(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 384: Portrait of a Developer in St. Paul

May 26, 2022

This week we’re listening to a one to one conversation between St. Paul Developer Johnny Opara of JO Companies and Lea Hargett, Principal of Jog Associates. They talk about LISC’s Capacity Building programs that support developers of color, why Johnny got into development, and barriers people of color face in the market which includes the many different types of capital.

You can listen to this episode at Streetsblog USA or our hosting site.

Below is a full unedited transcript:


Lea Hargett (1m 12s):
Good morning, Johnny. How are you today?

Johnny Opara (1m 15s):
Doing good. Good morning. How are you?

Lea Hargett (1m 17s):
Fine. I’m a Lea Hargett chief strategy consultant with JOG associates. JOG is a Minnesota based boutique consulting firms, specializing in strategy and planning, business management, program design and action, and transitional leadership. Why don’t you give us a little understanding about who you are as well, Johnny.

Johnny Opara (1m 46s):
Well, thank you Lee. I appreciate it. And thank you to Hillary Reeves and Gretchen nickels and Peter McLaughlin and LISC for this opportunity and also Rover loosen as well. My name is Johnny APAR and the name of my company is shale companies started a company back in 2009 at the heart of the recession. And this has always been a culmination of just different ideas over the last 12, 13 years. In terms of me getting to this point, I think as anyone that’s an entrepreneur knows that you have to go through numerous businesses to get to something, to actually catch catches flight. So GL company is really a organization that’s focused on real estate development focused on specifically affordable housing, but really making sure that we can bring housing that’s affordable, but with the market rate, feel a lot of the cities and folks that I’m talking to surrounding real estate is really interested in seeing how we can make sure that people who are looking to live somewhere there’s economical, but at the same time can live somewhere.

Johnny Opara (2m 53s):
That’s nice. So for me, from a fundamental standpoint, it’s really aligning with my father and his experiences and trying to see how we can make other people who have similar experiences lives to where they can be proud of.

Lea Hargett (3m 8s):
One thing I do know about you is how important family is and the influence that your dad has had has been really significant in the current iteration of your entrepreneurial venture and who you are. I mean, I can’t wait to see what you do even after this, but thanks so much for giving us that background. You know, I’m kind of curious about what has also sparked you, or is there a specific event that made you want to be a developer, you know, to play a role in how cities or communities are shaped? I think that, you know, we all know that being a developer is not an easy, easy hall and you’re brilliant.

Lea Hargett (3m 50s):
You could have done anything, but you chose development, real estate development and in a, in a time that is still very challenging for us as people of color. So can you give us some sense of like, what was it that inspired you?

Johnny Opara (4m 7s):
Yeah, so, I mean, that’s a really great question. I remember back when I was in college, I didn’t want to just work a job just to work a job, you know, in life you have a few moments where you can kind of look back and say, I wish I could have did this. I wish I could’ve did that. But I think for me, just growing up, being exposed to my father, having a stroke when I was 12 years old, did something to me in terms of me being serious about my health, me being serious about life, knowing that it’s not going to be forever. So from a young age, I’ve always tried to figure out how can I do something that one allows me to take care of myself financially, but at the same time allows me to do something meaningful.

Johnny Opara (4m 52s):
That’s gonna allow me to help change people’s lives. You know, that led me to a path of one, wanted to get into medical device from NYCLU sales. You know, that path I did cross that didn’t get into medical device and you know, that was a great experience, but didn’t really align. So I started trying to figure out, you know, as I mentioned earlier, in terms of different businesses that I wanted to, you know, get into in 2009, I thought I was laid off from my employer at the time I started to say, Hey, you know what? I don’t want to ever feel hopeless. I don’t want ever feel like, you know, I’m going to be at the mercy of an employer, if for any reason the stock market, you know, goals, afloat.

Johnny Opara (5m 33s):
So I wanted to take control of my life. So what I started to do is figure out, you know, what could I do that would allow me to one be in control, but at the same time aligned with my purpose in 2009, I came across a quote that I think changed my life and put me on this path. And that was when your life is on course with his purpose, you are your most powerful. So I put this quote, I had a Xerox and printed and put on my fridge and I memorized it. And some of my business cards, it’s just literally a part of who I am trying to figure out how I can want effectively do something that I can be passionate about. And, but at the same time, be able to take care of myself and my family that actually led me to real estate.

Johnny Opara (6m 16s):
And in 2017, after starting a few different businesses and it not going as planned in 2017, I made a promise to my dad that I wanted to get my real estate license. And I was still working in the corporate world at the time. And 2017, I went to Minnesota school to Realty, but I always knew that I wanted to do something even bigger than just selling real estate. It was always in my head like, you know, what can I do to really make an impact African in my real estate license, I started making some different connections with friends and family. And then it was one introduction from a friend that was a previous board member for the St.

Johnny Opara (6m 57s):
Paul chamber, the sample area chamber that we both belong to connected me to rich packet. And at the time the only developer I knew was Donald Trump. So I said, well, sure, I’ll take the meeting. So we met and I just, I just, there was a sense of freedom and vibrance and Southern that exuded from our first interaction we met. And I was just, I wanted to know what he did that gave him this smile that gave him this joy that I’ve longed for throughout my life. I’d seen a few people that expressed that same emotion, that same energy folks that weren’t controlled. As I mentioned earlier, they were in control of their destiny and I wanted to be in that same light.

Johnny Opara (7m 40s):
So we started talking more and, you know, at the time I was obviously a licensed realtor just got my license, but most importantly, I knew nothing about development. And after that meeting, you know, he made a few key introductions, one obviously to be Kyle president of the St. Paul area chamber. And then from that meeting, she connected me to a wealth of different individuals, both politically and government for the city of St. Paul. And at the time I still didn’t know I wanted to do DevOps development. I just knew that I wanted to do something that was going to be impactful and allowed me to allow with my purpose, but do something bigger. I just kept on thinking with my dad in hindsight, in his struggles and challenges both from a health standpoint, but also from a, a living standpoint in terms of his health mentally and him always complaining about, you know, this is where I live at and the levitated, you know, conditions and the lack of empathy from the property management staff and me getting calls late at night and having to come and see him because of something or what the case may be.

Johnny Opara (8m 44s):
And I just knew that my father having this type of pressure on him, it’s not good for anybody in terms of stress and dealing with, you know, just the ordeals of, of living and being a human being. So I made him a promise. I said, Hey, I’m going to build you something. And you know, one thing you don’t want to do is make a promise to my dad, you know, leave that and not fulfill that promise. I told him, I wanted to go to law school, took the Ellis that twice, that didn’t go as planned. And I wanted to go to business school, but I think more importantly, I wanted to just impress them. I want it to make him proud of his son as the first son and, you know, coming from Nigeria. So I wanted him to know that I was taking my life and education seriously, and that I was going to finish what I started.

Johnny Opara (9m 26s):
So when I made him a promise, he said, okay, all right. From that meeting with rich to president B Kyle, and to some key political figures in St. Paul, that allowed me to really kind of think that maybe this is possible one key meeting with council member, Jane Prince, I think really put me on this path we met. And we talked about, you know, some of the things that I wanted to do. And she mentioned a site that has been vacant for a long time at five 20 Payne avenue. And I went to the site after a meeting, I literally drove to the site like fast. I saw the site and I saw the hollows clear as day. I saw it literally right before my eyes.

Johnny Opara (10m 6s):
And I called her and said, Hey, I want this site. And then we, we started that process in 2018, which led me to me becoming a developer at this point in my life.

Lea Hargett (10m 17s):
Wow. You know, so many different, important twists and turns or, you know, in your life. And what if you didn’t accept that meeting with rich back in it?

Johnny Opara (10m 28s):
Yeah. You know, what’s interesting is that I always feel that, you know, since I was young, I’ve been in a relationship business. I’ve been in the people business since I was a kid. My first job was at Vishal’s Italian pizza. When I was 14 and asked my mom to buy me some shoes. She said, no, because they were too expensive. And she said, well, go get a job. And no one who I am, I’m very determined, very motivated. I don’t need a lot. I don’t need a lot of people to motivate me. I’m just, it’s this it’s just inside of me. And I got my job 14 years old and I’ve been working ever since. So for me, if you give me an opportunity, I’m going to take advantage of it. I’m going to act on it immediately.

Johnny Opara (11m 8s):
I’m not going to let an opportunity pass me by regardless of what the situation may be. I don’t see no that to see. Try again, period. That’s all I see. I just see, try again, try again, try again. And when you had that mentality, I don’t think anybody can stop you period. And my mother raised me with a mentality that we’re all human beings. We’re all human beings. What’s there to fear from someone else, right? So you might as well just try to break through that wall and get to wherever the end goal is for you that you want to get to. And hopefully along that path, you’re going to have some learning, some, some learning opportunities, some lessons that you’re learning, but most importantly, when you get to the angle, you’ll be so much more appreciative of that process.

Johnny Opara (11m 49s):
And then you’ll say, Hey, you know what? Wow, I’ve actually, you know, not only took advantage of this opportunity, that was, you know, bestowed upon me, but more importantly, I’ve been able to get across the finish line. And that’s what I equate to the hollows. The humbles was more of a combination of one, learning more about who I am as a human being, learning more about why I am as a professional learning more about is this the path that God has destined me for. And then more importantly, you know, when you take someone who just got married, a wife, that’s pregnant, you know, you’re talking to her about becoming an entrepreneur. And at the same time, you’re trying to figure out this interesting vertical called real estate development, understanding how it worked from a political standpoint, governments, community relations development, you have no experience, construction finding partners, potentially, you know, looking at it from an equity and debt standpoint.

Johnny Opara (12m 44s):
It’s a, it’s a combination of things that throughout the last one was five years that I’ve learned so much that I want to change anything, all the nos. I mean all the nos, but I’m definitely a different human being now. And I’m very appreciative for organizations like Lisk who have been probably my, my biggest and one of my notable supporters at the Genesis of when I got into real estate development.

Lea Hargett (13m 12s):
So let’s keep talking about a little bit more about your project. You know, you just recently closed on the hollows. Can you give us a little bit of a better understanding of what the spec is of that property? To me, it’s an enormous property for somebody to, this is, this is your first development project and you cut your teeth on something huge, which when you learn or hear about your background, it makes total sense. And I’d like to really understand what challenges you faced getting to that point where you were actually closing on the hospital.

Johnny Opara (13m 49s):
The hollows is a 62 unit multi-family developments at five 20 Penn avenue. It’s four stories, underground parking. So below grade, it’s a beautiful, beautiful building going through the design process. We wanted to make sure I wanted to make sure that it is exemplified St. Paul as core it’s in a sweetie hollow neighborhood. That’s what we call it. The hollows dissatisfied vacant for 30 plus years. As I mentioned earlier, since 1996, you know, I really wanted to do something that was transformative. There is a nearby business cost state supply, and they met with, met with the owners. And I talked to them about, you know, my vision in the T-Bird came out giant. This would be a transformative project for this neighborhood.

Johnny Opara (14m 32s):
And to think that 62 families or individuals, households went gain access to a high quality building that’s sustainable, that meets SB 2030 standards in terms of climate change, environmental, and more importantly, given individuals and families access to high quality housing. I specifically made sure that the hollows was market rate and design. It’s one of the reasons why I selected Doron companies, because that’s all, that’s all they do is market rate buildings. And I’ve been in their buildings before. And they’re absolutely fabulous. So I wanted to make sure that we can replicate that model right by giving individuals like my father and families, the opportunity to live somewhere nice that’s market rate and design, but reflects the economics.

Johnny Opara (15m 18s):
Then it’s a win-win situation. We have four unit types. We have alcoves, we have studios with one bedrooms. We also have two bedrooms, right? This is workforce housing. So this is 60% air area, median income for the majority. We also have for fair market value rents. And we also have five units that are deeply affordable. So five units are at 30% AMI. So you’re getting a range of different economics in terms of rents that’s being provided for the hollows. But most importantly, you’re gonna get a wealth of different individuals as well. That one can learn from one another. And I think too, when you give someone something nice, let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, you walk into the hollows. And for some reason it’s a piece of paper or Kleenex or something in the brown, and there’s a trashcan nearby.

Johnny Opara (16m 2s):
My mentality, how I think is that you love living at the house so much that you don’t want to see that on the brown. So naturally you’re going to just pick it up and throw it away because that’s how much pride you have for where you stay at. And then also the Hallows is student friendly. We’re not too far from metropolitan state university. I’ve met with their executive team, everyone from the president down and talked about this vision that I had not too far from a metropolitan state university. So part-time students that are working full time that wants to live close to campus or live close to their school. This could be a perfect opportunity for them as well. We’re on a transit. So folks that don’t have access to transportation, reliable transportation, well, there’s a major bus that’s adjacent from the property.

Johnny Opara (16m 51s):
So I think for me, one, you’re going to have access to major highways, access to downtown St. Paul and Lordstown access to transit access to high quality education. In terms of metropolitan state university access to major employers, you’re going to be literally 20 minutes from the mall of America in 15 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. And you’re gonna be overlooking the downtown, the downtown skyline. In addition to the Mississippi river, if you look at all the things that I just described, it’s, it’s set up for success. And I think the housing in my opinion is my baby. But more importantly, it’s a combination of everything from doing a design charrette with a community and, and, and literally listening to them in terms of what they want built on site, building a partnership with the adjacent property on the sweet hollow brownstones.

Johnny Opara (17m 36s):
That’s four years in the making and my first meeting, but they repost to the entire idea of doing the development on that site. And then four years later, they signed an easement agreement saying, Hey, you know, we’re on board. So when you push through and you, you keep fighting for something that you believe in eventually good things will happen.

Lea Hargett (17m 52s):
You know, access is really, really important, isn’t it? So when you think about development and the way you’re thinking about development, it is really, really important that for you to be able to provide that access or to locate your properties where transit is going to be available to everyone, all of your residents, so that they can get from point a to point B, but also it really aligns with your values, I think. And so I, I really, really, really applaud you for that. Johnny, what do you see as the number one barrier for people of color interested in real estate development?

Johnny Opara (18m 36s):
Yeah, that’s a great question. And to kind of piggyback on what you said earlier. So my father rely on Metro mobility transit immensely because, you know, you know, when you have a stroke, you’re limited in terms of your physicality, right? So Metro mobility, the Metro bus on high was able to take transportation to doctor’s appointments to the library. If I wasn’t able to pick him up, that was a big reason why, when we looked at places for him, did he have access to transit? If I wasn’t able to pick him up with his PCA, or if my uncle wasn’t able to pick them up and take them somewhere. So having access to transit in all the locations that I’m working on offer these projects is immensely important.

Johnny Opara (19m 22s):
Every single location I’m working on, I promise you either there’s a light rail, or there’s a bus stop adjacent to the property or close by. So the number one barrier, I think in my opinion, is going to be capital, capital and capital, and of course education. And the reason why in this field, Lytec low-income housing tax credits, affordable housing. There’s only a select few of people, individuals, organizations that understand the dynamics of this world. It’s one thing to do, just, you know, Johnny, you know, I want to buy a four, a four unit or eight units, you know, multi-family flats, whatever the case may be, we can do those deals all day. But anytime you enter into, you know, tax credits, they understand that how that process works.

Johnny Opara (20m 6s):
It takes time to understand how that world works. So capital in terms of pre developments, there’s costs associated with, you know, landing site control, there’s cost associated with applications. There’s cost associated with architects costs associated with civil. There’s so much money that’s going to be required for someone just getting into the game versus closing that it’s going to be a huge barrier, especially for folks that are underrepresented, that don’t have access to these institutions that are providing capital in order for us to be able to take these projects into fruition. So capital, capital, capital, we need more access to capital in order for us to beat the two owners and operators within our communities that we’re building in

Lea Hargett (20m 51s):
Capital is, is a huge barrier for us in all the verticals, if you will. But I totally understand how it can really be an immediate, just huge wall that separates people as it relates to our ability to get involved in real estate of all things, because it is a rich person’s game, if you will. And if you don’t have deep pockets for all those reasons that you identified, and more than as soon as you get started, you start you stop.

Johnny Opara (21m 23s):
I mean, even at a distance at one of the things that I learned and you made some pretty good points in that, is it just, even from pre-development standpoint, you know, they’re going to require a personal financial statement. They’re gonna want to look at your taxes. What is your liquidity? What is your net worth? And if you don’t check these boxes, well, that means you may have to partner with someone that has liquidity that has a network, and then dependent and independent on your vision from the beginning, that may change now that you have someone else that has veto rights, right? So you want it to build this building, right? And you don’t have the liquidity and the net worth and the tax credit investor, or the syndicator says, Hey, we can’t do this deal. Unless you bring someone who has experienced or has, you know, liquidity or the net worth. And then that person comes along and they’re not mission oriented.

Johnny Opara (22m 6s):
They’re more focused on, you know, the developer fee and you know, what they can make, then your project potentially could actually go sideways in terms of your vision. So that’s why it’s very, very, very important to know all these things ahead of time. So if you do need a partner, right, if you D if you do need a partner, you can start figuring out what you’re willing to be flexible on and what you’re not willing to be flexible on. So that when you’re having these conversations is very pointed. So philosophy is this always try to have us be passionate about the vision, but flexible on the details, Passionate about the vision, but be flexible, the details.

Johnny Opara (22m 46s):
So I always knew that I wanted to do something special. When we, when we started working on the hollows, I kind of had this sense of what I wanted it to look like, what I wanted it to be. But then, you know, when you’re factoring, you know, the costs, when you factor in all the different obstacles it’s going to take to get to the finish line, you have to be flexible. So the passion has always been there in terms of getting to the end goal across the finish line. But you have to be the, you have to have the ability to adapt to new situations and new conversations, whether that be with the city, whether that be with the investor, would that be with the lender, you name it? And I think that actually applies in any kind of business in any kind of endeavor, you know, that application. So I would say, you know, obviously pre-development, you know, gaining capital is going to be definitely a huge need for underrepresented, underrepresented developers, people of color women, but more importantly, the education behind it and understanding what through these banks or through these investors, what are they, what do they need?

Johnny Opara (23m 44s):
What do they look for? How can you reduce their uncertainty? How can you make them more comfortable understanding that you have a lack of parents when it comes from a construction standpoint, a lack of experience when it comes to affordable housing development, how can you get them comfortable? And one of the ways you can do that is having an all-star team period. You have a lawyer that has been well-versed and experienced in this, in this space that gets them comfortable. If you have a CPA, same thing, GC, architects, civil, you name it. And now you have an opportunity to learn from all these different folks, all these different organizations, by and large, you have no choice. You have no choice, but to learn when you’re surrounded by these individuals, and that gets the bank, that gets the investor very comfortable in knowing that, okay, if we get to the finish line in a cross, he or she now has an all-star team.

Johnny Opara (24m 33s):
And what’s going to end up happening is that throughout this process, you’re learning. And now that you have one completed project under your belt, the second deal, not necessarily going to be easier, but now you understand what it takes to do these deals and get it across the finish line.

Lea Hargett (24m 47s):
We talk about access. We talk about your vision, but how do you, how do you, in the midst of the challenges as you described them, the equity challenge, how do you commit to that vision? When, you know, when there’s just all these different barriers, all these things coming at you that constantly put you back in that, that space, where the lack of equity is really going to slow me down. It requires me to make some adjustments, but still keep to your vision. What is that inside of you that has allowed you to do that?

Johnny Opara (25m 31s):
I remember just being walking kind of aimlessly when I was a teen, trying to figure out what am I going to do with my life? And as I mentioned earlier, I always thought that I wanted to do something that was going to be impactful. I just don’t want to collect a paycheck. And that’s my life. I worked for 30 years. And that’s it. I wanted to figure out how I can do something that’s special that resonates with who I am inside. And on that path, you have different iterations in terms of, you know, where your life goals. And I wouldn’t change any of those paths that I took both professionally and personally, because it made me the person I am today.

Johnny Opara (26m 13s):
But I think what pushed me through was, you know, knowing that one, I’m an immigrant. I came to this country when I was 14 years old, and I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity that was given to me by coming to this country, doing something that was going to be great, impactful, the same story, that for so many that comes to this country, wanting to aspire and, you know, be a part of the American dream. And for me, I just knew in my heart that I wanted to do something impactful, big, that allowed me to really showcase who I am in terms of my life experiences, but also have a human connection. And I think with all the nos, I mean, everybody, every single tax credit syndicator, and you can probably think of everyone said, no, everybody said, no.

Johnny Opara (27m 0s):
I promise you everybody sitting there. And as I said earlier, I started strike again. I think the big thing that got me really thinking that this thing could actually get to this point and close was when I sat down with rich on his birthday. And he told me, you know what, Johnny, I did my first deal by myself. I don’t know why you can’t do your first deal by yourself. And when he said that he was, he was referencing in terms of at a hundred percent, meaning that there’s no partners, historically speaking, that just does not happen. I promise you for a first time developer. So when he said that, he said, bring this deal to the finish line, get everything in motion, bringing this deal to the finish line.

Johnny Opara (27m 45s):
And what I did was I basically just continued to push through. And at one point I was working, I don’t know, four or five jobs. You’re not bootstrap. This deal liquidated my 401k. At one point, you know, I was selling houses, working a full-time job, delivering packages, modeling, and acting, whatever it took to bootstrap this deal and take care of my family at the same time to get to this point. A lot of people didn’t know that because they just saw what they saw. And I was very quiet about this. A lot of people didn’t know I was doing development and, you know, the best advice I got from my wife was just be quiet and let the building talk.

Johnny Opara (28m 25s):
And I think that was probably one of the best advice I received besides the continuous support from, you know, just, you know, the riches of the world and in so many people throughout this process that played a role in me getting to this point. So, you know, just continually fighting through and obviously just fulfilling the promise. That means that the community, that I was going to bring housing that was Margaret in design, and that was affordable. We are underbuilt as the population, even though wages are increasing, you know, which is a good thing. We still need access to housing, whether that be, you know, affordable market rate owner occupied, we are still underbuilt as a population.

Johnny Opara (29m 9s):
That’s why you’re seeing the rents the way they are and why, you know, homes are selling for record prices just due to deliberate inventory. So there’s a huge opportunity for us to do something here in development. And I just really want to be a part of that.

Lea Hargett (29m 22s):
You know, that that’s a really good segue for us to start talking a little bit about one of the other things that connects you and I, and that is list and the list list initiative, really targeting developers of color, helping developers of color, actually get over those thresholds, those barriers to and cross the finish line right in their real estate ventures. I actually got connected with LISC several years ago when I was approached to consider actually leading a study to uncover and name the specific barriers, capacity barriers that developers, I know you were, you agreed to an interview with me and several other meetings, which was really great.

Lea Hargett (30m 11s):
I had met you a few years before then through rich. So I kind of felt like maybe he’ll say yes, that work and that engagement with Liz has really culminated in creating an opportunity for the organization to actually really engage in some transformative change and, and to do something here in the twin cities that has yet to be done. And so in 2021, I got to always remember we’re in 22, a knit list initiated or launched it’s developers of color initiative. And so I’m really interested in knowing from you as a member of the first, the inaugural development co cohort, what has the program offered that has really helped you

Johnny Opara (31m 2s):
Really, I want to acknowledge you. I want to acknowledge your leadership and you continue to support. And then when we first met you, you had this presence, this embodiment that you really want people of color women, just people in general to succeed. And I just want to acknowledge you publicly and just let everyone know that you’ve been, you know, one of my biggest supporters, you know, we’re grateful to have you in this space and it’s amazing to see you just continue to thrive and, you know, just be your authentic self. And I think for people like me who have longed to be their authentic selves without any repercussion is great to see someone else doing the same.

Johnny Opara (31m 42s):
So I appreciate your leadership and your friendship. I think LISC as an organization has one they’ve been there for me since 2018, they’ve actually put their money where their mouth is and helped helped me with many of my big ideas and said, Hey John, okay, we’ll, we’ll support you. But to be a part of the inaugural developers of color cohort, I has been very interesting and very insightful and has allowed me to connect with other like-minded individuals who are aspiring to do great things in our community. So it’s been a privilege and an honor to be a part of this cohort.

Johnny Opara (32m 23s):
And I’m just happy to see that there’s other folks that are looking to, you know, create change in their own way authentically. And everyone started from different places. Professionally. Some are looking at doing single family and some are looking at doing a multi-family and some are looking at doing larger scale projects. But the bottom line is that from a collateral standpoint, we can all come together collectively once a month, like we did, and really talk about different things that would, you know, be on the agenda from having, you know, speakers from a city perspective, speak, talking about the importance of understanding performance, financial acumen relationships, you know, with different, different capital structures, such as a venture capitalism, just understanding how the different parts of development works and how Liz was able to bring both relationships over the year that they built and expose the cohort to them, I think has been extremely gratifying and very important.

Johnny Opara (33m 26s):
And I must say, because I’ve been at this for the last four, four and a half, five years, I’ve always tried to ask very pointed questions when folks would come on, because I wanted to really make sure that I equate this to the Kobe Bryant approach. You know, Kobe Bryant is my favorite player, but he really looked at Michael Jordan as the, as the height as the, as the, as the ultimate. So for me, Michael provided him, you know, like a pathway, like a, like a, like a dictionary in terms of how to be great, that allowed him to get to the finish line. Some may say little quicker. So I always equated to, well, there’s an opportunity to, I’ve already bumped my head a whole bunch of times.

Johnny Opara (34m 7s):
If I have an opportunity to allow you not to bump your head that many times, well then let me at least give you that information. So that way you can get to the finish line even quicker. So I say that, so, you know, I, I, that’s the world that I really try to play in, in the cohort because there’s a lot of things that people don’t know that we go through just in a space in development that doesn’t even require. Communication could be just a simple look. You could be in a meeting and you could be ignored because you have no experience. So you could be bypassed because, I mean, who are you, Johnny? You just got into development and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. So there’s a lot of things that are very subtle that I’ve had to kind of navigate and learn and understand that this is just part of the process.

Johnny Opara (34m 50s):
And I’ve always tried to, you know, hopefully be a, a source of realism in terms of this is not Walt Disney world. I can promise you. And it sounds sexy to be about Rob. I promise you that once you get into it, it’s not as sexy.

Lea Hargett (35m 8s):
Yeah. It’s, it’s a really tough job. It’s a, there’s a heavy lift and you don’t have instant gratification.

Johnny Opara (35m 16s):
Absolutely, absolutely. It’s something that over time, I think when I close on December 23rd of last year, it didn’t really hit me. We closed, you know, I spoke to my attorney and a few folks in the development team. I spoke to the lender. I spoke to us bank us bank, by the way, is the tax credit investor on the deal. And Redstone is doing the debt and new construction financing on the deal. Obviously the city of St. Paul of course provided taxes and bonds and TIFF and pool TIFF. So those three partners were instrumental in getting this deal across the finish line. So let me recognize the city of St.

Johnny Opara (35m 56s):
Paul us bank in Redstone, obviously met council Ramsey county LISC. The department of deed were all instrumental in terms of my capital stack that allowed me to be able to get the house to where it’s at right now. But, you know, I would say that it’s just been an interesting ride, you know, and seeing how in a development has its, its turns and twists. But when I closed it wasn’t until I saw the site actually start to get built, live right in front of me that, wow, this is really happening to see that we’re out the ground finished precast.

Johnny Opara (36m 36s):
We’re just going to be putting down a slab of concrete and then start back for the next week. We just finished L one in terms of framing, which is the first level we’re going to start framing next week for the second level. So when you start to see that, that’s when it really hit me, right. That’s where I’m like, okay, this thing is actually really happening. And then on, you know, we’re probably 20, 20%, 25% complete. We should be opened by January 4th, 2023. So to know that we’re at like the five month mark and know there’s like seven months left, it’s, it’s kind of getting eerie knowing that by this time, next year, there will be individuals and families actually living there. So it’s, it’s a beautiful thing.

Johnny Opara (37m 16s):
But for me, I’m so humbled, so grateful for this opportunity to know that all the hard work that so many in so many people that have sacrificed and because so many hours on, you know, helping me get to this point, it was not for nothing. Now there’s actually people that’s going to, we’re going to benefit from all those long hours, because literally from the time that we started, you know, working towards the closing, we were working on Saturdays, we’re working on Sundays just to be able to meet this December 23rd closing.

Lea Hargett (37m 48s):
I want to ask you another question in relation to the list program. And, you know, as we’ve both been saying, this was the inaugural year, you’re part of the, the first cohort. And when we think about it, in terms of continuation, the importance of continuation, can you speak to the broader need for this? As it relates to changing the landscape for developers of color, people of color, the impact that this program could, could potentially have, you know, in answering a wide need to address racial equity in development, but also serve as a catalyst to, for change in other verticals so that the legacy of exclusion and intentionality is reversed.

Johnny Opara (38m 38s):
Yeah, that’s a very good question. Earlier this week, actually it was last week, I went to Milwaukee for the develop affordable housing conference that was hosted and put on by baker Tilly. And I got a chance to partake in a conference that their focus was bringing underrepresented developers across the country together to talk about affordable housing. So Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois was present in terms of their presence in working with underrepresented developers, people of color women, et cetera. And you know, one of the things that were discussed was the need for capital access influence relationships that had been built over the last 20, 30 years, you know, in CRE commercial real estate.

Johnny Opara (39m 28s):
I mean, we only make up 0.001%. So it’s extremely rare that you see folks that look like you and me, Leah and women that are in the prime position of being a developer. It’s just not, it’s not prominent. When I would, when I was in corporate America, I was always the only one that looked like me in a lot of my meetings and it’s still the same case and development. So we, we, we definitely need more opportunities where we can have programs like the developers of color cohort to expose into help individuals that are truly interested in this space and making a change.

Johnny Opara (40m 11s):
We need more of it. And I think if it’s done in the right way, the right context, it can have a ripple effect and people across the country can really benefit from, you know, this vertical, that exact same mindset, as you had pointed out earlier, could be applied to other verticals as well. Would that be in tech, whether that be in, you know, you want them to get into a different field. The bottom line is that as long as we can gain access to the, of capital, but also the education that comes with it and behind it, because the last thing you want to do is give somebody capital. But, you know, they don’t know how to utilize it. They don’t know how to strategically place it. That’s where the education comes in.

Johnny Opara (40m 52s):
If you know how to manage that budget, if you know how to manage those dollars in the right way, then we’re having a completely different conversation, right. That business is going to be set up for success. Yeah. We, we, we definitely need more opportunities to get folks who are truly interested. And I mean that, by saying, I was asked this weekend, you know, Johnny, what does the developer fee? And I get really weird when I talk about that number, because I feel like that shouldn’t be the reason why you want to do affordable housing. Right? I think the reason why you should do affordable housing, because you truly know that as a F as a population, as a country we’re underbuilt, and there are some folks that are working full-time jobs, they have kids and they’re homeless because there’s just no more housing available that reflects their economics.

Johnny Opara (41m 41s):
So you should, if you want to get into affordable housing or get into any kind of development. Yes. There’s a, a generational wealth aspect is associated with, with this line of work with this business as the owner and operator. But more importantly, if you’re looking at getting into the development, because you truly want to impact people’s lives, impact the community, then that should be the reason because I just remember as a kid, you know, living at these townhouses in Roseville, you know, it was a three-story townhouses. Beautiful. I mean, absolutely so many memories were created on that site where we live, that I found out 20 years later that it was affordable.

Johnny Opara (42m 23s):
I had no idea and actually lost to that developer that developed those townhouses on a site in Brooklyn park. We actually came in second. He came at first. So when you think about those experiences, you would never know. So I think we definitely need folks that look like you and me, Leah, in this space, especially if you’re building in our communities where we’re, you know, more prevalent. I think it makes sense to, you know, have programs like the developers of color cohort developed, you know, with baker, Tilly to really put a magnifying glass on this industry and making sure that everyone from the banks, lenders, investors, people that are connected politically and governments really pay attention to this conversation and figure out how we can do more.

Lea Hargett (43m 14s):
I think that the developers of color initiative is capable of actually achieving transformational change and that’s key to disrupting systemic racism. And it, you know, and it’s essential in driving a social capital and ownership that we’re talking about. And, and you’re right. It’s not just one thing. It’s not just financial capital. It’s also knowledge capital. It’s also social capital. We are very clear when you even think about your story and the people that you have actually been able to connect with, you’ve been able to benefit from, I mean, your network is your net worth.

Lea Hargett (43m 60s):
All of those things are critically important and LIS plays a real fundamental role in that it can open those doors. It can create those opportunities for us to gain the knowledge that we need or that, that, that we don’t currently have because of the system closing us out as well as, you know, access to the financial capital that we need. And to really, I think LISC is also uniquely situated to actually be stronger advocates for change, from a systemic perspective, to influence the others within the system, within the ecosystem to adjust based on the reality or the history that we’re, we’re actually trying to dismantle that systemically has oppressed people of color.

Lea Hargett (44m 52s):
So I think it’s a very, very important initiative. It’s bold. It requires leadership, and that’s what LIS brings to the table. People like Peter, Peter McLaughlin, Gretchen Nichols, Kate speed, Amy, Amy McCullough. I mean, those are the individuals that are really fighting that fight and believe that this is really a direction that we need to take. And they have brought that kind of bold leadership here to the twin cities where we haven’t seen it before in the twin cities being one of the states that if we recall in the last decade, and this has been going on longer than that, but there was a light shined on the twin cities as it relates to where we stand in this country around poverty and what the drivers are around poverty and how we were second to Mississippi.

Lea Hargett (45m 49s):
And that, you know, that the, the oppression, the, the, the systemic racist system that’s here in the twin cities has had to be addressed. And so it has taken us, or brought us to this point here, where we’ve had a number of key events that have happened that have given us boys as a people of color, where we’re starting to also do our part to demand even more and greater access. And so your, your, an example of that as well. So there is a lot that has changed a lot that needs to continue to change.

Lea Hargett (46m 30s):
I’m extremely optimistic about that. And I’m also very excited for what you’re doing. I’m excited to be a part of in, in whatever, in whatever way I can be a value to you to list. And to this community is really, really important to me. So I want to ask you, what’s the legacy that you want to, you want to leave as it relates to your, you can talk about it related to development. How do you want to influence development in the future? Or you can talk about it broader as it relates to our community as a whole.

Johnny Opara (47m 8s):
Yeah, that’s a great question. And you’re right. I was having this conversation with someone the other day in terms of all the, the money that organizations are born into, whether it be geared towards, you know, diversity inclusion, making sure that, you know, there’s, you know, there’s this funding available for, you know, minorities, et cetera, et cetera. For me, I feel like that’s a great, great cause. Great mission. But I think that if you’re going to give, if there’s going to be a fund of a hundred million dollars available for people of color or people in development, let there be some education, let there be some meaning behind it, not just here’s a hundred million dollars. And then also to gain access to the a hundred million dollars, let there be less trained versus more in order for us to be able to gain access to it.

Johnny Opara (47m 52s):
So in terms of legacy, my father passed away in 2018 at the heart of when I was going through this process as becoming a developer. And the last words he said to my uncle, I was in California trying to process his death was that my son was going to be a developer. So for me, I didn’t want to let him down, even though he was no longer here, I wanted to make sure that I actually fulfill the promise that we had. We had talked about, you know, when he was alive for me, I think the legacy that jail companies, myself, that anything that I’m attached to my hope is that people can say Johnny was a decent human being.

Johnny Opara (48m 33s):
And he really tried to look out for other human beings as much as possible, especially people that need more help than ours. I come across so many people that are, maybe have maybe had a brain tumor or had a stroke, or had some kind of accident. And they walk a similar type of way, like my father. And for some reason, a level of empathy, a level of, you know, let me go talk to this person comes over me. There’s this guy at the gym that saw me this morning. And he reminds me of my dad because they walk exactly the same. And we built, we built the friendship. Kenny sucks. Every time he sees me, I acknowledged him. We talk, we talk about life.

Johnny Opara (49m 14s):
So for me, I really just want people to know that Johnny was trying to do his part as a human being, by creating housing, that’s affordable, but more importantly, high quality housing, because it’s gonna be families. It’s gonna be, kids are gonna be living there at the hollows and other products I’m working on that have no idea who I am, but they’re going to be able to create memories at those kitchen tables. And you can’t put a price point on that. There’s no amount of money you can make in this business that can a, or replicate that feeling. That my sister, that my brother, that I had, that my mom and my dad at the kitchen table, that I can think back so many times and probably you as well growing up, have those moments.

Johnny Opara (49m 57s):
You know, so for me, knowing that I’m playing a part in creating those types of experiences is an immense respect. And it’s a humbling position to be in, to know that I could partake in those types of experiences. So for me, I just want people to know that I really am trying to do my part in our community and, you know, be someone that can hopefully inspire those that, that are trying to figure out what their purpose is trying to figure out, you know, what am I supposed to do in my, and they’re getting rejected to get a nose after nose at the nose at the nose year after year, after year after year. But you know, this guy born in Nigeria came in when he was one years old, went to school here in the twin cities, quit his job and got in this entrepreneur path.

Johnny Opara (50m 44s):
He did it well, why can’t I? So hopefully that can set as a, as some kind of foundation, some kind of opportunity for people to say, Hey, you know what? Johnny can do it. Why can’t I? And knowing that if you want to get into development, no, it’s not easy. It’s absolutely hard. And it’s hard for a reason because when you, when you put money into these projects and you don’t know what you’re doing, your risk level goes up and your risk tolerance, especially specifically for these banks in the city and investors is very low. So you need to make sure that you know what you’re doing and that you’re serious about this work, that you’re engaged, that you really trying to understand and totality about.

Johnny Opara (51m 29s):
What can you do to err, on the side of, you know, being not only caution, but more importantly, that you’ve taken this position that only so few have been in and you take it very seriously to make sure that you can do it again and again, and again and again, throughout the, the communities that you want to build in. So that’s the legacy that I would like to leave when it comes to my company, myself,

Lea Hargett (51m 52s):
Very inspiring, very inspiring. So Johnny, in closing, how can people get in touch with you or see your projects?

Johnny Opara (52m 1s):
Well, right now you can go to www.gl companies that org, you will see like the latest news on the different projects. Right now we have about north of a hundred plus million in a development pipeline. So we have the hollows, obviously that will be completed January 4th of next year. We’re actually on we’re actually, which is good news. We’re actually on chorus actually finished sooner than that, which would be fantastic. We have winks that commons, which is the 54 unit developments in Brooklyn center that I’ve been working on since 2019 with the city or Brooklyn center on a four-story multi-family development.

Johnny Opara (52m 41s):
That’s actually interesting. It’s, it’s going to include 16 units of supportive housing, so geared towards people with disabilities and high-protein homeless and the remaining units for your general population ranges of AMI from 30% AMI upwards to 60%. And what’s interesting about that project. This would be one of the first include four bedrooms as well, which is on a top of the list for, you know, things that Minnesota housing is looking for in terms of including in multifamily. We have a two to 300 unit project in St. Paul, my business partners. We own 15 acres of land in St. Paul. So we’re looking at bringing some housing. That’s affordable to the greater east side in St.

Johnny Opara (53m 22s):
Paul as well, and got some other opportunities I’m working on in the, and looking at some things out of state, but we’re just staying busy, trying to stay optimistic when you’re seeing inflation is highest and interest rates going super high in construction, you know, pricing, you know, through the roof. But if you wait to do these types of deals, then you’ll never do them. You got to figure out how you can be creative and figure out, you know, how you can make these things work, whether that be through value engineering, thinking outside the box, looking at new different strategies in terms of construction, you know, what can the project sacrifice or not the, this is how development is done. And I think that I found my path.

Johnny Opara (54m 3s):
I found my purpose in terms of this work. I enjoy it. I could do it 24 hours a day. And you know, I wasn’t paid for four and a half, five years. So I enjoyed the exact same way. So for me, that’s when I knew I was actually in alignment with where I was supposed to do. So if anyone ever has any questions, feel free to contact me through my website, but you know, a lot of good things are happening for the company. So we’re very excited.

Lea Hargett (54m 26s):
Thank you so much for sharing your story and for imparting your wisdom and your vision is amazing and it’s needed just wishing you just the greatest of our Lord’s blessings. And with that, I’ll say, I do

Johnny Opara (54m 44s):
Appreciate it.

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