Robert Covington And Luol Deng Invest In Real-Estate Fund Aiming To Revitalize Chicago

In September, Own Our Own, an inner-city-focused real-estate fund, announced its first Chicago-based project in partnership with the Houston Rockets’ Robert Covington and former Chicago Bull Luol Deng. Further strengthening the project is a partnership with the Chicago Urban League and the NBPA Foundation, which will fund initiatives around physical fitness and mentorship. 

After being drafted to the Bulls in 2004, Deng spent his first ten years in Chicago, and he signed a one-day deal last year to retire with the franchise. During his time in the city, he ingrained himself within the community through the team’s charity and through his own foundation. Covington, a native of Bellwood, Illinois, is very familiar with the disparity of resources and opportunities within the city. 

The two were teammates in Minnesota during the 2018-19 season, and that’s where their conversations regarding the initiative begin. For Deng, it provided an opportunity to add to a growing real-estate portfolio along with providing an impact to a city he holds dear to his heart. Covington also visualized the longterm solutions it could offer his hometown. Both invested sizable amounts into the fund.

“Being a kid from Chicago, I’ve seen the way housing is in the Black communities,” Covington said. “The city doesn’t take notice and take care of certain parts of the city. For us to get involved with everything that’s going on, it just seems like this is perfect timing. It’s huge to finally be in this moment, and we put so much into this.” 

Own Our Own is the investment arm of Our Opportunity, an inner-city-focused economic-empowerment initiative cofounded by real estate investor and developer David Gross and the late entrepreneur, activist and rapper Nipsey Hussle. The initiative was birthed from the learnings of Vector90, a coworking community and incubator focused on developing underrepresented entrepreneurs, located in Hussle’s neighborhood of South Central, Los Angeles. Their initial concept was expanded to include housing because of its importance in achieving social equity. 

Through developing and investing in affordable housing, the plan is to transform neighborhoods to help facilitate job creation, economic growth and resources across inner-city communities. 

The first phase of the Chicago project is to uplift a 143-unit multi-family property in the West Pullman neighborhood on the city’s South Side. Community gardens, an outdoor playground and enhanced safety measures will be part of that focus. Phase 2 will see the renovation of physical spaces to house Vector90, a community library, and a health and wellness space.

“Our neighborhood and our tenants are suffering due to Covid, and it helps to feel that we’re in it together,” said Marisol Colon, who is the property manager of the space. “It’s a good feeling to know you can pick up the phone and feel empowered and supported. I really believe in what we’re doing here. I called David the other day because I was feeling anxious and he told me, ‘It’s tough now, but we’ll get through these next few months together.’ We’re building this community up for years to come.”

Gross has already begun looking into neighborhoods on the city’s West Side to bring the initiative there as well, and he’s hoping that what’s to come can help shift one of the city’s notorious problems.

As of this writing, more than 3,200 people have been shot this year in Chicago, which is a jump of more than 1,000 from last year, according to the Chicago Tribune crime team. The victims of these shootings are mostly concentrated on the West and South Sides. Gross is in conversation with organizations within Chicago on the development of anti-gun initiatives. 

“I think this will be a model to help change the narrative,” Deng said. “I really believe there are a lot of issues that charities can’t solve. It’s really important that we learn how we can do things that invest back into our own communities that can significantly change lives at the same time.”

Former players Matt Barnes and Pops Mensah-Bonsu are also investor-partners. Having Deng and Covington as the faces for the Chicago project is a continuation of the model in working with prominent figures in their respective cities. In having them invest, it helps amplify the messaging, provide intel in the market and brings a network of local resources necessary to achieve community support. 

“The thought process and rationale are that those figures in our communities shift hearts, minds, and we need that collective effort,” Gross said. “We realized we needed the leaders in those cities to partner with us. Having someone who is a trusted face and voice of a city makes an impact when it comes to real estate investment development because people won’t be worried about gentrification, displacement or any ulterior motives.”

The cities the fund targeted are high-potential, majority-Black communities. Through conversations, expansions to cities outside their initial concept have already materialized. Covington will also be a central figure in bringing the initiative to Nashville, where he lives in the off-season and starred in college at Tennessee State University. 

“Long term, it’s about making changes for communities that haven’t been given much,” Covington said. “This is about creating a way for change for them, giving kids opportunities that don’t have many. If more investments were put into some of these communities and kids had the same opportunities as kids in better areas, it would be a different ballgame.”

Gross considers this initiative a black-led, institutional response to help combat some of the systematic forces that have plagued Black communities across the country, such as underinvesting, divestment, redlining and sustained structural disadvantages.

One of the more interesting aspects of the fund, and at the heart of what Gross and Hussle wanted to accomplish, is the participation of the community in investing back into it. Our Opportunity is raising $250 million to bring this project into other cities; $50 million of that will be crowdfunded, with anyone being able to invest for as little as $1,000 to buy into the portfolio, creating collective ownership and action. They then will help seed other funds from Black developers, construction managers and property managers in the community to facilitate a black professional ecosystem that will create a multiplier effect to help generate wealth across black communities. 

“What this will lead to, hopefully, is players working together and the outcome of this will really influence a lot of athletes to go into each other’s communities,” Deng said. “Now, that all eyes are open to what’s been going on in our neighborhoods for years, I think it will further bring attention to issues, and it will bring players together to invest in their communities and others as well.”

The murder of George Floyd on May 25 reignited the fight against both police brutality against Black Americans and all forms of systemic racism. There were nationwide protests. Professional athletes and celebrities begin using their platforms to advocate for change.  

The Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to boycott Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic in August in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sparked boycotts across the sports world in one of the boldest stands by athletes against systematic racism and police brutality. In response, the NBA announced that teams would convert their unused arenas into polling sites during the 2020 election as part of commitments made to restart the playoffs just two days later. 

While these moments have helped raise awareness and shift public opinion, there has been very little institutional change, which is at the forefront of why these moments continue to happen, and that always leads to the question of what’s next.

Gross believes that anything that doesn’t establish Black-led institutions from this current climate to address core issues within Black communities, such as banking, lending and investment, will only see us continuing to protest when there are moments of injustice and relying on outside entities to help spearhead a revolution.

The long-term ambition of Own Our Own is helping to create and define a new normal by changing what capitalism, investment and development look like in communities that have been directly affected by these systemic issues. 

“We want to define a new model of collective action and investment in inner-city communities,” Gross said. “Our culture has always celebrated the success of visible figures who made it from our communities. Going forward, we should find ways to win together and applaud each other. Shoulder to shoulder is the only way to close some of these gaps that are clearly unacceptable. We have to go all in on our communities and forge an example for allies to support and follow.”

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