How This Philly Real Estate Investor Is Turning Tenants Into Homeowners
Tawan Davis arrived in Philly on a mission to provide quality affordable housing for rent. Now he has added a second mission: Building generational wealth for those who need it most.
Steinbridge Group founder and CEO Tawan Davis moved from New York to Philadelphia five years ago on a mission: To take distressed properties and turn them into affordable rental homes where lower-income working Philadelphians could start families.
To carry out that mission, he acquired more than 200 properties in neighborhoods throughout the city. Then he rebuilt them and offered them for rent. The tenants made on average 65 percent of the area median income, or approximately $61,500 for a family of four. What’s more, he priced the properties so that their rent consumed no more than one-third of tenants’ incomes — the standard measure of affordability — without rent subsidies.
Now, five years on, Davis has decided to shift gears. He has launched a second mission to go along with the first one: To enable working families to build generational wealth and strengthen the communities where they now live.
And he’s doing that by turning his tenants into homeowners. He already has the homes they can buy to boot. He also has partnerships with a broker and a lender who will help tenants swing the purchase. The lender is PNC Bank, and the broker is Deborah Spence, owner of Fierce Realty Corporation in Bala Cynwyd.
Davis chose Spence for his broker partner for two reasons: She is one of a relatively small number of Black women real estate brokers who own their own real estate firms, and she approaches the subject of homeownership with revolutionary fervor. “We are disrupters making it fair for everyone to buy real estate and improve their lives,” Fierce’s website states.
“Generational wealth is acquired easily via real estate,” says Spence. “And those that are in poverty can come out of generational poverty via real estate.” Davis himself is living proof of this, and Spence says of Davis, “He’s making an impact in Philadelphia by saying to his tenants, ‘Hey, you’re renting from me, why not become an owner?’”
And if a tenant is not interested in becoming a homeowner, she continues, other would-be homeowners will be offered the chance to buy vacant properties from Steinbridge.
Of course, buying a first home can be a daunting process even for those who have the resources and support to buy one using the normal channels. Which is why Spence has designed a program that relies on education and support. In addition to financial management seminars and first-time homebuyer workshops, Spence uses the open house as a means of education on the subject.
“In traditional open houses, you post it on Zillow, and the realtor goes out, puts up this cute little sign and balloons, and they sit there for two hours and wait for the buyers to come in,” she says. “Well, we’re going to do it opposite. We’re going to do educational seminars at the open house so they can actually see the house but also learn about homeownership, financial literacy, and all the things that they may lack to get them to the next step.
“And we’re also considering doing it like a tour, traveling from one property to the next around the city.”
And so it was that on a recent Saturday in May, two limos full of renters showed up at a two-story rowhouse in Point Breeze. There, they got to meet Davis and some of his Steinbridge partners and tour one of the model homes the company has outfitted for the tour.
They also got to hear Spence talk about homeownership in a speech that described it as a form of Black economic empowerment, a chance to finally correct the imbalances and overcome the injustices that have kept Black household wealth well below that of white households. Hearing it, I understood why she calls her firm Fierce Realty.
Tour participants could also pick up materials about financing a home from several lenders and watch videos explaining how Steinbridge works to improve the quality of life in underinvested city neighborhoods.
“She’s helped them demystify the process and roll back some of the intimidation people experience when they’re going through the home-buying process,” Davis says of Spence.
And Spence says that the process isn’t as daunting as many fear. “It’s not rocket science, right? I think it’s harder to get a cell phone when you go to a cell phone store.”
The main obstacles in the path to homeownership for many lower-income families are coming up with the down payment, establishing a credit history, and swinging the fees and closing costs that accompany the sale. Davis chose PNC as his lending partner, he says, because “PNC has several programs [that use federal, state and local funds] to provide things such as down-payment assistance, assistance with brokerage fees, and the like. And PNC also has some proprietary programs for first-time homebuyers.” Buyers of Steinbridge properties can take advantage of these programs. Or they can work with Spence’s lender, or one of their own choosing. Several mortgage lenders had material available for buyers at the open house.
Steinbridge’s push towards homeownership began in earnest in March of this year, so it is only beginning to turn tenants into homeowners; as of March, Davis estimated that fewer than 1o homes had been sold. Davis says his aim is to list up to 10 homes for sale each month over the next 18 to 24 months. The areas Steinbridge has focused on first are Point Breeze and upper Brewerytown, with Port Richmond to follow soon.
And the beauty of this approach is that Davis can recycle the proceeds of the sales into finding and buying more homes to fix, rent to tenants, then sell to those same tenants when they’re ready. While he’s not done with Philadelphia yet, he is also looking further afield for investment opportunities. “We’re expanding our program to other parts of the Eastern seaboard,” he says. “We’ve just bid on houses in the Bronx, and we’re buying houses in Harlem. And we’re looking at similar neighborhoods in other parts of the Eastern seaboard.
“And we are absolutely looking to do the same thing in similar neighborhoods in Philadelphia. We want to double down on Point Breeze, where we think that gentrification picked up and then slowed. We want to double down in the parts of Brewerytown that we’re in, and we want to double down on Port Richmond.
“Our pro forma calls for us to buy another five to 10 houses a month in Philadelphia over time. So in the next two or three years, we will be back up to a couple of hundred houses in Philadelphia.”
After that, you can expect to see the limos full of tenants make even more rounds of open house tours.
Philadelphia magazine is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting here.