Weekend Interview: Actor/Developer Malik Yoba On Making CRE Work For The Many, Not The Few

Weekend Interview: Actor/Developer Malik Yoba On Making CRE Work For The Many, Not The Few

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This series goes deep with some of the most compelling figures in commercial real estate: the deal-makers, the game-changers, the city-shapers and the larger-than-life personalities who keep CRE interesting.

Born and raised between the South Bronx and Harlem, Malik Yoba is best known for his acting career, starting with his breakout role in the 1993 cult classic Cool Runnings and parts in the TV shows Empire, New York Undercover and Arrested Development.

But Yoba has been actively involved in real estate development since 2017, when he launched Yoba Development. He’s partnered on projects in the Bronx, Baltimore, Nashville and elsewhere, but his overarching mission has been to bring more people of color into all parts of the real estate sector, and to develop housing in conjunction with the communities where projects are based.

His work as a developer has an educational component, seeking out opportunities to talk to young people of color about getting involved in the sector, and making a documentary series about his own journey into the industry.

In this interview, Yoba discusses getting into the real estate business — and being told by developers that he shouldn’t — as well as teaching young people in his community about the interconnected opportunities in real estate and how producing a film and a real estate project are similar.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Courtesy of Malik Yoba
Malik Yoba on-site during construction in West Baltimore, with project partner Ian Arias of La Cité development.

Bisnow: Most people are familiar with you because of your work as an actor. When did you get into real estate development, and how did that happen?

Yoba: The development side started in 2007 when I was given a seat at the table by some developers out of New York, Dan Bythewood and Ian Arias of La Cité Development. Dan bought 14 acres in West Baltimore, where The Wire was shot, and he had a vision to build 3,000 units of housing in 26 structures. I let him know that this was something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid who grew up in the South Bronx and in Harlem, when they were filled with rubble and burned-out buildings. 

I didn’t know the word was equity. Where I went to school, on the Upper East Side, I had friends who had Hamptons homes and lived on Park Avenue. The first time I saw people living like that, around 12 years old, I didn’t understand why everybody couldn’t live like that. We grew up in affordable, low- and moderate-income co-ops in Harlem, in a Mitchell Lama development. My father’s union, 1199SEIU, was a sponsor of that development, so I grew up with a sense of ownership and the importance of that. I always knew that I had a love of architecture and design because of my mother, who was a big fan of interior design. She didn’t do it professionally, but she designed the homes we lived in.

So it’s always been there — I feel like it’s been more of a career evolution in the last few years. I’m still occasionally acting and directing and producing, but I’ve arrived at a place where what makes sense for me is bringing all my passions together. From a developer perspective, it’s very much like being an executive producer on a film. I’ve always been fascinated by construction sites, and they’re very much like film sets. You see a lot of the same trades — electricians, carpentry, design, architecture, finance, tax credits … you have a lot of the same elements in film. Architecture and development is storytelling.

Courtesy of Malik Yoba
Yoba on the set of “The Good Nurse” with Jessica Chastain and Nnamdi Asomugha.

Bisnow: You have a new program with New York City public schools. How did that come about, and what will students be learning?

Yoba: The Department of Education held a survey before the Easter break this year on what students were most interested in learning during the break. And No. 2, behind getting a driver’s license, was real estate. A lot of that is because of social media. There’s a bunch of millennials that are out here pushing financial literacy, like Earn Your Leisure and Wallstreet Trapper, and real estate is a big part of that narrative. We hope they can get a working knowledge.

I had an inspiration to combine three of my passions: real estate, filmmaking and working with young people. That has evolved into something called ‘I Build New York,’ which is a high school-based real estate development program with the Department of Education. We work out of Brooklyn STEAM Center, which is at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and services eight schools in Brooklyn, from Crown Heights, Bushwick, Brownsville, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, etc.

The curriculum was originally based on my 10-part documentary series, which covers the ecosystem of development. A lot of the work is around their own personal development. We say ‘builder of people, places and things.’ These are all Black and Latino kids — and particularly for the Black kids, they were once considered the real estate in this country. So I always take it back to the person, I say to them, ‘The first real estate you own is in your own mind.’ So that’s where the first investment has to be: education. We may spend equal amounts of time building up their self-confidence, their ability to speak publicly, the ability to affirm themselves, as much as they’re learning the nomenclature of the business and the processes.

Courtesy of Malik Yoba.
Yoba on-site in Baltimore with Dan Bythewood of La Cité Development.

Bisnow: There’s a lot of tension in New York between tenant groups and developers and perceptions of the real estate industry. What have you found these kids’ perceptions to be of developers, when you talk to them?

Yoba: Gentrification was actually a new word for a lot of them. They may hear chatter in the background from their parents and neighbors, but they don’t present as aware of what’s really happening. I think for a lot of young people in general, you’re just getting up in the morning, going about your day, you’re not really thinking about development or displacement. You start thinking about that once you have to pay rent, or try to buy a house, or live with roommates. Some kids say the reason why they even chose to take the course is, ‘Well, I want to be better than my parents, I hear you can make a lot of money,’ or ‘I missed my last internship, so I want to see what this is about,’ or ‘I’m just curious.’

Bisnow: You’re hosting this two-day immersive wealth-building program in the Navy Yard on May 12 and 13, focused around cooperative economics. Can you tell me what that means to you and what you hope people will take from this experience?

Yoba: It’s the manifestation of a dream. As people of color, we’ve been denied the opportunities for fair shake in this game by federal policy. Most of us aren’t aware of it.

I grew up in the South Bronx and was raised in Harlem. I didn’t know about redlining. I didn’t know about the Home Owners Loan Corp. I didn’t know there was a slave market in New York City for two or three years. And I went to public school in New York City. So for me, what I hope is that people who believe in the value of sharing information and working together collectively, investing together to have ownership in our communities, who have a working knowledge of how this game works, that we’ll continue to build community, to create more access points.

Not just in development itself, because it’s about increasing human capacity as well: whether it’s understanding what’s happening with the infrastructure bill and where that money is going into communities, whether it’s pathways in finance or architecture or design — not just real estate development. It’s about attracting these like-minded individuals so that we can move more intentionally together. I look at this as almost creating a family office. And so how to create opportunities for investment collectively … It’s the greatest role I’ve ever played. I was never just an actor, I was never just working in Hollywood. My roots are in community.

Courtesy of Malik Yoba
Yoba directing on the set of his docuseries, “The Real Estate Mix Tape,” in Newburgh, New York.

Bisnow: One of the things that we hear all the time is that women and people of color in the real estate industry rarely see people like them in the room during business meetings. What’s been your experience? How do you think the industry can improve?

Yoba: I have a lot of very wealthy friends who were two, three, sometimes four generations in this business. I would say, ‘I want to be a developer.’ And they would say, ‘Don’t do that.’ Now is that really empathy, or is that saying you don’t belong here? I can’t really speak to the intention — I just know what my intention is. I don’t know how much longer I have left on this planet, but I know with the time that I have left, I want to do what I can do to help people — particularly young people of color — to see that there are greater possibilities than they might have thought existed.

Part of that is access to capital. I learned through my work with the initial development project in Baltimore — you go, you sit with these investment committees at banks, and most of the people around the table don’t look like us. So what do we do about that? I believe we have to educate the next generation. What do we need to do to create our own banks? What do we need to do to look at how we can invest cooperatively? How do we leverage real estate we own to collateralize? There’s a lot of creative ways that we can address these issues, as opposed to keep knocking on the door and saying, ‘Hey, Coach, put me in. Let me play.’ 

Scott Rechler is the first person I went to with this idea. That’s a man who put his money where his mouth is. The first thing I said to him was, ‘I want to figure out a way to help diversify this business.’ And he said, ‘Well, so do I.’ Those of means, who really care about the success of the future, who believe in this country, they have to start thinking about the collectives. We can’t continue to think about just taking care of a few. That’s always been a problem for me — we love sports as a country. But I’ve never seen a championship team not care about every single player on the team.

Courtesy of Malik Yoba
Yoba with John Hines IV, who discussed a partnership for 10 World Trade in Boston.

Bisnow: I saw on your website that you have projects in Boston, Baltimore and Georgia, and you also do a lot of work in the Bronx. You described architecture and development as storytelling a little earlier, but can you tell me about what you see as a typical Yoba Development project?

Yoba: These are all situations where people have asked me to join a train that was already moving. There is a through line, where people want to be inclusive. They want to look at it through the lens of more community development — not just real estate — and how we can take a holistic approach. It’s really important that residents have a voice, you can’t just build the housing without being mindful of the people. I think that the No. 1 thing is that, in every one of these situations, there are people from both sides of the aisle.

Even though I’ve been in the space since 2007, we’ve been accelerating in the last few years. We’re part of a group with Moody Nolan, Don Peebles, McKissick, the NHP Foundation. In The Pillars, out of Nashville, we were invited to participate in this RFP with the city to redevelop 2,100 units of low-income housing. I’m honored when people say, ‘Hey, would you like to join this team because we appreciate the ethos in which you’re approaching this work.’ I think that that’s what checks.

Courtesy of Malik Yoba
Yoba with a cameraperson on the set of “The Real Estate Mix Tape.”

Bisnow: Give me a bold prediction for the next year. What do you think we’re going to see?

Yoba: There’s a need for 7 million units of housing in America. That represents a multitrillion-dollar opportunity. We’re going to right the ship and be inclusive, particularly for Black developers — but also Latino and BIPOC developers in general, and women — to participate in greater numbers so that we can really meet the need for housing for Americans.

Bisnow: Finally, this is an interview for our weekend series. What’s your weekend routine or your favorite weekend activity?

Yoba: One of my favorite things to do is take long, meditative, 8-mile walks. I live in Fort Greene and I walk around Prospect Park. Those walks are really necessary, low-impact cardio, taking time to meditate, be in nature.