WDC Room of Her Own – In Conversation with Developer Charmaine Curtis

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Charmaine Curtis discussed how she sources, structures and develops complex urban infill projects that have transformed the Bay Area’s urban landscape, pioneering sites to build community, provide thousands of beautiful homes for a broad spectrum of residents, and demonstrate that Black women developers can build financially successful and inspiring projects.

Educated on both coasts, from Dartmouth College to UC Berkeley, Charmaine walked us through her early career and the launch of her firm in 2004.  The first development projects were often funded in part or whole with her own money, and she explained the challenges and risks associated with personal investment, cautioning that one’s time (rather than money) is better spent equity on a real estate deal.

Case studies included 2935 Telegraph in Oakland, an area rich in BART stations and with lower land costs than San Francisco. She summarized the steps of building project financing and working with the City to get the property re-entitled. Essentially Curtis Development repaired a ‘broken deal’ by adding residential units and retail space, making the project economically viable.

When asked to counsel new developers, her advice is to look at the edges – transitional neighborhoods that are well-served with transportation and ready to improve. She has lately been pursuing more public RPQs, noting that middle income housing is her passion.

When asked about the impact of COVID, she said that while she initially perceived no impact, vacancy rates are growing, and people are increasingly challenged by their finances.  Charmaine spoke frankly about coming up in the field of real estate, often being the only woman in the room.  “You are swimming upstream” as a woman of color in this industry, which is fraught with bias.  How can the industry increase diversity and opportunity?  As we have discussed in the past, the challenges are often upstream.  Getting a diverse mix of students and young professionals interested in real estate development is a priority, as is educating the current workforce. “Changing hearts and minds one at a time,” is Charmaine’s strategy.