Randal Wyatt didn’t exactly set out to create an actual nonprofit that helps Black homeowners.
It was May 2020 and police in Minneapolis had just killed George Floyd, setting off protests over policing and race across the U.S. Wyatt, a long-time community advocate and socially conscious hip hop musician, was speaking out about the killing when people started hitting him up.
“People started reaching out and asking how they can be better allies,” Wyatt, who lives in Portland, Oregon, told Inman. “And I told them, ‘You’ve got to share your resources, and those are your money and your time.’”
But the inquiries kept coming, and soon people were sending money as well. At one point, Wyatt said, he ended up with about $10,000 in donations in his personal Venmo and other digital accounts. So Wyatt decided he’d use the money, and the offers for volunteer work, to help Black homeowners tackle much-needed maintenance on their houses.
The plan worked, and became the kernel of what would eventually grow into an institution.
“I came into it very naively,” Wyatt said. “Basically I thought we could just get some volunteers together and some lumber and start swinging hammers. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Thank God I’ve got a good friend who is a licensed contractor.”
The executive director
What ultimately evolved from those initial conversations over the summer has now coalesced into an organization dubbed Taking Ownership PDX. Fittingly for something that evolved in the wake of Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, Taking Ownership focuses on helping Black homeowners in Portland handle property maintenance that might be too expensive or otherwise insurmountable for them.
And Wyatt is not only the organization’s founder, he’s also now its full-time executive director.
Though the organization is still nascent — it’s currently working to get 501(c)(3) status, though it can accept donations via a partnership with another organization — Wyatt said the goal is to help Black property owners stay in their homes and build generational wealth.
The issue, he explained, is that home prices in Portland are rising quickly, much as they are in many parts of the U.S. That in turn leads to gentrification and puts pressure on Black owners, especially those having trouble maintaining their homes, to sell to investors. Over time, this process disperses Black communities and fundamentally alters the make up of traditionally Black neighborhoods, among other things.
With Taking Ownership, Wyatt hopes some of those Black communities’ members won’t opt to sell their properties simply because they can’t afford basic upkeep.
“I realized this is as legitimate issue in Portland and there are a lot of people who need help,” Wyatt added.
In the months since Wyatt began receiving Venmo donations and wrangling volunteers, Taking Ownership has grown rapidly. The group has done work on roughly 18 houses, and has a waiting list for more than 60 others that are in need of assistance. Wyatt said many of the homeowners Taking Ownership helps tend to be older, which makes them physically as well as financially more in need of help. They also live in historically Black neighborhoods.
The projects have included everything from new roofs to interior painting to carpet to landscaping. During the winter, Taking Ownership is focusing on weatherization — Portland gets very rainy — and when the project requires professional skills the organization finds contractors, some of whom donate time and labor. For more basic projects like landscaping and decluttering, volunteers are still the go-to workers.
In total, Taking Ownership has so far raised more than $250,000 in the six months that it has existed.
Taking Ownership has also grown to include more people.
Though Wyatt and his contractor friend are the only full-time staffers at the organization, a variety of community members have joined in. One of them is Lauren Goché, a broker with Portland’s Think Real Estate.
Goché told Inman that she had been acquaintances with Wyatt for years, but they began collaborating on Taking Ownership this spring and summer.
“On Facebook one day he said, ‘I want to help some Black homeowners keep their houses,’” Goché recalled. “I messaged him and was like, ‘Hey I have all these resources. Let’s do this.’”
Goché is now one of more than a dozen board members at Taking Ownership, and she shares Wyatt’s view that helping people build wealth through real estate is one of the best ways to counteract generations of marginalization.
“For some people $2,000 for gutters is too much,” she said. “And if you don’t have gutters that can mess up your roof. It can mess up your foundation. One of our things is building generational wealth. If you’re a homeowner you should be able to continue building equity in the city you’re from.”
Goché also said that real estate has a long and troubling history with race, and that even today agents benefit when prices skyrocket and gentrification sweeps through neighborhoods historically occupied by minorities. Giving back through an organization like Taking Ownership is one way to try to counteract those trends.
“This is reparations, straight up,” she said. “This is my version of reparations. I specifically reach out to Realtors. We as Realtors literally make money and we benefit from this in a way that other people don’t. So what are you doing to counteract gentrification and the driving up of prices?”
Other people drawn to Taking Ownership have found additional ways to contribute.
Portland restauranteur Annie Moss was among those in the area looking for ways to help earlier this year. Moss told Inman she was born into a family with some means, and had long been looking for ways to turn her “rushing river of privilege into more of a normal-sized river.” As far back as 2017, she had even jotted down the idea of using a rental home she owned in a historically Black neighborhood as a way to somehow make a difference.
In an effort to pin down a concrete strategy, Moss reached out to lawyers and real estate agents. Finally, she came up with a plan: She would gift the equity in her rental home to a Black member of the community by selling it for only what she still owed on the mortgage.
“I would guess that it would probably have been worth $600,000 if not a little bit more,” she said. “What was left on the mortgage was maybe $230,000.”
Moss eventually found Wyatt through Taking Ownership. She reached out late in the summer looking for guidance, only to discover that he had actually been working to become a homeowner himself. She realized then she found the right person.
“We had one phone call and I said yeah, ‘let’s do this,’” Moss recalled. “I didn’t want to create a process where someone was going to have to jump through a bunch of hoops and prove anything to me.”
The sale closed in December for about $230,000 — far less than its market value.
“It was super exciting and motivating for me,” Moss added. “It felt really good for me to accomplish this thing that I had wanted to do for a long time.”
Wyatt said that when Moss first reached out to him he initially overlooked the email. It took a second inquiry for him to respond, but now that the deal has closed, “it’s actually hard to find the words to explain how meaningful this was.”
“To have this opportunity, honestly it’s life changing and my life has a whole new direction,” Wyatt said.
Neither Wyatt nor Moss said that they expect everyone to do the same thing. But they both do hope that Moss’ choice to gift the equity of her home can inspire others to help marginalized communities.
“This kind of action isn’t for everybody,” Moss said. “But the idea is definitely to inspire other people. I think it’s more just questioning the assumptions that keep us from even considering it.”
Moss said she’s already been in contact with other people who are looking for ways to promote equality through equity in real estate.
However, whatever happens as a result of those conversations, everyone involved in Taking Ownership hopes to see it grow in the future. Wyatt, for one, said that he’d like to spread the Taking Ownership concept to other cities, and that over time he envisions the program growing so that it can help members of other marginalized communities. If things go well, he also hopes to start a down payment assistance program.
“I’d like to start a program where we provide a 20 percent down payment,” he said, “where we create African American homeowners.”