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Malik Yoba was born in the South Bronx and grew up playing amid empty lots and run-down buildings throughout New York City. Compared to some of his neighbors and friends, though, his family was lucky. Yoba grew up in a co-op for low- and medium-income families. His dad belonged to a union that helped build it and had ownership of his unit.
”He had a piece of the pie, his piece of the American dream,” Yoba said of his father during a Bisnow webinar on May 21, during which he was introduced by Delos founder Paul Scialla and interviewed by Vagabond Group CEO Avra Jain. “And that really informed my understanding of the difference between those of us that had some level of equity and those that didn’t.”
A zeal for equity would drive Yoba, even after starring in cult classics. And the way he creates equity now is through development in underinvested areas and introducing the industry to those who may not otherwise have had a way in.
As a child, Yoba would visit White friends on Park Avenue. Wowed by their apartments overlooking Central Park, he was hungry to live like that someday. As he walked through New York, he would often imagine how its decrepit areas could look in 20 years if he could transform them.
“I didn’t realize at the time that it meant real estate development. I just knew that I didn’t like seeing poor people around me,” he said.
When he was running a theater program for kids, he attended an open call for actors for a Disney film and landed a role opposite John Candy as one of the Jamaican bobsledders in the 1993 film Cool Runnings. Over the years, Yoba’s acting career bloomed further with roles in New York Undercover, Empire, Arrested Development and several Tyler Perry films.
To complement his acting career, he bought properties as he was able, along the way learning the lingo of the real estate industry and soaking up knowledge like an apprentice. In the mid-2000s, he sold a property he’d bought in the 1990s for an almost seven-figure profit.
Around the same time, he played a real estate developer for a role and had some lines about the importance of having a seat at the table. He realized that, as with film, people from his community were attracted to the industry but had no idea how to get a foot in the door. He began to think he needed to teach young people.
He embarked on a documentary project, spending five weeks with nine people of color who had budding interests in real estate — including a waiter and a nurse — whom he plucked from around the city. Just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, he let them tag along as he explored potential deals from Sag Harbor to Newburgh and showed them different avenues to grow into the business, from brokerage to interior design. He also introduced them to people like RXR Realty CEO Scott Rechler and Gotham Organization CEO David Picket and taught the concept of compassionate capitalism. Several of the participants have shifted into careers in real estate, Yoba said.
Through his firm, Yoba Development, Yoba announced a grand vision to partner with seasoned developers and crowdfund 10% of projects with the people who will live near it. He became a partner in a 262-unit luxury housing complex with an affordable housing component that is part of the larger $800M Center/West development in Baltimore, which was intended to revive a part of the city called Poppleton.
Although the developer of the bigger project, New York-based La Cité, has run into challenges and delays, the apartments opened last year amid the pandemic and are about 51% leased, Yoba said. The project just landed a minority-owned grocery store as a tenant.
“We were able to develop an area of Baltimore that hadn’t seen new development in 50 years,” Yoba said. “I grew up in environments like that.”