Joanna Bartholomew, owner of O’Hara Developments, is a woman who’s breaking all barriers.
While Joanna’s background is in social work, community health and financial education, real estate is in her blood. Her father was a developer, and as a young girl she spent time with him, both in the office and on job sites. So it’s no surprise that she launched her own real estate company.
But being a Black woman in the real estate industry is not quite enough of a challenge. On one hand, Joanna is focusing on broad community development by tackling decaying properties in East Baltimore (one block at a time) and breathing new life into them. But on the other, she is committed to providing outreach to the people who will occupy them. To make sure that what she is building will serve the community effectively, Joanna’s organization offers up financial literacy courses and down payment programs, to both educate and support new potential home-owners. All of it to make sure everyone can have a chance at home ownership.
Insights and Inspirations
- Joanna is one of a few. A black woman with her own real estate company.
- She’s focussing on community development one block at a time, tackling decaying properties and breathing new life into them.
- Her past career in social work creeps into her real estate work. She offers up financial literacy and down payment programs so that everyone can have a chance at home ownership.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:17] Hi there, thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo, in order to build better for everyone. When I’m not hosting the show, I’m running my real estate crowdfunding platform, SmallChange.co, where you’ll find impact real estate investment opportunities open to everyone, or you can learn more about me and catch up on some podcasts at my website EvePicker.com.
Eve: [00:01:14] Today, I’m talking with Joanna Bartholomew, owner of O’Hara Developments and a woman who’s breaking all barriers. While Joanna’s background is in social work, community health and financial education, real estate is in her blood. Her father had a real estate company. And as a young girl, she spent time with him in the office and on job sites. So it’s no surprise that she launched her own real estate company. But being a black woman in the real estate industry is not quite enough of a challenge for Joanna. She’s focusing on community development one block at a time, tackling decaying properties and breathing new life into them. You’ll want to hear more.
Eve: [00:02:04] If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, there are two simple things you can do. Share this podcast or go to Patreon.com/rethinkrealestate to support this podcast for the price of a cup of coffee.
Eve: [00:02:25] Good morning, Joanna. Thanks so much for joining me.
Joanna Bartholomew: [00:02:28] Hi, Eve. Good morning. Thanks for having me. Yeah.
Eve: [00:02:32] So you’re a pretty rare breed, a black woman developer. And I was wondering how you got there from your initial career choice of social work. That’s quite a journey.
Joanna: [00:02:46] It quite is. So I actually was raised in real estate. My father was a developer. So, growing up, I knew him to just be the person that always would have me in these rooms of either going to a settlement or going to the old Hechinger, which was the former Home Depot, picking up the lumber and looking at like design sketches and things like that. I still remember having to take a construction class in an elementary school. And I have to be honest, I probably picked the classes I knew I could pass. My house, that I had to build it looked better than all the other kids in the class because of my dad. But fast forward, you know, being in the field of social work for some years and working with families that were facing various challenges, one of the most common things that we saw was their access to equity, their access to wealth. And in the population that I worked with were people that looked like me and other brown families that had limited access. And it wasn’t because of anything other than the knowledge and knowing where to get information. So what I wanted to do, expanding on, I said, you know, it’s time for me to fire my boss, get into the roots of what I know, and bring both worlds together so we could be able to provide access to equity. And one of the first places you could do that with is in real estate.
Eve: [00:04:11] So isn’t that interesting? Because my parents sort of grew up always investing that I grew up with my parents, always investing in real estate. They actually were refugees, so they had very little, but that’s when they had money and that’s what they invested in. So I was also very comfortable with real estate. And it really is about a comfort level, isn’t it, with something you don’t understand.
Joanna: [00:04:33] Right. Right.
Eve: [00:04:35] It’s really interesting.
Joanna: [00:04:37] And it does take a level of comfort to know what you know in your brain and have to manifest that into reality. And it requires some guts. And if you have the privilege of seeing that in your younger years, when you get older, it does feel a little bit more comfortable vs. a family that doesn’t know anything about these type of financial terms and systems. And now you’re adding on a big house responsibility onto it. So we want to be able to be that line of support.
Eve: [00:05:06] So what sort of projects do you focus on?
Joanna: [00:05:10] So our projects primarily are residential. The majority of them are three level homes, three story homes where they’re row homes there in the urban community. And we are either transitioning them into single family homes where they can use the whole space for their family or we are actually converting them into duplexes, most of them being bi level units, two bedrooms, two baths, where people can also be able to rent from them for a period of time. Now, with our renters, we do something a little different because, again, we’re encouraging homeownership. We take a portion of their rent and we put it into escrow. So when they’re ready to be able to transition to being a homeowner, they could actually use those funds, especially if they’re purchasing one of our properties towards either down-payment or any moving costs.
Eve: [00:06:02] Oh, wow. So how long does it take for someone to save enough that way to purchase a house?
Joanna: [00:06:11] Well, it really just depends. I mean, everybody’s situation is different. How much they need for down payment, is different and they may not even use it. They may use it towards their moving costs. They can use it however they choose. But I would say if I had to put a number on it, most people could be able to use those funds at least in about a year and a half. Right. So.
Eve: [00:06:35] Right. So this is the social worker in you emerging in real estate.
Joanna: [00:06:42] Yes. Most developers could care less about where you’re moving to next.
Eve: [00:06:46] This is really, this is really cool. So you’re really working on the whole thing. The real estate project and the people who live in the projects.
Joanna: [00:06:57] Yes.
Eve: [00:06:59] So where do you focus on your projects?
Joanna: [00:07:02] So as of right now, we have I would consider it to be our staple development site, which is in Baltimore City. We’re actually restoring a nice portion of the neighborhood. Some people say that we bought the neighborhood, but I don’t feel that way. It’s about two continuous blocks, I would say, in that area that we’re focusing on. And majority of them are actually not all of them are three story buildings. And we’re planning for about 15 single family homes and eight buildings that will actually be duplexes.
Eve: [00:07:35] So I’ve seen the blocks and the architecture is really stunning. And these buildings have been vacant for a while, haven’t they?
Joanna: [00:07:45] Yes, they have, unfortunately in a lot of urban neighborhoods, what we hear and what we see is the aftermath and some of it we’re still fighting that’s affiliated to redlining. And redlining is something that has caused a lot of funds to not be placed in certain neighborhoods over the years, which would have allowed people to become homeowners, which then also brings in other things as far as, you know, very poor behaviors in terms of drugs and things of those nature. So these are neighborhoods that have that are being revamped. But we have to be intentional in how we do it in these spaces, because these are people that have lived here in some shape or form for a long time. But in this particular area of Baltimore, Baltimore had a great flight at one point where a lot of these homes became became vacant. So we’re working with various city programs and some individuals in terms of the acquisition of the properties. And we also make sure that we work with some of the neighborhood associations as well, making sure that they are aware of some of the programs that we have. One of the beauties about adding in the social work piece is that because of our program and through our non-profit, we’re also able to provide up to 43,000 dollars in down-payment assistance as well.
Eve: [00:09:00] Wow. So you have to tell me more about the non-profit. You’re throwing things at me really fast. So what condition are the buildings in?
Joanna: [00:09:11] It varies. Some of them. I mean, you have to, I tell people all the time what we see in like the Home Depot and Lowe’s now as lumber is nothing in comparison to some of the true lumber that was there way, way back in the day. So these houses have stood the test of times. I mean, they have great solid bones. Some of them are still pretty intact and maybe they just need heavy cosmetic work. But there’s also some of them where the roof has already caved in and now we’re doing a lot more extensive work. There’s a good portion of them that are also considered to be historic. So when we restore those, we have to follow certain architectural guidelines. So we have to put back like wood windows. If the staircase was still intact, we have to restore the staircase to its original state as much as possible. We have to take certain pictures, submit it to the historic alliance there to be able to make sure that we’re following things to code. So it’s a little bit a mixture of both that we experience.
Eve: [00:10:18] Cool. So when it’s done, how many units will there be? What will this project look like?
Joanna: [00:10:24] So in this phase of the project, which I consider to be Phase A, there will be a total of 31 units. Between the single families, the units from the duplexes and one of the duplexes has a commercial space at the bottom. So it’ll be 31 units and the the duplexes will bi-level two bedroom, two bath, kind of give you that New York feel a little bit. So it will have that, that feel of a home because you can be able to go upstairs and downstairs. One of the things that we did during the time of when the pandemic first hit and really, really heavy, we readjusted the layout for the single-family homes because we know some people are not going back into the office for work for some time and some children are still going to do hybrid learning or they’ll be learning 100 percent from home. So those homes have a loft area that could be converted back to a bedroom later on, if they chose to. And it also has a private office for whomever wants to use that as well. So we wanted to meet the families where they are in the times that we’re living in because we don’t know how long we’re going to be living this way. So it’s a very convertible house. I would say that can truly grow with you.
Eve: [00:11:40] And what is Phase Two?
Joanna: [00:11:43] Well, Eve, maybe I could say a little bit about that. So,t Phase Two is at very, very early stages. We have some land there that we are considering to do some development on. We can’t talk too much about it, but it could be some brand new construction with some condos. So we’ll see.
Eve: [00:12:04] Ok, and I know you’ve talked to me in the past about open space as well and how that knits into your overall strategy. And can you talk about that?
Joanna: [00:12:15] Yes. So through our non-profit, we manage about 27, 25 lots, give or take, in the East Baltimore section of the city. Our biggest thing is, is reducing vacant lots. So right now, a lot of the lots, we’re just keeping them clean as much as possible. Some of them are side lots next to homes. Some of them are just completely wide open spaces where they used to be homes, but they had to be demolished for whatever reason, more than likely because it was a safety hazard to the neighborhood and they’re just completely open. So what we’ve been doing with one of the particular areas, which is about a little over a quarter acre of land, that space, we’re actually transitioning that to a community park. So on our in our neighborhood, right behind some of the houses that we’re planning to build to restore there, you would now have a community park right in your backyard where you could really be in your kitchen and look out and see your kids playing or any of those things there. It’s going to be really nice. We’re using a concept that we like to call It Takes a Village. So we are blurring the lines of Baltimore City and really allowing people from different cities and states to donate and be a part of reducing vacant lots in urban neighborhoods, period. And that has been going pretty well. So we’re excited to see what it looks like when it comes together.
Eve: [00:13:39] So I want to come back to the non-profit. You said you have a non-profit as well, which is kind of unusual for a developer. Why? And what do you accomplish with that?
Joanna: [00:13:48] So through our non-profit, we only manage space, the green spaces, because they are not providing us any rent. So through our reinvestment model, we donate a portion of our profit from our developments into our non-profit. That helps us to be able to provide financial wellness workshops for the neighborhood. We’ve recently partnered with JPMorgan Chase Bank, which we’re really, really excited about, to be able to offer workshops to the neighborhood. We also have a summer financial literacy program that we’re actually in our fifth year. I couldn’t believe it, the other day when I saw the number. We’re in our fifth summer providing financial literacy specifically for young women. And then we also have our housing and financial counseling program. So for us with a non-profit, it’s not necessarily totally focused on real estate, but it does manage the last that we adopt and or that we own under that umbrella.
Eve: [00:14:46] It’s a really interesting strategy because often in neighborhoods like the one you’re working in you would only be able to have a non-profit developer to accomplish all of this. This is not yet. I’m sure it’s still a soft market. Is that what you’re experiencing? I mean, the market values are going to be different in a in a more established neighborhood in Baltimore, certainly. Right.
Joanna: [00:15:12] Right. So I would say that right now we are still in the early transition part of this neighborhood. We do have some brand new development that has already happened. They they did modular homes right in our backyard where we are. And those were eight. Yeah, I think we’re eight of modular homes and they look beautiful. And we have some other homes that have already been restored and they vary. In terms of price point, you do have some non-profits that have actually built those homes and they were able to take advantage of different funding and they were able to offer them under three 300,000. And then you have some of your traditional developers who have come in and done restoration projects and they’re selling for over 300,000. So we’re still very much in the early phase in this particular area. And it just it does vary.
Eve: [00:16:03] Right. So not absolutely ground zero.
Joanna: [00:16:05] Right.
Eve: [00:16:06] So tell me about some of the challenges you’re being confronted with, both as a developer and with this project.
Joanna: [00:16:15] Right, so as a female developer, one of the challenges is that I’m often taken as the secretary when I walk into most places then the owner. And it’s nothing wrong with being a secretary or an administrative assistant. But it’s the assumption of the fact that she could actually be the owner, that sometimes can be a bit frustrating. And so that can kind of get underneath my skin a little bit. I try my best for it not to get to me, but it can be a bit uncomfortable. I feel like when I get into spaces and I get in and I get a chance to connect with other female developers, I almost feel like it’s a sorority. Like you haven’t seen your sorority sister since college. You’re like, oh my God, just another person like me. And we’re able to connect. Thank God. I had somebody call me yesterday and they were all the way in Boston and they said, Joanna, do you have like two minutes just to say hi to someone? They saw you online. She also female developer. Can you just say hi? And we were like, oh, my gosh, this is great. We have to connect. And, you know, I say that to say Eve, we need more females in this space. We need to have more women investing for sure. But we need to also have more women in the real estate industry. And this has been a very much a male dominated space for a very long time. I still come across in business meetings, in business meetings where men will say, sweetie, honey and I have to correct them.
Eve: [00:17:41] Yeah, oh yeah.
Joanna: [00:17:43] I’m not sweetie, would you say this if I was a man and we were talking about the deal? No, let’s you know, so I have to, often, correct that as well. So that’s some of the challenges that I face on the female side of being a developer. But building in Covid-19, I mean, who would have thought that this would be the time that we would really be doing this would be right in the middle of Covid-19. And it’s like, oh, my goodness. I think the beauty for me, though, because I’m often the person that’s thinking outside of the box, Covid has made every industry have to think outside of the box. So now when I’m going into spaces and I’m talking about for profit and non-profit and down payment assistance and thinking about the actual individual and how it affects their family, people are actually more open-minded now than they were three years ago when we first started.
Eve: [00:18:39] I think that’s very true. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So so what about financing? I mean, you know, most of the honeys I’ve received have been at banks. I sometimes want to come back with sugar, but that won’t work.
Joanna: [00:18:58] Well, in regards to financing, we’ve been able to be in a good position. I mean, Baltimore’s is one of the places that we that we have our our staple project. We’re also doing some work in the Philadelphia area. And this is this is not the beginning. This is not a very this is the beginning of this level of how we’re going about things. But I’ve been able to do some projects in the past where I was strategic with those funds and really allowed that to be the spark of what we’re working on now. We’ve also done…
Eve: [00:19:28] I think I think it was asking more like how did banks treat you when you walk in the door? You know…
Joanna: [00:19:35] Banks are a little bit a little bit different. I think I’ve come across more of the honeys and the sweeties in the private the private conversations. That could be a little frustrating, but I think the bank so far has been pretty good. And we haven’t had to really work with too many of them. Most of our financing when we’ve done construction and things of that nature has been more of your alternative options. Some people call them hard money and things like that. But I haven’t had a bad experience at the bank, knock on wood that they won’t.
Eve: [00:20:10] Well, that’s an improvement. OK, so no other serious challenges. It looks like you’re roaring along. What about perception, like in the neighborhood?
Joanna: [00:20:23] Well, I would tie that in. And that’s part of where I was going with that. Perception in the neighborhood especially, and I’ll focus on Baltimore because Philadelphia is home for me. When you’re going into a city where you’re not from there, it does require another layer of work. You have to understand how their systems work. But right down to how can you get your utilities turned on is a whole new system, even with some of the things that we’re coming from a different city. Not necessarily using Philadelphia systems and trying to put them into Baltimore, but you’re looking at different systems from various cities. In addition to things that you have learned from a different industry and you’re bringing them into a city that you’re now in a room with other creatives, but now you’re bringing a different process to them because they may have only understood how things go in Baltimore, but now you’re bringing in new information and you want to do this in a strategic way where you’re not trying to flex a muscle and so to speak to them. But you want them to start thinking outside of the box of how they can be able to address some of the challenges. So I would say in a nutshell, it’s been positive overall, but at the same time, we’ve had situations where you do have people wondering, well, who is this woman? Where does she come from? How does she know this and how does….but now I could say that we’ve gotten past that part. And I want to say 95 percent is very much welcome in opening. We can pick up the phone, ask questions, get the support that we need with no problem. And Baltimore has become almost like a second home for me.
Eve: [00:22:08] That’s nice. But what about the neighborhood itself, the people who live there?
Joanna: [00:22:12] Right. So the people that live there? One of the things that I did from the very beginning, and this is before we did any construction on any property, I went I knocked on the door of the local church and I sat with one of the associate pastors asking them questions about what, how the neighborhood operates, what’s the vibe in the neighborhood, and I did not I did that not only with the church but even when we were out, some of my meetings are not just your formal neighborhood association meetings or your land use committee meetings. Some of these meetings, Eve, is right on a stoop. Sitting with someone that lives in the neighborhood. Asking questions and engaging with them before your you know, they just see you doing demo. And that has been very helpful. So, I mean, I think I might have one of the best security systems in the area, and that’s called neighbors now because of the fact that we have this relationship. So we will welcomed very early on with positivity. I didn’t have any issues with neighbors because I went to them. I didn’t wait for them to come to me.
Eve: [00:23:16] That’s great. So they trust you and they’re looking forward to what you’re building, right?
Joanna: [00:23:20] Oh, yes, absolutely.
Eve: [00:23:22] That’s wonderful. So you just made it a little harder for yourself. You added crowd funding to the mix. Your project of Aruka Midway in Baltimore is listed on my platform, Small Change. And that’s just another layer of complexity. Why did you do that? What do you hope to, what do you hope the outcome is?
Joanna: [00:23:50] What I hope for the outcome to be is for in urban neighborhoods, for wealth to be more normalized by the people that live there. And this is what I mean by this. Growing up I grew up in North Philly. That’s considered, quote unquote, the hood for some people. And when we will see development happening, even if you went off to college or came back, you’re like, oh, my goodness, what happened here? Ms. so-and-so used to live here. This school building used to be here. One of the common threads in the neighborhood and not just in North Philadelphia is, well, I didn’t even know what happened. Nobody ever talked to us about it. And we often feel boxed out, left out. And then definitely there was no one saying to us, well, how we could be able to at least reap some part of the return for things that are happening right in our neighborhood, that they also want us to patronize it. You want us to come shop at these retail places and things of that nature. So while we’re doing the crowdfunding raise, is to now provide an opportunity for people that live in the neighborhood, people that can relate in urban neighborhoods or those that want to support this type of development structure for them to also have a piece of what we’re also going to be reaping as well. That’s why we’re really creating it. We’re already doing the education in the community. We’re already providing the housing counseling through partnerships. We’re providing down payment assistance. So now the thing is, where can we do this in a way that, yes, we are able to raise the funds to do the development, but we also strategically do it in a way where those that can connect with this area in some shape or form can also be able to see what it looks like when you get that dividend check every year or see what it looks like when you can say, I own a piece of that restaurant that I go to every Sunday for family, a family breakfast. Those things start to matter. So that’s why I decided to create Aruka Midway. It’s a part of restoration for the neighborhood. And Aruka actually means restore in Hebrew.
Eve: [00:25:55] Oh, I didn’t know that. Thank you.
Joanna: [00:25:57] Yeah.
Eve: [00:26:00] Yeah. So, yeah, there’s something very palpable about people wanting to be involved in and engaged. And crowdfunding seems to just go that extra step. They can actually say I own a piece of that. I made it happen. Right?
Joanna: [00:26:13] Yes, absolutely. It’s the story that’s able to be told.
Eve: [00:26:17] Right. So what’s next for you? What’s ultimately your big, hairy, audacious goal, Joanna?
Joanna: [00:26:26] Believe it or not, and some people are often like, what, you don’t want to do this in 20 other cities? I absolutely do not. I want to live. I want to be able to enjoy the fruits of my labor and be able to enjoy time with my family. So doing this in more than three cities is not the goal. Three cities will be our max. We’re still identifying what that third will be. And ultimately, what we want to be able to do is for companies that see this to be a structure of purpose in their real estate development, is to be able to sow a seed and be their partner in helping them get started. Be a part of that funding for them where they could be able to come to O’Hara Developments and say, hey, I found a block, I found a neighborhood, or maybe it’s just one house. I know it fits into your model. Is there a way that you could support me? So if we could do that in a way of being some form of an equity partner in the beginning, giving them the consultation that they need, the support that they need. As long as they are looking to mirror a socially conscious and impactful model, the way that we have it, we want to be able to be that source for other developers in urban development.
Eve: [00:27:41] That’s a great goal. So thank you. Thank you very much for talking with me today. I hope that listeners will go check out your offering on SmallChange.co. We can’t talk too much about it here, but there’s lots about it there. So here’s to your success, Joanna.
Joanna: [00:28:00] Thank you, Eve. Thank you and thank you for having me today.
Eve: [00:28:09] That was Joanna Bartholomew. Joanna Bartholomew changed her career path from social work to real estate, and yet she didn’t. It’s not just about the vacant and decrepit row houses that she’s rehabbing one block at a time. For Joanna, it’s also about the people who will occupy them. She immerses herself in the community to make sure that what she is building will serve it well. And she offers up financial literacy and down-payment programs so that everyone can have a chance at home ownership.
Eve: [00:28:51] You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at EvePicker.com, or you can support us at Patreon.com/rethink real estate for the price of a cup of coffee. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music. And thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Images courtesy of Joanna Bartholomew and O’Hara Developments