In the winter of 2014, my family and I stumbled upon The Good Lie, a motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon. The movie was entertaining but the effect the story would have upon our family lasted long after the credits.
The story follows two siblings and a friend who, after watching the rest of their family be murdered by lawless rebels, flee their home and the danger in remote Sudan. After wandering for hundreds of miles, the siblings end up in a refugee camp. Although the camp is a safe haven from the peril they fled—hunger, crime and disease are ever present.
A lottery of sorts takes place in such camps as various families are selected at random to be resettled in another country. In this circumstance, the siblings are headed to America. Viewers laugh as they watch the bewilderment of the refugees as they encounter such modern conveniences as escalators and water. Then comes the arrival and transition to a whole new life, literally a whole new life. Although they have been freed from the dangers that beset them in their homeland, everything they once knew has been reset.
To proceed with the story would be to ruin the ending and everyone is encouraged to watch this movie. It is sure to entertain but it will also inspire. My family and I left inspired.
How real is this scenario? Aside from being based on a true story, it is a situation that plays out every single day in the United States. In 2015, the US brought in nearly 70,000 refugees. In recent months, the Obama administration promised to increase that number due to the crisis in Europe and the atrocities taking place.
A favorite Christian hymn of ours is Because I Have Been Given Much. One line in particular strikes a chord, “I cannot see another’s lack and I not share.” The staggering difference between the life we live and the lives of those depicted in this movie are beyond comprehension. In the car on the way home from the theater, my family and I resolutely made the decision that we would make every effort possible to make a difference in the lives of refugees. But that goal would prove to be more difficult than we could ever imagine.
We would divide and conquer with my wife looking into local (Salt Lake City) refugee needs while I would pursue real estate opportunities, specifically a 4- or 8-plex. Our girls, who were still in high school, would eventually have the task of working at the facility. Our paths led to Catholic Community Services and eventually the Salt Lake County Housing Authority. Amazing people all along the way were more than willing to give of their time. We learned that the need for safe and affordable refugee housing was tremendous and that there was a model of success that should be considered if we were to proceed.
The Bud Bailey Apartments in central Salt Lake City were completed in 2014 by a philanthropist who desired to help in the same way that we were being motivated. To tour this facility was to witness the fulfillment of a beautiful vision of someone who truly cared. What’s more, the collaboration of all involved has resulted in a great success.
With only a few exceptions, refugees primarily occupy the 136 apartments at Bud Bailey. The complex is within walking distance of a mass transit station, and it was built new and modern with great features like gardens, and grass play areas. However, near the top of the list is the community center. This 8,161 square foot facility contains a computer lab, classrooms, a rec room, lounge area and offices for important meetings with counselors. It is important to understand that many refugees have witnessed the worst of atrocities, not to mention that they were have been uprooted from everything they once knew, making psychological assistance a great asset to their assimilation into their environment.
Armed with a lot of new intelligence, our vision had grown from a 4- or 8-plex to creating the next Bud Bailey Apartments. For the next two years we would scour the Salt Lake Valley searching for existing apartments or large parcels of ground that could house such a project. The strong economy and insatiable investor demand for multifamily housing made prices too rich for the economic model to pencil. Many prospects were identified and several offers made, but in each circumstance someone willing to pay substantially more outbid us.
In the spring of 2016, a possible breakthrough emerged. A deserted and run-down complex in Memphis, Tennessee showed up on the market. The seller was asking $5.5 M for the 550-unit Kensington Apartments. Upon first glance, $10,000/door seemed like a bargain in this economy even if it was empty and needed renovation. However, upon inspection it readily became clear that the warts of Kensington were significant.Much damage has been done to the complex as it has sat vacant for years, therefore substantial clean-up is necessary. Looters have stolen most everything of value including the copper wiring from the walls.A quick and broad estimate revealed that the complex was overpriced. We submitted an offer of $3.5 M which was countered at full price causing us to once again determine that this was not going to work out.
My family and I have real estate holdings in the Memphis area and while visiting Memphis several months later, I had the impression to reach out to the agent for an update. Knowing the complex had gone under contract at nearly full price, I left a message not expecting a call back. Much to my surprise, the call was returned and even more to my surprise was the news that the previous buyer had withdrawn his offer the previous day! I extended my trip and met with the agent. We wrote an offer that he believed the seller would accept, and after a little back and forth, the offer was accepted at a much more reasonable price. Over two years after being touched by the plight of those three siblings, the vision and dreams of the Church family is beginning to take shape – in Memphis, Tennessee!
The Kensington Apartments, as they are currently known but subject to change, are a perfect scenario for this vision to be fulfilled. For starters, this is a B-class complex with large rooms, ample parking, two pools, well-landscaped grounds, within walking distance to a transportation hub, adjacent to an elementary school and fully fenced. The best feature of all is the day care center at the front of the property. This 8,161 square foot building was previously leased out and used as a day care facility. Going forward it will serve as the Community Center complete with a computer lab and library; classrooms where English will be taught free to residents; a subsidized day care with two existing playgrounds; a lounge and rec room; offices for counseling; a kitchen for group gatherings; and management offices. A large facility with such a functional layout is truly a magnificent asset for these circumstances.
There is also a large parcel of ground that is undeveloped. It is our intention to landscape this ground such that it can be used as a soccer field. One commonality that most refugees share is a love for soccer!
The 29-acre complex is completely fenced with electronic gates at all four entrances/exits providing for the security and wellbeing of the occupants.
Located in the Memphis area, is a very strong chapter of the non-profit organization known as World Relief that facilitates most all aspects of the refugee’s transition into the US. That transition includes finding the family a safe, yet affordable, place to live; six months of financial assistance (funded by the US government); securing employment for those of age; and continued support to ensure assimilation into their environment.
In meeting with the director for World Relief, I learned that one of the greatest challenges is the lack of available housing. The current US economy has driven rent rates to unaffordable levels. With limited budgets to work from, housing options become very scarce especially when you consider that refugees placed in low-income neighborhoods will have a greater exposure to drugs, gangs and crime. It is not difficult to see how important the right housing is in the successful integration of refugees to our society.
Final negotiations with the seller brought the price down to under $8,000/door and included the seller financing the bulk of the purchase price with interest-only payments being made until balloon payments are due at the end of year four and five.
Hearts of Goodness, the Church Family’s 501(c)(3) charitable foundation, pledged $2 M for the purchase and initial renovation costs of the project. Total renovations have been quoted at 10.3 M. The Church’s are seeking the financial and skilled help of local and national businesses, the City of Memphis, individuals with varying levels of resources, and those with areas of expertise as it pertains to the renovation.
The first phase will prioritize the landscape, the community center and about 60 units.
It is anticipated the renovation of all 550 units will take slightly more than two years, depending upon resources, which will be sufficient to keep pace with the inflow of refugees. The first phase will prioritize the landscape, the community center and about 60 units.
This unique property and situation in Memphis made this possible. If the Kensington Apartments had tenants and were in reasonable condition, the complex would have sold within days of going on the market. As it stands, few investors are willing to take on such a project. This circumstance created a bargain that is necessary to make this situation viable.
Call it Divine Intervention or call it the Luck of the Refugee (ironic twist); whatever you want to call it, with your help we can create a life-changing scenario for families who, due to no fault of their own, have had everything they know and possess taken from them.