn’t luck or privilege. Jaebadiah Gardner makes it clear that his success was (and continues to be) a winding and difficult road, made even more challenging by racial and class dynamics.
“To be a Black real estate developer in the city, it’s one of the most difficult things one can do,” Gardner said, noting that getting access to funding and gatekeepers can be difficult for many Black developers. “We have almost an acre of land under contract to purchase. We have about $10.5 million in real estate that we’re buying. We have about 400 plus units that we want to develop. And that’s not easy. It’s not easy for white people to do.” He laughs. “It is just an inherently super difficult industry.” He spoke of staying awake late at night from the sometimes stressful problems he must solve in this business — he described it as a mental game with many hurdles to conquer.
When I asked Gardner about the greatest mental hurdle he had to overcome, he chuckled and said, “I’m still trying to overcome these hurdles.” Gardner is self-effacing and refreshingly vulnerable about his journey — the sleepless nights, the anxiety, the ever present fear that comes naturally when any human being embarks on a quest that could prove perilous.
“I think an ongoing battle is maintaining that strong belief in oneself,” Gardner explained. He explores the idea in-depth in his book, Believe In Yourself. “And for me, it gets tested every hour of the day. And, you know, there’s moments where I want to break down, fall on my knees, and cry. And I do that. I have to do that. I have to be human when those human emotions arise. But I have to get back up, right? I have to get back up and go to the office and turn on the lights and make sure money gets in the hands of people who need it to keep the mission going.”
If you imagine Gardner simply “pulling up a folding chair” to the table of Seattle’s landed gentry, you would be only partially correct. Gardner isn’t content with just that. Seattle’s real estate development table, modern, hip, and ever changing on the surface, underneath is more like an antique — heavy, intricate, and carved from ancient lumber with deep roots stretching back to the Treaty of Point Elliott. Access to that table isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. Gardner says he is building his own table, like a patient carpenter painstakingly chiseling, project by project, company by company — firm, stable, flexible, and ready to host a sumptuous meal of real wealth that can feed many generations to come.
Seattle is the perfect place to build wealth, according to Gardner. There’s money, knowledge, and a few willing mentors to help an ambitious and teachable upstart. But for young Black developers sometimes “there are barriers and hurdles, and a lack of access to those resources,” Gardner said. “So a lot of my fight as a developer is to continue to push those boundaries and identify and partner and work with those gatekeepers to unlock those resources so we can pursue our mission of building wealth.”
For that mission to be successful, the Black community must understand that wealth is more than just money, Gardner said. There’s relationship wealth (as well as intellectual and family wealth) which he says is the real foundation of prosperity.
“If you have relationship wealth, that means you have access to professionals who are educated,” Gardner said. “You have people who are accountants, doctors, lawyers, who have the ability to teach and give and introduce you to people.” He implores young entrepreneurs to ask, “Who’s in [my] circle of influence?”
But kids who grew up in public housing and attended underfunded public schools may not have the right connections. So how does someone of humble origins get a foot in the door of wealth? Gardner says it’s not exactly easy. He describes the gatekeepers of wealth as a village: small, insular, and everyone knows everyone else. Trust in that village has been established over a long period of time, and there is a lot to lose if you trust the wrong person, so people are cautious.
“The natural reaction is ‘Who are you? I’ve never seen you before,’” Gardner said. “‘You just rolled up to my village. You want what? You want to sit at my table? Hold on, hold on, hold on.’ So you have to build a relationship, build a rapport with that village [and] build trust with that village before they invite you in. And then you got to learn from that village. And Seattle is a space for that.”
Some people insist that there are too many barriers for the Black community to build wealth. So, I asked Gardner if there was anything standing in the way of wealth building.
Gardner said that there is nothing stopping the Black community from building real wealth, but that there are some internal issues Black people need to overcome. “Oftentimes we don’t want to look at ourselves in the mirror. It’s easier to take on a victim mentality and blame another group or another person for our misfortunes or our shortcomings or failures. And I think a huge hurdle to the Black community pursuing and obtaining wealth is that we got to recognize our own community shortcomings and work through those number one…”
While recognizing institutional racism as a real challenge, Gardner says that the Black community’s reluctance to work collectively along with a “generational gap” threaten the ability to build wealth. Gardner expressed his deep appreciation for the sacrifices and accomplishments of Black community elders and their victorious battle for equality in the face of the “viciousness of racism,” but he lamented a failure of some elders to make space for younger generations at the table of wealth and opportunity.
“Millennials and Gen Xers need access to positions of influence and power or we’re going to keep getting the same type of policies and actions that we’ve been getting for the past 30 or 40 years,” Gardner said.
He worried that even if the “gatekeepers of wealth in Seattle,” delivered reparations to the Black community today, it would not be enough to create generational wealth because Black people have not resolved their internal struggles.
“We’re going to lose that wealth, right? Because we haven’t been able to work together to maintain it, like other communities have. It’s not a popular opinion, but I’m not here to be popular. Black people need to look at themselves in the mirror. And we need to really identify what’s what. What is it within our own communities that’s keeping us from it.”
For Gardner, answering that question is the first step to building and maintaining wealth in Black Seattle.
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
Featured Image: Jaebadiah Gardner talks business with Aqeel Na’im, the Development Associate/Assistant Property Manager for Onpoint. (Photo: Beverly Aarons)
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