Coffee Break with Joseph & Jessica Dominguez

Jessica and Joseph Dominguez are perfect examples of people who practice what they preach. The two co-founders of Love Thy Neighbor and 2019 recipients of DMAR's Community Service Award are deeply embedded in their community and consider themselves advocates for social equity. We recently met up with them at Brew Culture Coffee to discuss affordable housing, options for people priced out of the city, shared equity models and how the two work to serve their community.

DMAR: Can you each tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into real estate?

Jessica: I've been a DPS teacher for 17 years, and when I began to see the effects of gentrification and displacement on my classroom I started to dig into affordable housing. I had already had my real estate license for 13 years, just to supplement my income, but that's how I became an agent.

Joey: I got my license a little over two years ago. I had a background in customer service and had bounced around the oil and gas industry. I have always liked helping people so real estate seemed like a natural fit. At that time I was excited to be a real estate agent. I think what turned me on to want to develop Love Thy Neighbor was just this need for affordable housing for our clients. We had one client in specific and it was tough to help him navigate through the market so we started exploring options for him.

Jessica: Some mentors at that time told us we wouldn't be able to help him, so we might as well let him go. It was a moral dilemma. We didn't want to just say, "There's nothing for you." There had to be a solution, so that's when we started searching for affordable housing solutions to seeing what was going on.

DMAR: We know you are both founders of Love Thy Neighbor. What are your job titles and roles there?

Joey: We are both co-founders, but I deal more with the day-to-day transaction real estate, and Jessica is doing more of the organization, education and advocacy. 

Jessica: That's right because I have a part-time job as Lead Housing Organizer at Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. That’s the advocacy part of my role - advocating for more affordable homeownership and other affordable housing options like permanent supportive housing and transitional housing.

DMAR: We read about the mission and message of Love Thy Neighbor and love the idea of "real estate with a heart to serve the community." Can you tell us more about it? What was your inspiration and how do you carry your company vision through your work?

Joey: I think when we first started to develop Love Thy Neighbor, we didn't want it to reflect our names in real estate, but something for the greater good. We wanted it to be something for the community. Back then, I saw a great need for a real estate group that was going to work more on social issues in housing, and Love Thy Neighbor just came to me. 

Jessica: It's part of our faith. We believe that you love someone else as your neighbor, and when you do, everything you do is guided by that principle.

Joey: Can you imagine our sign in the front yard and the impact that could have on somebody who's having a bad day, or just somebody who might be trying to figure out what to do with the neighborhood or how to connect with their neighbors, and our sign says “Love Thy Neighbor?" We would love for that to be impactful, not just as a real estate group, but just having that message around the city.

DMAR: Obviously, you focus on affordable housing. Are lower-income and/or first-time homebuyers your target market?

Jessica: I think it would be more the middle-income people who have recently been priced out of the market. We're working with a few solutions right now. We primarily help people in the 50 to 80 percent AMI (Area Median Income). Many of those people are teachers, making upper $30,000 to mid-$70,000. They might not be able to get into the housing market, but there are other solutions. I mean, we do help everyone as far as market spectrum, but we've put a big focus on the middle-income.

Joey: We just noticed that the housing crisis is not just affecting low-income. It's affecting the middle-income, too. It's affecting people like teachers and municipal workers. It's hitting a good half of the city, if not more, so there's a huge need in our community.

DMAR: What do you think are the key factors that are creating these problems for people? We’ve heard many times that Denver income isn’t keeping up with the rate of increase in home prices, but what else do you think?

Joey: I think one of the things that we're noticing is the pushback on some development by people who are not "for" development. That pushback is delaying a lot of opportunities for affordable housing development in the city. One solution we’re seeing is to create more smart density that's inclusive, meaning, it's going to affect the whole pay scale. Just recently, we learned of a development down the street from here that’s going to offer 50 percent affordable housing and 50 percent market rate. It's going to create an opportunity for the whole spectrum of lifestyles that are going to live there, and it creates great opportunities for people at most income levels to live in the area where they're going to work or live. But there is so much pushback on development. As socially conscious, mission-driven REALTORS® we have to get more involved with our community, and that means getting involved in development advocacy, understanding the needs of a community and being a voice for the voiceless. 

TWEET THIS: "As socially conscious, mission-driven REALTORS® we have to get more involved with our community, and that means getting involved in development advocacy, understanding the needs of a community and being a voice for the voiceless." 

DMAR: How do you stay so motivated? Some of these advocacy issues can be so complex and overwhelming, how do you find the motivation to keep going?

Jessica: I want to give up every other day (laughs).

Joey: We're two different people, and I think that is why it's working. I'm a natural fighter.

Jessica: I get more emotional and overwhelmed for sure, so that's why you need someone more optimistic. It's not that I'm not optimistic, but when I begin to see the burden of things, I get very down, and sometimes Joey's just like, "You know what? Look at all this good that is happening. Just keep on going, just keep on going," and then I'll go to bed and I'll wake up in the morning and I feel like I can continue.

Joey: Right now, it's a cool moment because I feel like we're making an impact, albeit small, but we're making an impact. I think one thing that we really would love to do is change the culture. What I mean by that is we want to change how the community thinks about housing, and how we do housing. I already mentioned we need to focus more on density to make this happen. I mean, not just high-end condos, we have to have smart-density that's inclusive because there's not a lot of space in Denver anymore, so we have to build up and we have to build up right. We just can't have five high-end condos with one little affordable housing spot because it's not going to be balanced. We need to balance out affordable housing.

TWEET THIS: "...we have to have smart-density that's inclusive because there's not a lot of space in Denver anymore, so we have to build up and we have to build up right. We just can't have five high-end condos with one little affordable housing spot because it's not going to be balanced." 

Jessica: I think we also need more mission-driven developers. We're actually starting to work with Habitat for Humanity. We've been in negotiations with them since, I don't know, beginning of the year? They heard about us through a story and said they wanted to use our brokerage services.

Joey: They noticed we're connected to the community and we want to be a resource. We know some people are going to look at our page and think, "I can't afford a house," but now we can tell them if you've been priced out, go to Habitat. At least they have a solution for you.

Jessica: If you're between 50 and 80 percent AMI, homeownership is very possible for you, and they have their own loan product, which is at a 2.80 percent interest rate. Your down payment, what they call closing cost, is $1,000 to, I think, $1,500. That's very doable. It's like a shared equity model, which we're finding is more the solution for people. You're going to be able to pay down your principal. You're going to be able to gain some equity and maybe after five years, you'll have that down payment, and then if you want to, you can move on.

Joey: We feel the solution for these housing prices is the shared model. Now, sharing is a lot of things. I mean, we could talk about NIMBY-ism and not wanting to share the opportunity of living in an area. That's the problem with sharing, the shared equity model is going to be something that people need to adapt to or understand a little bit more.

Jessica: Habitat is not the only mission-driven organization either, we are partnering with Elevation Community Land Trust as well. We're going to be listing a development that's going to be affordable for-sale condos soon, and they're all going to be priced under or around $200,000. That's subject to change, but some organizations are mission-driven over market-driven, and we just need more people who are willing to make that small sacrifice.

DMAR: Do you think there's any stigma around affordable housing? 

Jessica: Yes, I think there is a stigma, but we need to change that. We've talked about affordable housing, attainable housing, income-appropriate housing, but it's really about middle-income recourse housing. It's made well, and it's providing homes and hope for people, plus it's providing an opportunity through equity, which is a big buzz word right now. In DPS, we define that as access, opportunity and inclusivity, so if homes are providing that, there shouldn't be a stigma. It's a way to build wealth.

Joey: I agree, I believe there is a stigma. I mean, it's why we're being brought to the table with companies like Habitat, they don't have a waiting list, and in this market, I find that hard to believe, but it's true. That's one of the reasons why they hired us: to educate the public and the REALTOR® community about what their model really is, what it is that they provide and how to get people into these homes. It's sad to think about REALTORS® who have clients that don't make enough money, or maybe want to live in an area and they've been priced out, who believe there are no real solutions out there. A lot of us tell these clients, "I'm sorry, I can't help you." To me, our job doesn't stop there. We have to continue searching. That's why we do what we do, and with Habitat and Elevation Community Land Trust, we now have another solution.

TWEET THIS: "A lot of us tell these clients, 'I'm sorry, I can't help you.' To me, our job doesn't stop there. We have to continue searching. That's why we do what we do, and with Habitat, we now have another solution." 

DMAR: What are your thoughts on gentrification versus revitalization, specifically of Denver neighborhoods? 

Jessica: If we look at neighborhoods like Westwood where they have a strong council person, revitalization is great, but you need to involve the community, and the community needs to have a say in the development and lead. I recently had a developer reach out to me and say, "I'm failing at community outreach." I think it's really about community connection. We're starting with homeowners, but we need to reach out to schools, non-profits, renters and everyone. That's the entire community. When you talk about revitalization, you need to keep everyone in mind, and you need to keep that word equity in mind in terms of access and opportunity. Are we providing access and opportunity for the full spectrum? Making sure that everyone has the access and the opportunity to hear about the developments, to have their voice heard, to make decisions, to be at the table and to feel that they're important even though they might not own a home is critical.

Joey: In a nutshell, revitalization means that you're including the community, and gentrification means that you probably didn't and people are getting pushed out.

DMAR: Do you think it sometimes starts as revitalization, and then somewhere along the line it goes too far and a neighborhood has been gentrified?

Joey: That's why you need to have strong community advocates who are not solely concerned with their own best interest, but rather that of the community. Having good City Council and housing advocates around is key. 

DMAR: Are there certain neighborhoods where you've seen gentrification take place and what are some specific side effects that the area experienced as a result?

Joey: Yeah it's happened in this area... we're in West Colfax right now. From 2010 to 2016, we lost 20 percent of the Hispanic population. Back in 2010 it was around 50 percent hispanic. To me, that is a problem. A national study actually showed that Denver is leading the country in Hispanic gentrification.

Jessica: On Denver's displacement map, we're in a zone that's at risk for displacement, and different areas around Denver have different ratings, but this is one is at risk.

Joey: It's affecting the school systems as well. We're having more people move in, and a lot of people are not sending their kids to the local schools, and the schools' populations are going down, which puts stress on the schools.

Jessica: Right, because schools get paid per pupil in Denver, so if kids are displaced then schools lose money, and then eventually they could close.

Joey: That's a huge issue for communities. There are tons of people who live in this area who are talking about enrollment being down, and schools possibly closing. That's a community issue and a direct result of gentrification.

Jessica: Going back to what I said about equity... equity is access, opportunity and inclusivity, so how is Denver changing? We're losing that inclusivity, and it's backed up by data when we're number one in the nation to lead Hispanic gentrification, so unless we provide these opportunities, we're not going to have the equity that we need.

DMAR: Do you think that's going to slow down in the next 10 years?

Jessica: Not unless we get more socially-conscious developers and organizations, and people fighting it. I'm proud of the city of Denver; there's a lot of complaints against them, but I feel like they're doing a lot to help the whole spectrum of housing from homelessness to affordability. I serve on the Housing Advisory Committee as the REALTOR® on that team, and I'm just blown away by the people and the organizations that are willing to give and sacrifice... and it is exhausting work and we need more people to come up with solutions and do the work.

DMAR: Are you guys familiar with Blueprint Denver and do you think some of those plans will help these sorts of issues?

Joey: Yeah. I think it will. They want to focus on developments around transportation. A family could be paying thousands and thousands to own and maintain a vehicle. Well, just think what they could do with that money if they didn't have to use it for a vehicle. If you lived around public transportation and you relied on that, you would save money and could maybe afford a down payment or housing costs. We're finding ourselves in the middle of a change in the way we live our lives. A lot of people think the reason we have all this traffic is that people are getting pushed outside of the city and so we have this big bubble of people trying to commute. What if people could live where they work, and stay in that same area? If they weren't getting priced out, that would be a great option.

We all have to change. We're evolving, the city is evolving, we need more public transportation and we're going to have to adapt and be open to it. The writing's on the wall. The future's not going to be your vehicle. We hear a lot of pushback from communities when new development doesn't include enough parking. Well, if we're really going to think about the future, there's not going to be a need for parking spots. We're trying to plan for 10 years from now, and how do you plan when right now people are using their cars every day, but in 10 years they may not be? It's a challenge to convince a community about that sort of change. Understanding how to adapt and relaying the message that some changes will make life easier for everybody is key. I think Blueprint Denver is great because it's showing the blueprint of how we can adapt to this mass transportation system, save money in the process and make it easier on everybody.

DMAR: How do you educate the public and consumers? Buying a house, especially for first-time homebuyers is overwhelming enough, but when you have other factors like affordability thrown in the mix, and many people are completely unaware of the options and solutions available to help them, how do you go about educating people? 

Jessica: We have a lot of coffee meetings (laughs). I'm a teacher. I've created presentations and educational materials to help people understand the homebuying experience.

Joey: It's one person or group at a time. We connected with an inner-city group of young people in college who were living on campus and focused on social justice and how to live their life in a meaningful way. We talked with them about the housing crisis, and they were completely overwhelmed. They were in their early 20s and had no hope. They were mostly minority students, and we shared the fact that in Denver over 80 percent of homeowners are white - that was tough for them to swallow. I don't know if they were discouraged, but they didn't feel like they had a lot of hope. They called us and shared with us their frustrations, so we came back with solutions.

Jessica: After hearing our solutions they were feeling more hopeful. One of them actually contacted us two weeks ago and said, "Can we talk about homeownership?"

Joey: There are things people can do. For example, try to live on less if possible, just to get to a point where you can save some money.

Jessica: Or get a co-signer. Teaching people about the shared-equity model is also important.

Joey: Exactly, there are things that you have to do in this market to try to make it. It was really exciting for us because we were trying to figure out ways to help them. Like if we were them, what would we do? Knowing about what's going on in the city, how can you adjust a young adult's lifestyle to save money and navigate through all these changes? This has also led us to other solutions like Habitat and Elevation Community Land Trust. To me, that makes the most sense right now. If you've been priced out and can't afford an area, then get someone to share that load with you. They're willing to do that to make it affordable and stabilize you.

Jessica: There's another REALTOR® in Denver who's working on a co-ownership model, so that's a little bit different than Land Trust's. It's where two, or three or four people get a loan together, and they get a bigger house, and then divide that up or share the kitchen. So that's another option.

DMAR: Do you know of any cities that also have an affordability issue, and have implemented solutions that have been successful?

Joey: It seems to be a national issue, so there's a lot of people experimenting right now. For example, Minneapolis just got rid of single-family zoning, which makes it easier for developers to create density. Instead of just one housing unit in the area, they can maybe put two or three. That's exciting because it's something that they're pioneering, and I think other cities are watching to see how it works out. Another example is California and what they're trying to do as far as rent control. Denver is trying to figure out if we need rent control, too so I think we're watching them very closely to see what happens.

Jessica: There are some creative solutions being worked on in Denver, too. I work with a program called the Congregation Land Campaign, which is in partnership with two groups, Interfaith Alliance and Radian. It's a non-profit architecture firm working to offer a creative model of affordable housing development. They realized that churches and congregations of any faith have a lot of vacant lands. Many churches are getting on board to help with the housing crisis. It's definitely a unique solution.

DMAR: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about being able to afford a house? 

Jessica: People don't know that even if you aren't making $80,000 or $90,000, homeownership is possible. If you're making high $30,000s to mid-$70,000, homeownership is possible.

TWEET THIS: "People don't know that even if you aren't making $80,000 or $90,000, homeownership is possible. If you're making high $30,000s to mid-$70,000, homeownership is possible." 

Joey: Education is a biggie. I mean, we run into families where no one has ever become a homeowner before. They don't know where to start. They don't have that benefit of asking, "Hey, mom and dad, what's the first thing I do?" We have to educate how this happens. We just can't sit back and wait. That's why we've been trying to be more proactive with educating the public and renters. We just need to get the word out that homeownership is not as difficult as it may seem. Especially if you want to do some sort of shared equity model, it can really help you get started, and honestly, you're going to save money by the end. You can get into the market, let's say, in five years. You're going to pay down your principal, you're going to build equity and that shared equity model gives you cash out on that. You can go introduce yourself to the market, and you can have enough for your down payment. I think that is the number one thing that people need to be aware of - there are organizations and corporations that are willing to help with a down payment and just housing in general, and are willing to help first-time homebuyers.

DMAR: REALTORS® have a big impact on neighborhoods and on how Denver has changed so one could argue they have a responsibility, to an extent, to help us work on these types of housing issues. If an agent reads this interview, what are some easy things they can start doing today to help?

Jessica: Listen to the community that they're in. And when I say that, I mean who are the most vulnerable in your community? For me, that's children, schools and nonprofits serving the most vulnerable. Go talk to the teachers or principals and ask them what's the biggest issue schools are facing right now... and then get involved. We're involved with our registered neighborhood organization. Any community organization that you might have, get involved with them. Figure out what the needs are, and advocate for more policies that might help the marginalized and the vulnerable. I think that REALTORS® could have a strong voice in that.

Joey: Just to add to that, it's getting more involved and understanding the government and politics of the whole thing. We have to be advocates for housing and for affordable housing to make those opportunities available. If we're not able to explain some of these things to our community we're missing out and they're missing out, and we just can't have that. If we're not engaged, we're letting it go by and people suffer as a result. I think there's a call for REALTORS® to become more community-involved. It's NAR's new slogan: "Who we R." One of the things they say is that we're advocates, and I feel that's what a lot of REALTORS® need to be. I feel for the people who are vulnerable and help them obtain homeownership, that's how we're going to be successful as a community. As REALTORS®, I think we can have a huge impact.