I Always Wanted to Build Homes

Ernst Valery talks about his mom and his motivation for starting REDI

By Ernst Valery

As far back I can remember, I wanted to build homes.

My mother built our home in Haiti at a time when buying land, securing capital, working with an architect, and managing contractors was not recognized as something a woman could handle. This bias against women probably existed the world over then but was most certainly the case in Haiti. My mother proved all the naysayers wrong by not just getting through the process of building a home on her own but by finishing the house on time and under budget, the holy grail of development. I was just five then but my memory of that time and the stories I would hear of her extraordinary success throughout my life would inspire me to become a builder.

I was first exposed to architecture as a profession thanks to a trade in favors. My high school principal reached out to a celebrated local architect to see if he would take me on as an apprentice. In exchange, the architect insisted that his friend get interviewed for an open position at my high school. This was not only my first foray into architecture but it also gave me a keen understanding of what it took to pursue a passion—knowledge and experience, yes, but also the networking that is often needed to get in the door.

But I later came to find out that architecture would not meet my ideals. My childhood notion about the profession had evolved to include a desire to serve and go beyond bricks, mortar, and design. So instead, I completed a bachelor’s degree in urban planning and in the process took every opportunity to be in touch with people of all ages, race, nationality, religion, financial condition, and educational attainment to truly understand how I could make a contribution. The common denominator, I would find, is that all people, regardless of identity or circumstance, want a safe place to live, work, and thrive. It also became clear that while the skills of an urban planner are great, those skills alone did not fulfill the knowledge I craved to make the scale of impact I was after.

Again, I was at a crossroads and decided to pursue another graduate degree in public administration. But after many professional disappointments and not seeing how I could be make the difference I yearned to make, I began to accept that my missing link was real estate development. I wanted to be behind inspiring and functional design that responds to social problems and I could no longer see how I could do that without being at the center of the real estate development process.

But starting out as a developer was not easy. Just like my mother’s experience back in Haiti, many found it difficult to accept me as a developer. After all, society reserves certain titles for individuals with the connections that only money and privilege can bring. And as it stands today, most developers don’t have my background or look like me. Despite the challenges, after I started working on my own projects, I never wavered from my values and always tried to balance the needs of community members, investors, and the environment while maintaining my skin in the game and keeping greed at bay.

What if we supported everyone in getting the knowledge they need to improve their communities? What if real estate development was not a world that only the wealthy had access to? What if we could support more people from historically marginalized communities to become developers and ultimately shape how our built environment looks and functions?

This is why I started REDI—to make the aspirations behind these questions—a reality. REDI is turning the stigma associated with real estate development on its head. We are saying that we have to create more opportunities for socially conscious developers to work alongside communities. We are working to elevate real estate into a powerful tool for addressing social and economic disparities that are created by place and zip code. We are saying that displacement does not need to follow development and that there is a way for all communities to do well.

But REDI does not have all the answers. We just know that we have to be ready to act and that we can no longer accept “business as usual.” So our commitment is to make interventions where we can in order to catapult the real estate development profession into the catalyst for change that we know it has the potential to be.