Lamell McMorris of Greenlining Realty USA: “Discipline is not just waking up at a certain time or working hard”

Discipline is not just waking up at a certain time or working hard, in this sense I’m really speaking of the laser focus that’s needed in real estate development especially because a new project, a new piece of land, a new neighborhood development is always on the horizon. Being clear on my target area being […]

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Discipline is not just waking up at a certain time or working hard, in this sense I’m really speaking of the laser focus that’s needed in real estate development especially because a new project, a new piece of land, a new neighborhood development is always on the horizon. Being clear on my target area being my neighborhood and focused on evidencing outcomes in a specific location has increased the opportunity to see tangible social impact.

In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing options. This has led to a host of social challenges. In this series called “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” We are talking to successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, who share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Lamell McMorris.

Lamell McMorris, a visionary leader working at the intersection of civil rights and business, is the founding principal of Greenlining Realty USA, a real estate redevelopment firm dedicated to reversing the historic effect of redlining in low-income communities through developing quality housing and vibrant commercial corridors. McMorris is a lifelong advocate of civil, economic and social rights, currently serving on the national boards of the National Action Network, the National Urban League and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and having previously served on the national board of the NAACP and as the Executive Director and COO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He is founder and CEO of the Washington, DC-based strategic advisory firm Phase 2 Consulting.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

When I first started my consulting work in DC in 2002, I thought it was important to convey that I wanted to be a part of the history the city embodies, so we called the company the Perennial Strategy Group to communicate the longevity of the work we were doing.But in the last five years or so, I’ve found myself in this second phase of life, where my focus has shifted to leveraging our initial successes to create more meaningful, positive change. We even changed the name of the firm to Phase 2 Consulting to convey that we’re focused on working towards achieving significance from, or after success.Now in terms of my work with Greenling Realty, it began in 2016 when I went back to Woodlawn, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, to visit my childhood home and the neighborhood where I grew up. Standing on the porch I looked out across the street and saw the same vacant lot, the same blighted buildings, and I just thought, I could do something here.I knew the problem was the historic effects of redlining, I knew that my neighborhood and neighborhoods like it were subject to systemic disinvestment, and I knew that one of the things I needed to try to do was spur investment. I didn’t have an extensive background in real estate development, but I knew what the problems were.So I founded Greenlining Realty USA. Founded to reverse “redlining,” the historic discriminatory practice of denying or limiting mortgage and financial services to Black neighborhoods, Greenlining’s mission is to work in the community and for the community by creating comprehensive developments that revitalize historically underserved areas. Greenlining, then, represents not just my personal aim to make a positive impact on my community, but also allows me to lead by example and impart the spirit and foundational ideas of Phase 2 Consulting to the clients I work with in DC.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most interesting and inspring thing to happen to me in my real estate career was redeveloping and revitalizing my childhood home. In the rehab process, I realized that I’d never been on the roof. We went up there to do roof repair and I learned that you could see the downtown Chicago skyline from the roof. I know that sounds simple but it made me realize that as a kid growing up I didn’t know how close I was to the seat of commerce, government and business. Everything seems distant and out of reach when you grow up “in the hood.” Perhaps that would’ve given me additional perspective. It wasn’t the new construction that was the most miraculous thing to me, but realizing how close and visible the downtown skyline was to my childhood home. When we used the drone to showcase the entire development, the view of downtown was very prevalent and reinforced my new outlook on the house and neighborhood I grew up in.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Creating Greenlining Realty is so important to my personal and professional trajectory. A hope I have for Greenlining, for the people I know who grew up in Woodlawn, or places like Woodlawn, or who are still living in those places, is to show that just going back and trying to make a difference can have a ripple effect. That’s part of why I chose to focus on the issue of housing and neighborhood investment. Homeownership is often called the gateway to the American dream — if it’s not that, it’s at least one of the only ways average Americans are able to build wealth for themselves and their descendants. Creating the opportunities for marginalized communities to own quality homes in these neighborhoods, improve the property values of these neighborhoods which have been historically, deliberately held back, can lead to bigger scale revitalization, improving access to quality education, nutrition, the arts, etc. The work we do with Greenlining is intended to have those ripple effects that start from leaning into the community, working with the community, and doing what we can to improve the quality of life for the community. I’m not a billionaire or a legislator — I just hope to be a resource and a catalyst for creating positive change in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. And I hope to be an example, to show that we can go back to where we’re from and work with what we have, and be resourceful and creative and seize those opportunities that are there for us to take action and make things better.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am eternally grateful to my Aunt Winifred Jackson who believed in my ability to learn and achieve. No one has believed in me more than Aunt Winifred. She also inspired my love of reading, and she was the first person to gift me with historic books which is now a passion I have harbored to this day. Growing my library is incredibly important to me as it is a way to honor those who came before me, and I am grateful for Aunt Winifed first inspiring me to love to read.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I was deeply impacted by Samuel DeWitt Proctor’s book “Substance of Things Hoped For: A Memoir of African-American Faith.” This is where the biblical passage “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen’ took on new meaning for me.” This was so important because I realized that my life and accomplishments are the substance of what my ancestors hoped for, yet didn’t see for themselves. It reminded me how far Black people have come and how much farther we have to go in the fight for justice and equal rights.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I have only just a minute, Only sixty seconds in it. Forced upon me, can’t refuse it. Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it. But it’s up to me to use it. I must suffer if I lose it. Give account if I abuse it. Just a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.” This is a quote from Dr. Benjamin E. Mays. This quote speaks to the importance of seizing opportunities when you come across them and living life to its fullest extent.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the shortage of affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. I know this is a huge topic, but for the benefit of our readers can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

The Federal Housing Administration was created in 1934 to insure private mortgages, which caused interest rates to drop and made it easier and cheaper for white people to buy homes. To determine which mortgages they would insure, the FHA created a system of maps, rating the level of perceived financial risk in different neighborhoods, of the likelihood that those loans would or wouldn’t get paid back. Historically Black neighborhoods were always designated high risk. What is today Woodlawn was designated as high risk — marked on a map in red, in other words, redlined. Once a neighborhood was redlined, it became even more unlikely that Black families could get a mortgage, let alone an FHA backed mortgage. Deemed financially risky, those neighborhoods were also cut off from other kinds of investments as well. This is the story of Woodlawn, and many other Black neighborhoods across the US. Today, the ZIP code of your residence still often determines your ability to secure home equity loans, without which you might not be able to make necessary repairs. All of this causes property values to decrease and neighborhoods to deteriorate. Though redlining was banned in name with the passing of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the racial homeownership gap is today wider than it was in the 1940s when it was 22.8%. From the racial wealth and homeownership gaps, and from the systemic disinvestment in historically Black communities, a whole host of further inequalities ensue in access to quality education, in access to adequate health care and nutrition, and in the likelihood of incarceration or death at the hands of the police. There is an opportunity to make tremendous progress in improving the most urgent and fatal matters of public health and public safety by addressing the historic effects of redlining. And we can do that by giving Black communities the investment they have always been worthy of.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

The goal of Greenlining Realty USA is to not only to create high-quality, single family homes, but also spur a tangible investment in the community. Greenlining Realty’s initial target is my childhood neighborhood of West Woodlawn. Greenlining, in partnership with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), recently finished developing 9 homes in West Woodlawn called Woodlawn Pointe, with additional homes in the works. Greenlining partnered with GROWTH, a division of NCRC that works with developers at the local level to create jobs via the construction of single-family homes in low- and moderate-income communities throughout the country. Greenlining formed a key alliance in West Woodlawn with the YWCA of Chicago’s Laura Parks and Mildred Francis Center. Under the vision of CEO Dorri McWhorter, the YWCA has pioneered forward-thinking social services relevant to the information age, and Greenlining’s partnership will provide opportunities for the firm to also invest in the social structure of West Woodlawn. As an entrepreneurial effort, Greenlining has really been consistent with my background, being at the intersection of civil rights, racial justice, politics and business. It’s consistent with who I’ve always been and what I’ve done. And of course, launching this work in my hometown neighborhood was very special to me.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

Our development in West Woodlawn, called Woodlawn Pointe, was recently recognized by Fast Company as one of their World Changing Ideas of 2021. In partnership with GROWTH by NCRC, this development represents a new chapter in the journey that began for me as a young man in Woodlawn. Growing up in this neighborhood, I learned to treasure what Woodlawn represents: a historic community of color with quality housing, liveable and walkable streets, with kids walking to school and playing outside. During my career, I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside civil rights leaders, represent professional athletes and launch several businesses, but I’ve always dreamed of developing quality homes in the community where I grew up. Woodlawn Pointe is how I’m bringing this dream to life. The development includes construction of seven new single-family homes by Constructive Renovations on land provided by the Cook County Land Bank Authority, as well as two fully renovated homes. As a son of this neighborhood, I’m proud to create high-quality housing that is aligned with the existing architecture of our community and to do so in a way that creates tangible social impact. The project also featured a partnership with the community-based YWCA, who facilitated the placement of local residents in construction training positions on site with Constructive Renovations. Providing local residents with employment opportunities is a mission shared by all of the partners.

In your opinion, what should other home builders do to further address these problems?

If you are really serious about transforming neighborhoods, you have to do it through economic collaborations with organizations people know and trust. Neighborhood transformation has been possible for me with the advice of people like Cassandra Geist, a community advocate, and the support of partner organizations like the YWCA of Chicago. The YWCA’s location in Woodlawn sits across from my childhood home. They are a credible partner with a historic focus on women and children, and historic excellence in delivery of services. Work hand in hand with the community. At every step of the way, I have consulted with my neighbors, sought to earn their trust and clearly communicated my vision for our projects and how they will fit into the fabric of the neighborhood. From meetings in church basements to partnership with the YWCA, I have brought the community into the fold. They know who I am, my deep investment in this neighborhood and my hope that our development work can contribute to a long-term transformation of Woodlawn. I am a son of Woodlawn, and I care immensely about earning and retaining my community’s trust. That’s what has enabled me to convince my neighbors that my work is worth supporting.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

Reparations are an important step to confronting the lasting and devastating effects of redlining, slavery and centuries of discrimination. I support HB40 so that a commission of experts can be established to study and develop strategies for the best way to implement economic reparations for Black Americans who have withstood centuries of discrimination and oppression. I have seen first hand in my home town of West Woodlawn the devastating impact that redlining has had on Black families, including denying them generational wealth, contributing to the racial wealth gap and limiting Black homeownership. Housing and real estate need to be central to any effective reparations plan, as the results of redlining continue to this day. This is why I believe the Evanston, IL plan is a great starting point. Evanston this year became the first U.S. city to make reparations available to Black residents. Their reparations program is a great example of a targeted and tangible strategy that will increase Black homeownership and support generational wealth. Evanston is confronting the reality that Black families were devastated by discriminatory housing policies during the 20th century by providing reparations to Black people who either lived there between 1919 and 1969 or are direct descendants of Black residents from that time period. The program will grant qualifying households up to 25,000 dollars to put toward mortgage and down payment assistance, home repairs and more. I hope that other cities will follow in Evanston’s footsteps and begin to confront the lasting devastation of redlining. Only when we begin to confront these devastating realities, both through government action and private investment, we can begin to progress as a nation and right the wrongs that are so deeply rooted in our communities.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws which you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

It’s incumbent upon our nation’s leaders — in both the public and private sectors — to invest in Black communities through a variety of ways from expanding Black homeownership to supporting Black businesses and Black entrepreneurs. One example of legislation I feel passionately about is the Next Generation Entrepreneur Corps Act, a bipartisan bill offered by Democrat Senator Chris Coons and Republican Senator Tim Scott, which would create a national fellowship program to support entrepreneurship in underserved communities and build the next generation of diverse entrepreneurs. Creative bipartisan legislation like this is key to revitalizing communities like my hometown of Woodlawn and providing economic opportunity for Black Americans.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

The best investment you can make is in yourself. Saving money and investing it back in your business is paramount.

The concept of “delayed gratification” is one that I try to pass on to mentees but it’s also a sobering message that business leaders have to embrace as well.

Discipline is not just waking up at a certain time or working hard, in this sense I’m really speaking of the laser focus that’s needed in real estate development especially because a new project, a new piece of land, a new neighborhood development is always on the horizon. Being clear on my target area being my neighborhood and focused on evidencing outcomes in a specific location has increased the opportunity to see tangible social impact.

We’re only as good as the team of people we have around us. “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future” is probably the best things anyone has ever said to me. It’s especially true in business as well.

The Benjamin E. Mays quote I mentioned earlier speaks to just to not just seizing the moment but the importance of time. We literally have no time to waste.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

One issue that is related to but separate from what we’ve been discussing is valuing education and the importance of teachers. I think we should pay teachers the way we pay CEOS because teachers are the ones inspiring and imparting knowledge to the future generation. I would love to inspire a movement to incentivize investment in teachers and educators.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I would love to have a meal with MacKenzie Scott to discuss the inspirational philanthropic work she has done, in particular the donations she has made over the past year.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can visit us on the web at We’re also on Twitter (@GreenliningUSA), Facebook and Instagram (@greenliningrealtyusa), and LinkedIn (@greenlining-realty-usa or @lamell-mcmorris)

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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