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Under Hall’s leadership, NJCC continues to grow and expand

Read entire article by Matthew Fazelpoor with images and links on NJBIZ

June 10, 2024

To put it mildly, it is an exciting time at New Jersey Community Capital, a nonprofit community development financial institution dedicated to creating thriving communities through strategic investments and knowledge.

At a ceremony last month, the organization marked its 35th anniversary, where NJCC President and CEO Bernel Hall unveiled an ambitious five-year growth plan for NJCC that he says is aimed at driving equity and opportunity in underserved communities. Not only is NJCC accelerating its mission to finance and develop affordable housing, small businesses, and school and child care facilities, Hall stressed that the organization is also expanding its geographic focus to serve eligible communities nationwide.

“We plan to leverage our deep-rooted expertise and proven community finance model to become a national leader in driving equitable development,” said Hall. “We have an expansive roadmap that aims to catalyze widespread economic stability and wealth generation through innovative, accessible financial solutions.”

Hall noted NJCC’s unique business model, which is at the heart of its strategy. “It has been so effective that we believe it will enable us to scale our lending, equity investment, and real estate development programs beyond the tri-state area,” he said. “Initially, we plan to extend them along the eastern seaboard and eventually across the nation. We are not just growing in scale – we are enhancing the depth of our impact by targeting communities that are most in need of transformative capital.”

A big year

NJBIZ recently caught up with Hall to discuss the anniversary, the growth strategy, other upcoming areas of focus, initiatives/projects and more.

At the outset, Hall described 2023 as an excellent year for NJCC. “We did about $58 million in loans – that represented the largest loan volume in the history of the organization,” he told NJBIZ. “Much of that was in underrepresented communities. And much of that went toward creating affordable housing. And, obviously, being a catalyst for small business growth. So, really excited about that. In addition, we did some new market tax credit allocations, which led to some really premier projects across the state. One that comes to mind to highlight is the Hinchliffe Stadium redevelopment, which is one of the oldest Negro League stadiums that’s still in existence.”

He also noted that NJCC was at the forefront of using the first health care facility pilot program from the Department of Community Affairs, which led to the creation of Barclay Place, a 55-unit essential workers affordable housing project – also in Paterson; as well as receiving a $7 million grant from MacKenzie Scott’s foundation.

When asked about the anniversary and the legacy of NJCC over these last 35 years, Hall, who took the helm at NJCC in 2021, stressed one word: impact.

“Over $1 billion has been invested in underrepresented communities in New Jersey and beyond. We have expanded from being a small loan fund – 12 people, $20 million under management – to a large, multifaceted economic development/community finance organization that has over 60 people working here, and operating in 37 states,” Hall explained. “Doing everything from loans for small business growth and affordable housing, making private equity investments into small businesses – many of which are led by women and people from BIPOC communities. But also, being a real estate developer, who are creating homeownership opportunities for immigrants as well as other minorities – that, for the first time, are realizing the dream of homeownership.”

Throughout NJCC’s more than 35 years of service, Hall said a lot of great work has been done. “The dollars tell a lot of the story – but the impacts on people’s lives gives you the bigger picture,” he said.

What’s ahead?

The conversation shifted to the growth strategy plan and what is on tap as NJCC heads into this next chapter. Hall said that the organization is focused on scaling impact.

“We want to do what we do in the communities that need it the most – all across America,” he explained. “And in doing so, we have updated our systems and how we operate. We spend much more time focused on key performance indicators than we have in the past,” said Hall. “Obviously, we’re still mission oriented. We still are putting people first. But, at the same time, we know that to be trusted fund managers – and get moneys from banks and foundations in a way that is sustainable both for us and people that we serve – we have to operate similar to them with respect to the day-to-day work that we do, while also being empathetic to the needs of the communities that we serve.”

To that point, Hall continued, NJCC has hired people with accomplished backgrounds in the public and private sector to support that effort, including a new chief investment officer, Claudia Lima, who is based in Los Angeles. The addition also puts down a marker for the organization on the other side of the country as it grows and expands.

“We continue to do new loans outside of the State of New Jersey – while doing, obviously, significant transactions like Hinchliffe, like Barclay Place, like all the work we do in Newark,” said Hall. “To make sure that we’re still a staple in the state.”

On broader economic trends and conditions, Hall noted that there are jobs, but they do not pay enough. He pointed to home and property tax appreciation relative to income appreciation. “It’s not keeping up. Homes are becoming much more expensive, a lot faster than people are getting raises,” he said. “The flip side of that, unfortunately, given the current pace of the economic cycle – we’re seeing higher interest rates because of inflationary concerns. I don’t want to go as far as saying it’s a death cycle or anything of that nature – because there are economic opportunities. As much as people want to talk about unemployment and even higher interest rates, if you look back 20 or 30 years – rates were in the same neighborhood. It’s just been such a long-term period of lower rates.”

Hall said those lower rates became the new norm, and now that is not the case. “So, getting back to productivity. Getting back to savings. And getting back to entrepreneurship where it’s not so much rested on large corporations to create jobs that drive economic opportunity and quality of life in communities,” he explained. “But people are being more self-reliant and self-determinant – with equal access to opportunity and capital, which is where people like me come in. We really have to focus on that in order to stem the tide of incomes not pacing with inflation.”

Another major concern of NJCC pertains to partnerships and collaborations. “We get a tremendous amount of our capital from the U.S. Treasury’s CDFI Fund, which there’s a lot of legislation going on about how much of an allocation, overall, they will be receiving going forward. In an election cycle, that’s of concern to the entire industry. So, there’s that,” said Hall. “But we are thankful that we have over 100 banking partners – large, middle and small. We have relationships with the bigger banks – the Wells Fargo, Bank of America, the PNCs, who’ve also been very supportive of us. Not just from a loan perspective, but also from grant capital and support of our programs – from our down payment assistance programs for new homeowners all the way to our general lending programs.

“Beyond that, foundations and more and more individual, high-net-worth parties that are socially minded – i.e. a MacKenzie Scott – are starting to step to the forefront and really do their part in creating opportunities for people who have had a hard time coming by them,” said Hall.

‘Showing love’

In addition to Newark and Paterson, Hall also highlighted other areas of action in the Garden State. “We are really focused on creating more workforce housing in Atlantic City. I’ve been working really closely with the administration there,” he said. “In addition to just doing stuff privately as a nonprofit developer, we are always looking into ways to do more things in Camden. Camden, honestly, should be Hoboken of South Jersey – given the fact that you have waterfront; you have a medical center; you have a transit center. All of the intrinsic value to make a great city that is 24/7 live, work, play is there. And we want to be a part of bringing that out.

“We’re also in other parts of Jersey that don’t get as much attention – whether it be Cumberland County or the like,” Hall continued. “We’re really trying to figure out – what is a key economic driver? We know we can’t do everything there because you obviously have to have the population there to sustain whatever it is – whether it’s a grocery store or a new company. But what is a signature project – whether it be investing in a company that is creating X amount of jobs, that is going to be a certain percentage of the overall workforce in that particular town? We want to be a part of that transaction – because that’s going to have the most lasting change.”

The conversation closed with Hall discussing how important a time it is at NJCC as the organization embarks on this next chapter following the anniversary celebration.

“I love my job. It’s a critical time. We have great people and are getting better every day. That being said, we’re not profiteers only, right? You can’t just be good at Excel models,” he explained. “You have to actually be good with people – and be able to be empathetic while at the same time being extremely technical.”

That’s why, Hall says, it is imperative for not just his organization, but all nonprofits doing this work, to actually be better than their banking counterparts. “Because we have to deal with the financial and economic issues, but also the social issues as we do our work,” Hall said. “So, we got to get up a little earlier; work a little harder; and be a little more thoughtful about what we do – while showing love. That is hard to do because we are all human and we have our own stuff. But that’s the goal.”

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