John and Ann Porter Commit to Supporting Etkin Scholars Program at ULI Charlotte
John Porter, president of Charter Properties, and his wife, Ann, have committed to continue funding the Etkin Scholars Program in Charlotte.
On January 23, ULI Charlotte’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) held its first Conversation with a Leader event of the year. Led by Nicole Frambach, the discussion featured Dionne Nelson, President and CEO of Laurel Street, as she shared insights about her career path in real estate and how affordable housing became an integral focus of the work that she does.
Before founding Laurel Street 13 years ago, Nelson got her start in real estate at Crosland. It was at Crosland that she learned the affordable developments side of the business, thanks to the commitment of John Crosland to maintaining a portion of the company’s portfolio in affordable housing.
Notably, Nelson emphasized how she did not start as a real estate person and had a non-traditional entry into the industry. Nelson’s background, through her degrees from Spelman and Harvard Business School, was more typical of what you’d expect from a consultant or banker. Though she had grown up exposed to her family’s brokerage business in South Carolina and even got her broker’s license in college, she had yet to make the transition from small-scale residential to commercial real estate.
It wasn’t until Nelson moved to Charlotte in the mid-2000s and made a career shift that the underlying thread of real estate became more apparent. She recalled early conversations with headhunter Gary Green who told her, “Forget your resume – tell me about what you love,” and described how she started to talk about her passion for real estate. From those early days with her family’s business, she realized it was “a heart connection” to think about how people live, and through her experience at Crosland and her mentor Jud Little, she learned the technicalities of the business aspects to make spaces where people want to live.
For Nelson, the passion for real estate ties to her fundamental belief that every person has the human right to quality housing that is affordable to them. What affordability means for each person is different but no less true. This belief shines through in the work and success of Laurel Street, where Nelson emphasized that every project they do has some level of affordability. They have committed to not develop projects that are 100% luxury and ensure that their developments are affordable to those at the median income or below. Nelson attributed Laurel Street’s success – particularly at a scale that is difficult to achieve in the affordable housing sphere – to diligence toward that ideal and a love for what they do. With an integrated structure such as theirs, which as of early 2023 also includes property management via LSA Management, the team focuses not on doing more but instead, doing it better.
At the simplest level, Nelson described developing affordable housing as a math problem. Each project is a unique puzzle, structured differently based on the site, location, costs of land, and construction, and starts with the equity source and subsidies the team can secure. And as Nelson emphasized, there is no magic to the math. Though subsidies exist, the market-rate costs of architecture, engineering, construction, etc. provide a constant challenge particularly as they continue to escalate across the industry. Despite the potential obstacles, Nelson remained optimistic in her outlook, because of the opportunities at the community level to collaborate and find solutions.
When reflecting on advice she would have given herself 13 years ago, embarking upon her journey as an entrepreneur, Nelson’s words of wisdom were to dream bigger. Laurel Street’s growth outpaced her conservative expectations at every turn, and she remarked upon ways they could have taken a more efficient path to reach where they are today – whether that could have been raising capital more quickly, structuring the organization differently and incorporating property management sooner, or even simply dreaming bigger in the office spaces secured.
All of this paints the picture of Nelson’s ideal legacy – to build a sustainable organization that provides a resource everyone needs and deserves. As she reiterated many times, “It’s not about me.” This bigger-picture thinking was even the basis of Laurel Street’s name. Nelson was adamant about not naming the business after herself, and instead, used the name of the street where her great-grandmother lived in Columbia, S.C. It’s a name that represents everything her family’s matriarch stood for – integrity, hard work, doing the right thing, treating others the way you want to be treated – and therefore everything Nelson’s company stands for. Nelson left the discussion attendees with a question to consider when thinking about career and legacy: “Does the work have a real impact, on real people, in a sustainable way?”
Notes provided by Joslyn Dunn, Senior Account Manager at Yellow Duck Marketing.