It was the call Juli Kaufmann had dreaded, and it came just one week before the activist-turned-real-estate-developer planned to break ground on her $10 million, 16,500-square-foot project. The building, called The Aux, was pitched as a new anchor for Black and brown businesses in the city of Evanston, Illinois, a place where wealth disparities between Black and white residents stand among the worst in the country. But now, the plan teetered into uncertainty. The project’s final permit, Kaufmann was told, would be delayed. Again.
A sprawling wellness center with 10 committed tenants, The Aux—Kaufmann’s first project outside her hometown of Milwaukee—had already weathered several delays. First, there was the pandemic. Then, the sale of the proposed building fell through. Over time, what began as a $6 million project almost doubled in cost. Kaufmann and the project’s codevelopers—three Black entrepreneurs (Tosha Wilson, Jacqui White, and Tiffini Holmes) and Lori Laser, a philanthropist invested in racial equity, had spent months reassuring more than 60 investors, many of them Evanston residents new to real estate, that the project would soon break ground. The permit problem was a disappointment, but, says Kaufmann, hardly a deterrent. Finding ways to overcome barriers is core to her ethos. “Systems are hard to change,” says Kaufmann, who has spent the past 15 years trying to do just that. “You just keep going.”
“If not me, then who?”
Before Kaufmann got into real estate, she navigated her way through the corporate, nonprofit, and foundation worlds. “I realized that none of those jobs were actually solving problems the way I’d hoped to,” she recalls. “And I discovered that being a disrupter, an innovator, was really the right path for me.” Kaufmann’s first entrepreneurial effort was with a green construction firm, which she ran for four years. When that ended, Kaufmann was living in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point, a neighborhood with a long history of divestment, and where her house sat across from a contaminated, tax-delinquent property. “I decided I wanted to do something about that,” she recalls. “I figured, if not me, then who?”
That question prompted Kaufmann to start her Milwaukee-based real estate firm, Fix Development, a company with what she calls a quadruple bottom line. “It’s a social impact model,” she says. “The kinds of projects that don’t just have a financial return, but cultural, social, and environmental, too.” As for the name? That came directly from her personal goal. “I want to fix shit,” she laughs.
Kaufmann, who runs Fix on her own, first asked her neighbors what kinds of spaces and businesses they hoped for. Their answer: A place that would support the local businesses that were left and boost resident entrepreneurs. Walker’s Point still had lots of creative and enterprising people, but traditional investors were absent. Lenders, too. When Kaufmann cooked up a plan for a multi-use space, banks gave her an arctic cold shoulder. For money, she turned to philanthropists, friends, and neighbors, most of them women, who Kaufmann knew through her professional network in and around Milwaukee.
Three years and $8 million later, she cut the ribbon on the 30,000-square-foot Clock Shadow Tower. That project was one of the city’s first green commercial buildings and is home to Milwaukee’s first urban creamery, an artisan ice cream shop, and an assortment of health and wellness clinics. The public that wanted such a building made it a success.
The Clock Shadow was Kaufmann’s first entry into her now signature co-development model. It stitches together funding from community leaders, neighbors, and philanthropists to crowdsource projects that are, according to Kaufmann, “by and for community.” Or, put another way, development without gentrification. “What this model does is say, no matter how much money you have or what your skin color is or what your historic barriers have been, if we all pull together, we can build something great,” she explains. “It’s one way to disrupt some of the long-standing barriers of capitalism.”
The model, says Kaufmann, pulls from personal experience. “It’s really an activism model,” she says. “It’s a dissatisfaction with the status quo and realization I need to make the change I want to see.” That change is different with each project, which means Kaufmann starts each new co-development from scratch. While she caters each co-development team to the project, her teams always include members of the community. “Involving the community is not a step in the process, it is the process.”
Since Fix’s beginnings, Kaufmann has invested $25 million in projects across Milwaukee, some of which required a minimum investment of only $1,000. Every project includes a mix of angel and neighbor investors, most of whom live within two miles of a project. That means that most of what Kaufmann builds is in the historically disenfranchised neighborhoods that traditional developers still overlook, and many of her investors are Black and low-income.
A solidarity economy model
While Kaufmann’s portfolio remains small compared to the city’s top commercial developers, her approach stands as a model for the “solidarity economy,” a growing movement that aims to dismantle long-standing inequities in land and property ownership. Milwaukee is one of the nation’s most-segregated cities where decades of redlining identified minority neighborhoods as “hazardous” to invest in. The income gap between white and Black earners is around 42%, the highest disparity among races in the country. Kaufmann also helps raise startup funds for local entrepreneurs—most of them Black and brown small businesses that lack access to traditional capital—who, in turn, fill the buildings as tenants.
The idea of shared ownership isn’t new. Communal farming plots, mutual aid networks, and community land trusts offer kindred solutions. Kaufmann says, however, that her model has proven particularly durable in a post-pandemic economy. “There is built-in resilience because there’s loyalty and commitment from the community,” she says. “If someone has invested in a project, they want a return on it.” In her developments, those returns are not just financial, says Kaufmann. They are cultural, social, and in the case of the green projects, environmental, too.
Is Kaufmann’s model replicable? Susan Lloyd, former executive director of the Zilber Family Foundation and a personal investor in several Fix Development projects, says that one essential element is Kaufmann herself. “Juli will just do whatever it takes,” says Lloyd, who helped the family foundation invest tens of millions of dollars in struggling Milwaukee neighborhoods and has worked with a wide range of partners. Lloyd believes that efforts that succeed the best involve their communities at every step. “Absent this kind of approach, neighborhoods that for decades have been disinvested, will find it hard to ever develop. And everybody deserves a decent quality of life.”
Kaufmann’s approach has its challenges. Fundraising is hard. So is managing as many as 50 investors in any individual project. Projects often take longer to finish, and the returns can be more modest than similar commercial projects. “I’m not getting rich from this work,” says Kaufmann, “but I’m getting rich in spirit.”
The Aux will house 10 small businesses, including a meditation center, a commercial kitchen, and a cafe-laundromat. These days, whenever Kaufmann feels bogged down, she imagines what it will look like when it opens in late 2024. “I have goosebumps thinking about it,” she says. Perhaps it will look like the Sherman Phoenix, a lively food hall and small-business hub with mostly Black tenants that Kaufmann helped build in a former bank after it was burned in a protest of a fatal police shooting. Visiting Sherman Phoenix, says Tosha Wilson, one of The Aux codevelopers, was like watching Black Panther for the first time. “It was like seeing something you’ve seen a million times, but with people who look like me,” says Wilson. “It was overwhelming, in a good way.” If that can happen in Milwaukee, she adds, why not Evanston.
The permit for The Aux was approved just hours before the groundbreaking ceremony in November. Ever the optimist, Kaufmann never did postpone the first shovel. “It will be a place of hope and one where people walk in and feel the world changing a little bit.”