NEWARK, NJ - James Gist started building homes on the side while managing musical acts like Naughty by Nature, a Grammy Award-winning hip-hop group from East Orange.
Today, redevelopment is his main gig, and his work extends beyond the four corners of the homes he builds in the city’s West Ward. When he stepped outside a three-family home at 454 South 14th St. that he just sold to a first-time homebuyer, he exchanged high-fives with a passerby.
“If I got a good relationship, then no one is gonna mess with my property,” said Gist, who owns Jarid Jamar Construction Company.
Gist, 57, has been buying up properties in the city long before the West Ward Model Neighborhood Initiative, a redevelopment plan that uses eminent domain to sell condemned homes and seeks to empower locals to become landlords.
He’s used the program to forge ahead though. Gist, of East Orange, has been the developer of about 20 properties in Newark since 1997, and he plans to build about 10 more in the future. Just on South 9th Street alone, he built five new three-family houses.
He built the property at 454 South 14th Street, which has affordable units, and handed over the keys to a buyer in about eight months. Now, he’s building across the street. He doesn’t mind buying properties that are surrounded by vacant lots or boarded-up homes either.
"I’mma get them too,” he said with a grin, later adding that, “I’m looking to build 10 more. So I just keep going and keep developing the community up.”
The community was hit hard by the 2008 housing market crash and several homes are now worth less than what is owed on them. The city stepped in with its redevelopment plan in 2016 and has started selling condemned properties to developers at below market rate.
The plan encompasses properties from the border of Irvington to South 13th Street between South Orange Avenue and 16th Avenue.
Economic and Housing Development Director Carmelo Garcia said Gist was one of several developers who are getting in on the city’s plan to revitalize the West Ward.
“He’s one of those model redevelopers that you’re like, listen if you can train other young entrepreneurs who are in the construction industry to be redevelopers like him, it’s a good thing for Newark,” Garcia said.
Garcia said Gist is just one piece of the puzzle. The plan seeks to do more than build two and three-family homes. It also calls for building retail space like sit-down restaurants, which didn’t exist when the strategy was first proposed.
In the case of the South 14th Street home that Gist recently sold, the new homeowner seeks to gain about $80,000 in equity, Gist said. The best part for Gist is seeing the keys turned over to a person of color like himself.
“When you're standing out there, you don't expect to walk in and see this in this neighborhood,” he said. “So it feels good to have them have something like this and be able to have something that they'll afford that's of this caliber."