(L to R) Van Covington, Papa Mbye, Murad Sayf, Chris Webley, Philli Irvin, and McKayla Chandler in … [+]
Photographer: Awa Mally; Creative Director: Legacy Larue
Christopher Webley is not a traditional real-estate developer. He wants to build wealth without cutting a profit and wants power for the satisfaction of giving it away. At 32, he is managing $8 million in assets and trying to change the dynamics of the industry. But he’s not selfless, he’s smart.
For the past four years, Webley has been working on what he calls “participatory,” as opposed to “extractive,” development projects. Whereas most developers are in the business to turn a profit at the highest margins and then move on, Webley wants to make it clear that he’s here to stay. His company, NEW RULES, started with one storefront in the North side of Minneapolis that has since become a marketplace, a collaborative workspace, and a gathering space. Three additional buildings, all on the Northside, will be developed into NEW RULES spaces in the coming year. He is also testing the idea of affordable housing development with some properties he bought in his home state of North Carolina.
“What we do is driven out of need,” he says. “Housing is the #1 crisis for our members,” he says. “They can’t find habitable, livable housing at a fair price.” He wants to build cluster developments, around a commercial node that would ultimately serve as “opportunity zones within the black and brown community.” The most important thing is to own space, he says, and monetize space, instead of renting. He wants to be self-sufficient, to be able to “absorb the loss as a developer,” and not be reliant on outside sources of funding. “History tells us that money always dries up.”
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The name of the company, NEW RULES® BENEFIT CORPORATION, “is case sensitive and should be in all caps,” Chris tells me. To describe what NEW RULES is, Chris asked that I copy and paste the description he sent me. The language is important; the name is trademarked.
“NEW RULES® is a ‘turn-key’ Real Estate Development Collective anchored on the Northside of Minneapolis. Much different from traditional Developers, we differentiate our work by being ‘Participatory’; taking unproductive buildings in overlooked communities and co-creating innovative spaces that are designed to form connections and serve as the destination location for fresh ideas, organic networking, and curated events grounded in the shared experiences of the Twin Cities community.”
To be a registered public benefit corporation in Minnesota, a business must prove it has a net positive impact on society, the environment, as well as “the well-being of present and future generations.” In exchange, a business has some additional rights under state law. Famous benefit corporations such as Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia have enrolled in a private accreditation program with a non-profit called B Lab which, in exchange for a fee, scrutinizes the social and environmental impact of your business. The movement to register benefit corporations, authors of a 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review contend, has to do with proving corporate social responsibility (CSR) in a competitive and “greenwashed” environment.
The decision for Chris came down to the fact that “as a non-profit I would not be able to build wealth for not only myself but more importantly to show those working out of our space how to scale,” he said, thus making NEW RULES a for-profit with a strong social conscience.
Chris came to the industry unexpectedly, following a friend’s footsteps after being laid-off. The friend eventually screwed him over, leading him to learn on his own. He borrowed money, went broke, gained the trust outside investors, and borrowed more money. On this first project he went through 15 contractors over the course of three years.
When I first met Chris I thought he was much older than 32, judging by how he speaks and what he says. He spoke about the joy he felt in his previous job as a fabric engineer at Target, the joy of “walking into light and [his] calling.” He explained what it means to participate and show up, and never shied away from discussing “the economic side to everything.”
Despite his young age, he now serves the role of a mentor. He described letting a group of kids shoot a music video in the space, giving them the keys and walking away. “One of the most satisfying things about being human is giving up power,” he tells me.
Baby showers, comedy shows, birthday parties, and yoga classes “keep the lights on,” so that the space can be a playground for creative people. The space has printers, cameras, and livestream equipment. Webley wants to get a 3D garment printer. It has been “iterated and co-created on community,” he says, which means sliding scale pricing, brainstorming sessions, and a voting system for decision-making.
Beginning in September, the space will be home to the City of Minneapolis Public Access TV channel for the next few years, in collaboration with NEW RULES member Rebecca McDonald, whose production company won the contract with the city. NEW RULES will be one media lab out of multiple, ideally one in each neighborhood, that will have editing suites and training opportunities. McDonald tells me this is the first time that the Public Access channel will be run by a for-profit organization. “It’s all about ownership and creating economic opportunities for our community,” she says, echoing what Chris had expressed to me a few weeks prior when he was explaining why he wanted to be the “bank on the deal.”
The point, McDonald says, is simple: “to help others create and speak their truth.”