When Lisa Wise was 28, a Honda Civic changed her life.
A close cousin, Richard Wise, died from complications related to AIDS in 1998 and left her his 1995 Honda Civic Hatchback. She sold it for $8,300. The cash allowed her to put a 10 percent down payment on the duplex building in which she rented a unit in Tucson.
She found she loved being a landlady, so she used her property management income to buy other buildings. By 2008, she owned five properties and decided turn her side gig into a full-fledged rental administration business. Now known as Flock, her Washington, D.C.-based collection of real estate firms together manages $2 billion in property and pulled in $6.5 million in revenue last year. Wise says her business prioritizes proactive and strong communication with tenants and same-day responses to maintenance emergencies. She also helps tenants access government financial support with rent. “I truly believe you can change lives by delivering an exceptional housing experience,” Wise says.
Still, she started to feel like she ought to do more for marginalized communities, particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020 and the subsequent protests against racism. Just 44 percent of Black families in the U.S. own their homes, compared with 73.7 percent of White families, according to Q1 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data–and the average homeowner’s net worth is 36 times more than the average renter’s. “Real estate has been an ugly, ugly contributor to inequity,” Wise says. “It just didn’t feel good for me to thrive in an environment that has thrived at the expense of so many.”
So, she now is working to give people the same opportunity her cousin gave her: by giving out $10,000 to $15,000 down-payment grants for D.C.-based first-time homeowners who identify as BIPOC. Since May 2021, Flock has disbursed $90,000 in grants to eight homebuyers through its nonprofit arm, birdSEED. Wise says Flock is on track to give out $100,000 this year.
Finding a purpose
Before starting Flock, Wise spent 15 years working at nonprofits, including Planned Parenthood and the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream. But she found the structure frustrating. Donations often went to funding the administrative operations for the organization and not to the relevant cause. “I had a value system that lined up with the nonprofit world, but an entrepreneurial spirit that did not line up,” she says.
When the economy slumped in 2008, Wise decided to keep her full-time job but also pursue rental management, forming an LLC to manage her five properties. Some of her passion for rental administration comes from her childhood, which she describes as chaotic–Wise lived in 23 different places before going to college. “I did not have the benefit of stable homes growing up,” she says. “I intend to never experience that instability again, and if I can prevent others from my experience … that is my life’s purpose.” It’s part of why she finds even simple tasks, such as patching worn-down adobe or resolving a maintenance problem quickly, gratifying.
While planning for her estate and Flock’s future after she dies (she plans to sell it to employees), Wise considered her assets, including life insurance policies–and philanthropic endeavors to which she could donate the $2.2 million that would be left over after settling things with her family and business. That plan had one disadvantage, however: “It’s kind of a shame that I need to die for that work to start,” she says.
‘We want to give money to everyone’
While she still plans to bestow money from her estate to birdSEED when she dies, she decided to use some of the money she has available to her now to help people buy houses, via grants for down payments. She wasn’t much concerned with the details. Wise says her strength (and weakness) is she thinks things are going to be easy. “It’s better for me to live in a state of denial about how hard things are,” she jokes. “Otherwise, I would never start them.”
But, someone did come along to help her with the difficulties of giving out grants for homebuying. T. Scott Case, the founding chief technology officer of Priceline, asked Wise to be on his podcast to talk about building an antiracist workplace, where she mentioned her idea for building a no-frills grant program for BIPOC, first-time homeowners. His wife, Leslie Case, heard about it. “It struck me as so important,” says Leslie. She joined birdSEED, later becoming executive director, and was crucial in developing the application and selection process.
Applying for a birdSEED housing grant is intentionally easy. The application form has about 26 questions, many of them yes or no. There’s one interview with the advisory board for qualifying applicants. The whole process takes at most a few months.
“The big challenge is, we want to give the money to everyone. There isn’t an applicant we don’t believe doesn’t deserve to own their own home,” Case says. A diverse board scores applicants on an “impact” scale, considering factors such as family size and the home’s proximity to a school or job. Out of over 200 or so applicants, birdSEED awards three to four grants at a time in three cycles per year with administrative and technical support from the Greater Washington Community Foundation.
Creating $8,300 moments
One hundred percent of the donations to birdSEED go to the grant program. Flock covers all of the operational costs, Wise says, and the company has also pledged $215,000 for grants. Since the effort began, they’ve raised $85,000 from donors with little marketing, she says, because the mission has resonated with people. In the spring of this year, Flock and birdSEED will expand to Philadelphia.
Wise says she wants birdSEED housing grants to be like the windfalls wealthy people often receive from their families. Wise’s family wasn’t wealthy, but that one-time $8,300 car “created an opportunity for abundance for me I never thought was possible. And I want to do that for other people. Everyone deserves that $8,300 moment,” she says. “If I can create moments in people’s lives that are life-changing, I intend to do that.”