Turning negativity into action: How real estate pros are helping rebuild the South Side

by Meg White

It started with negativity, but quickly became quite the opposite. Whitney Hampton, a broker with A Progeny Global LLC, felt the need to do something to counteract the narrative generated by destructive looting on the South Side of Chicago in the wake of global outrage after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

CleanOut and BoardUp 2020 images courtesy of Lutalo McGee

“I, like most of you, feel overwhelmed emotionally by what I am witnessing,” she posted on Facebook on the evening of Sunday, May 31. “I started an initiative to rebuild our businesses impacted by the looting and rioting.”

She shared her plans to head to the Home Depot on 87th Street near the Dan Ryan Expressway the next morning to purchase what would be needed to help businesses impacted by the looting, as well as ways those who could not participate could donate to offset the cost of supplies.

The post was inundated with comments and shares from those wanting to help, and one of those people became her partner in what became the CleanOut and BoardUp 2020 group: Lutalo McGee, owner and managing broker of Ani Real Estate.

“We were just looking at the negativity and damage last weekend and Whitney said, ‘I want to do something,’” he recalled. “She spoke to what I was thinking.”

The two worked together to identify local black-owned businesses that needed help and put together crews to help them clean up or to board up their buildings in preparation for the subsequent waves of violence that continued to hit the city this week.

Whitney Hampton

“We were kind of overwhelmed with the response,” McGee said. Seeing around 50 volunteers showing up each day, as well as more donations than they’d expected, energized them both. “It gave us more motivation to invest as much as we could.”

As week wore on, requests from business owners became fewer and fewer. So, the two discussed how they could pivot and continue to serve the community. Seeing the large number of stores that were looted or closed, they decided to start delivering meals to senior centers.

“We start out the day with filling up cars,” McGee said, adding that the group often brings seven or eight vehicles and spends $2,000 on a given grocery run, of which they may do several a day. He noted that they aren’t always able to enter the senior centers, due to concerns of inadvertently exposing at-risk people to COVID-19. They’ve also created lists of stores that are still open to distribute throughout a community unsure of where to go to stock up on essentials.

CleanOut and BoardUp 2020 has delivered food to every senior center that’s reached out for help, including Orchard Place of Morgan Park, the Paul G Stewart Center and Senior Suites of Rainbow Beach.

Marki Lemons-Ryhal, a Chicago-based social media consultant, educator and speaker for the real estate community, joined in the volunteer efforts and referred to Hampton and McGee as heroes for their work. “They’re feeding entire senior buildings,” she said. “They galvanized the black real estate community.”

While they plan to keep going with food donations, McGee said he and Hampton are also thinking of ways to pivot once again. “We definitely want to do something with the optimism” that the group has tapped into, he said. Though they haven’t stopped to do a real tally, and the numbers keep growing, he said he knows they’ve raised somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 already.

Lutalo McGee

McGee has been checking in with donors regularly to make sure they’re OK with their money being used in different ways and is now looking at the best way to deploy the funds in the near future. “There have been a couple of ideas, including setting up some small grants to businesses that have to rebuild,” she said, adding that a contact of his at COUNTRY Financial told him many local entrepreneurs are underinsured and may need additional help to reopen.

Aside from the work they’ve done on the ground, there’s an intangible benefit that the group has contributed. While the whole effort was borne out of being frustrated with the negative narrative McGee and Hampton had been feeling dragged down by, the outpouring of positive energy has reinvigorated them and everyone they’re working with. “We needed that kind of pushback. … Because we’ve had such a wave of support, it’s helped not only us but the people we’re working to help,” he said. “It can’t do anything but reaffirm humanity.”

McGee also noted that real estate professionals have shown their ability to organize and make connections in this effort. Among good friends and long-time acquaintances, he has seen people who he’s only done business with once or twice, or even folks he’s never met before, show up ready to work. “The real estate community has been 100% committed,” he said. “We can be the glue of the community.”

Indeed, real estate may have a special role to play in facilitating the rapid restoration of the community and protecting equity that’s been invested there. “Cleaning this up is critical for maintaining the value in our communities,” he said. “Getting it addressed quickly maintains people’s wealth.”

No matter what the group tackles next, McGee wants to maintain the original reason they all came together: to combat the negative messaging around what’s happening on the South Side of Chicago. “What’s really going on is love and commitment,” he said, adding that many in the real estate community may get caught up in the transactional nature of the work, but that ultimately the positive impact the industry can have is stunning. “Sometimes it may feel like there’s no purpose. But this work is purposeful.”

Agents who want to get involved with CleanOut and BoardUp 2020 can either join the Facebook group or email Lutalo McGee directly at lutalomcgee@anirealestate.com.

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