A Hometown Hero
Ascension Capital Partners is a real estate development company that cares about the community. That’s because Siree Morris, a partner at Ascension and Newark native, puts families first when he develops new homes in his hometown. Over the years, Morris has undertaken scattered-site projects in Newark and successfully completed several properties financed by NJCC. His latest project involved the approval of a $228,000 permanent loan for two newly-rehabilitated units of affordable housing located in Irvington, New Jersey.
As a Newark native, how would you describe your community?
Newark is a unique town. Everybody knows everybody, and there’s a lot of hometown pride. There are a lot of “homegrown” entrepreneurs like myself, but there’s enough opportunity for us all, thanks in large part to the current mayor and strong community stakeholders. We have the same challenges as other urban regions, of course, and there is a difference in equity. But we’re working together to bridge that gap. Part of that comes from people like me who buy property to have investment in the community.
How did COVID-19 affect the community?
There was already a lack of access to quality health care, but COVID-19 compounded that issue. From a mental health standpoint, COVID-19 had a tremendous impact. For the first time in my life, we couldn’t shake hands, kiss or hug. Even going into a grocery store raised the anxiety level of the community.
Then there was the loss of income and revenue. Some of our families had to choose between paying rent and eating. It’s been hard. As developers, that affected us financially, but we know firsthand the housing needs of our residents, so we hung in there for them. Even despite the negative effects, it’s brought us closer as a community.
What inspires you to create affordable housing opportunities in the same city where you were raised?
I was born and raised here. The families that we serve are people like my mom, a single mom raising three boys in Section 8 housing. So when I got to be in a position to provide housing, that’s always been on my mind. All parents deserve a good place to live and raise their families and provide the quality of life that we all seek.
Another thing is my identity as a Black developer. Everything I’ve done in my life, I always did to be out there on my own. I was the only Black male in my civil engineering class at Rutgers University. At my first job, I was the only Black civil engineer. It’s a weight that I’ve always had to carry, but it’s a weight I embrace. I want people to see me and know it’s possible. If more Black youth follow in my footsteps, I might have done my job.
Tell us about what makes 43 Temple Place so special.
As we always do, we built the two units at 43 Temple for families. And families come in all shapes and sizes. It’s not just husbands, wives, and kids. It could be a single-parent household, or a multigenerational family. I’m proud to say that we have two families there who really see the value in the homes that we’re trying to provide.
What is it like to cut the ribbon on properties like this?
When you cut that ribbon, it’s validation. Validating the fact that you can be a Black male from Newark who maybe doesn’t come from the greatest situations, and that you can actually do something impactful to those around you. Changing the perception of Black development is something that I fight for every day. Sometimes even within our own community, it’s hard to get people to believe in our projects. That’s why a partner like NJCC saying, “I believe in you” is actually a small miracle. They see the vision, and they understand, and we’re in it together. Just to know that I’m having an impact in the community and families — that’s what this is for.
What does NJCC mean to you as a partner?
It’s simple — NJCC is the ground floor. They’ve been there from day one. It’s one thing to have a thought, and another to manifest it. NJCC has allowed me to manifest my thoughts, wants, and needs. As a Black developer, that’s rare to see and accomplish. They’ve been a partner, held my hand for a while, then let me go — ever since, I’ve been able to soar.