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Creative Real Estate: A Discussion With Trish Ofori of Baltimore’s Akwaaba House

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Nestled on a lively strip in Mount Vernon, Akwaaba House is an 18th-century, three-story building that exudes a love of Black life. The ground floor houses Nubian Hueman, a second location for the DC-based boutique that features designers representing the African diaspora who specialize in fashion, accessories, art, and beauty products. The building’s top two levels are residential spaces for rent but also double as enclaves for events featuring local artists and community members. Real estate entrepreneur Trish Ofori, who purchased and renovated the building, named it Akwaaba, which means “welcome” in Twi, an homage to her Ghanaian roots. 

Ofori gained an interest in real estate fresh out of college in Washington, DC. After about five years of working odd jobs while selling properties, she went into real estate full-time and flourished in the District for the next several years. After what began as a serendipitous purchase of her first commercial real estate property, Ofori is now firmly rooted in Baltimore with a newfound sense of purpose. She hopes to build on Baltimore’s creative economy, something that proved difficult in DC. 

Akwaaba House has begun to make a name for itself over the past six months. When Nubian Hueman opened at Akwaaba House in August 2019, the venue was packed with guests and shoppers who partook in a candle-making session from 228 Grant Street, mini manicures courtesy of Power Decals, card making with Jermaine T. Bell, T-shirt printing by Philadelphia Printworks, and a pop-up from Ivy’s Tea Co. In November 2019, Ofori hosted a panel discussion that explored the use of art to transform spaces and redefine neighborhoods. The event, part of an ongoing series called The Art of Business, featured vendors and local artists including Afrothreads, Rawn Price, Nia Hampton (also a BmoreArt contributor), and James Flowers. 

I spoke with Ofori about her transition from DC to Baltimore, what real estate ownership truly entails, and her interest in building community and advancing the city’s creative economy.

Christina Sturdivant Sani: How has your real estate journey changed from DC to Baltimore? 

Trish Ofori: When I got into real estate in DC, I didn’t know anything about houses or finance. So it really taught me basic negotiation skills. It taught me how different people invest money and look at housing purchases. I was working more client to client—I didn’t quite have the vision that I have now. I was trying to make money and turn it into a career, doing 30 transactions a year. I probably won’t do that many transactions for clients in Baltimore. I’m focusing on doing more of my own personal transactions. 

What I’m doing in Baltimore right now is a combination of all the things that I’ve done in DC for the past 10 years. I look at Baltimore and see a lot of opportunities, and I’m able to leverage some of the connections and work that I’ve done in DC to accelerate some of the visions that I’ve had in mind for a while. Baltimore gives me the opportunity to be more creative and I think I can have a greater impact on people because I can participate a little bit more in the economy in a creative way.

Why is it important for you to make an impact as a real estate entrepreneur?

I grew up in a big family—my grandmother is from the South and had 13 kids… I have like 30 first cousins. So I grew up with a lot of people and with a community mindset. And I was very involved in the community. I was a girl scout, I danced, I did gymnastics, I used to go to summer camp. So it’s important to me because this is where I came from. That’s something that I’m always going to have on my heart to do because that’s what I know.

Let’s talk about Akwaaba House—what drew you to the property? 

I actually was in Baltimore to take a course to get my appraisers license. And I’m always looking at real estate apps so I looked at Redfin and there was a commercial space on the market for about $150,000 and it looked like a decent neighborhood. So I came to look at this house randomly and while I was waiting for the agent to let me in, I ended up going up to Keepers Vintage and talking to Erica [Bentley], who’s the shop owner. We talked the whole night and I was like, wow, this is a really cool area. Coming from DC, I just couldn’t believe that you could buy something for this price point in this type of area. That building didn’t work but there was a building a couple of doors down that needed so much work. But I found a way to make the numbers work. 

What was the renovation process like? 

It took about two and a half years to renovate this building. And to be honest, it really put me in a tough situation. This type of project [makes you think about] how much you really want to do what it is you say you want to do. I want to be a part of a creative community but now that I’m in it and I went through that process, I’m like wow, it could almost bankrupt you. People don’t say that to you. They say, oh, it looks so perfect. But the truth is when you really venture into something new, all these different things come up. But it’s good because I feel like what’s coming out of it is good.

How much did you pay for the building and renovations? 

I paid $165,000 for the building. Renovation costs were $250,000. 

What was the interior design process like? Is that part fun for you? 

I came up with a lot of this layout. I worked with the architects but every single thing in terms of the baseboards, shoe molding, the size of the refrigerator, granite, backsplash… you have to pick them out. And so to be honest, no, it’s not really fun. It’s a lot on me because there are a lot of different decisions. And then you’re constantly scanning the space trying to picture in your mind how one decision is going to flow with the rest of the decisions. 

So it’s okay, but the fun part to me is finishing. I like coming up with the idea and pulling all the pieces together, but maybe I just need a little bit more help because getting it from A to Z is sometimes taxing. 

So do you have an assistant or a team—or are you more of a one-woman band?

I have a graphics person and they’ll do a lot of my marketing material. And then I have another person who works with me to organize my events, send out newsletters and e-blasts, do social media and copy for events. I’m also bringing somebody in to manage projects. So I’m slowly bringing people in and I’ve tried to work with people on different occasions. 

You said that you’ve been able to leverage people and resources from DC for your work in Baltimore. Is bringing Nubian Hueman to Akwaaba House an example of that?  

If somebody would have given me a building 10 years ago in DC and said, “Do something with this building,” who would I have called? I didn’t have any experience. So after being in DC for 10 or so years, I was able to meet people who have helped me with my business. I was able to meet people who I connected with.

When I came to Baltimore, I wanted to support a Black business. And if I scanned my mind for Black-owned retailers in DC that might be looking to scale, Anika [Hobbs, the owner of Nubian Hueman] was one of the first people that I thought about. I have a lot of respect for how she runs her business. I have a lot of admiration for her thought process and aesthetic. So I reached out to her and she came. So yes, that is an example of pulling on some of the resources that I’ve had before and looping them into different opportunities that can help me, but also hopefully help them as well.

Nubian Hueman (photo by Piers Lamb)

As a DC native, I know that we can be a bit territorial about our communities and who comes in to set up shop. Have you felt that sentiment in Baltimore? 

Coming from DC, I was very cognizant of that. When I do stuff [in Baltimore]—and I know Anika is like this too—we’re like… we’re not from here. Not that we have to ask people for permission but, you know, we ask permission (laughs)… like, “This is what we want to do, what y’all think?”

But here’s the thing: as Black people, we’re all Black. It doesn’t matter where I go in the world, I can always do something to help my people. I don’t feel like Black people have the luxury at this point to be like, “Hey you know, we’re only going to do this here in Detroit and this is only for us.” You have to be open to different people because we don’t have enough bandwidth to be that segmented.

When you label yourself, your mind goes into a box. It’s like well, this person is vegan and I’m a carnivore so now we don’t see eye to eye. No, y’all see eye to eye, you just eat differently. That doesn’t mean that you’re not from the same community. So I’m very cognizant that I’m not from here or DC but I’m still Black, and we’re all in it together.

How important do you think real estate ownership is for Black people? 

I’m into real estate so of course I’m big into people investing into real estate, but there’s a lot of other forms of ownership that I’m not as familiar with that I think are good as well. The biggest thing with owning is that you have a stake in it and that gives you a sense of control that sometimes you don’t have when you don’t own it—and that can be for real estate, stocks, businesses, furniture, cars—a wide range of things. If you don’t own it and something happens, somebody can take it back from you. 

Along those lines, do you think creatives should invest in properties to prevent rising rents that are taking place in gentrifying cities? 

Before people take the step into ownership, I would really encourage them to take the step into investing into their knowledge of what it takes to own and talk to some people who own businesses and real estate, people who you can talk to candidly and get background situations to see if it’s something you really want to get into. Everybody wants to be a millionaire and own a 20- or 30-unit building but half the people who want to do that don’t have the mental capacity to handle that type of investment. So they need to get familiar with what they want to do and get familiar with themselves to see if that form of investment is something that they’re even equipped to handle. 

Would you say it’s like business ownership—how people say everyone isn’t born to be an entrepreneur? 

Everybody isn’t built to work for themselves, yes, I strongly believe that. 

Do you think there are some people who aren’t built to handle what comes with home ownership? 

I think basic homeownership can be taught to a wide range of people. If you look at the 80/20 rule, 80 percent of people can own a primary home but a primary home is not an asset… a primary home is a liability. I think 20 percent can be investors. 

Nubian Hueman at Akwaaba House (photo by Piers Lamb)

As the owner of a commercial space, how do you price the rent for a tenant in a way that is both affordable for them and profitable for you?  

I think you have to have that intention. l’ll never be the best investor or a big-time developer because I don’t do everything for money. You have to be a little cutthroat to make a lot of money. That’s just how it goes. But when you buy real estate, you make money when you buy. You’ve already ran the numbers, you know how much is coming in. And so since I have three units at Akwaaba House that are income-producing, I was able to offer Anika a rate that was affordable for her to be able to stay, maintain and grow the business while also doing the same thing in DC. So I think you have to be conscious about that and go from there. 

What are your long-term goals for Baltimore? 

My goal is to continue to like get spaces like I have here, mixed-use spaces, and build out community hubs. I really love Maketto [in DC]…. I like the aesthetic of it. I love the idea of it. I would love to do something edgy like that concept, but have it be more intimate like when Busboys and Poets only had that one location on 14th Street. You walked in and always met somebody or saw somebody you know. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

I feel like people in Baltimore work together a little more [than people do in DC]. I think it’s a little harder to be individualistic here because it takes a community. But I think that also brings something out of you, and that’s a value. It’s not so much about volume and scale, it’s more about being personal with people and slowing down and really being intentional. 

Even in the neighborhood, it’s about working together. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but if we do stuff on a smaller level and support each other, you never know what can happen. There are five or six Black woman business owners on this block. How many other places can you go in the country and have that many Black women business owners on one street? To me, that’s powerful.

What we’re looking for and what people are talking about is right here. We just have to tap into it. And that takes work. But I feel like we are trying.

**********

On March 28, Akwaaba House is hosting its monthly music series called Sound Room. For more info, email Trish Ofori at info@oforiandco.com.

Akwaaba House (photo by Piers Lamb)

Photos by Glenford Nuñez and Piers Lamb

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