Lafayette, Louisiana-based broker Terrica Smith shares how surviving Hurricane Katrina led her to her calling — providing affordable housing.

In August 2005 while the world was watching the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought on New Orleans, Terrica Smith was living it. The young, teen mom was trapped in the city with two children, unable to get out for three days while floodwaters washed buildings, and people, away.

As Smith plotted her way out of New Orleans, she made a personal promise — she’d never allow herself to live under bridges or rely on public assistance again, unable to make a choice about where she and her children could live.

“The hardest part was looking at my kids and not being able to get them to a safe environment,” she reminisced. “So my promise to myself was, ‘Lord, if you get me through this hurricane, then I’m getting off welfare, I’m getting off Section 8, and I’m getting off all the public assistance programs that I can, and I’m going to work my way to be able to fly out of any city at any time when a hurricane is on its way.'”

Smith and her two children eventually made it to Lafayette, where she decided to chart a new course for her life. Knowing the role homelessness and housing insecurity had in her own life, Smith decided to become a Realtor.

However, she immediately hit some roadblocks — Smith struggled to pass the real estate exam, and once she did, brokerages and potential clients consistently pushed the young mom away.

“I had to sell items in my house to be able to get that $700,” she said, referring to the $100 fee she paid for each licensing test retake. “My then-boyfriend suggested I do something else. But I knew what I was fighting to get from, and I had no other choice but to be successful.”

Discouraged but undeterred, Smith kept pounding the pavement until she discovered an untapped client base.

“I literally had to knock on doors, and no one wanted to give me a chance,” she said. “I noticed there were a lot of investors who wanted to work with Realtors; however, there weren’t a lot of Realtors presenting themselves as investor-friendly.”

Smith walked into a locally owned grocery store and asked to speak to the owner, Sam, thinking if he owned one store, he likely owned and invested in others.

“He said he was actually looking for a rental property, and I told him I could help,” she said. “I found him a rental property, and from there he bought 10 properties with me that year. He started referring friends to me, and I was able to get started.”

While building her clientele, Smith reached out to Realtors, offering to oversee their open houses while they handled other tasks. That’s when she first heard about Madeline Cove, an affordable housing development slated for Lafayette’s northside.

“They had this particular development coming up on the Northside of town in 2006, and I was going to be the Realtor to do all the open houses for it,” she said.

However, the deal for the development fell through, making the 50-lot area a dump yard for nearby residents.

For 11 years, Smith never forgot about Madeline Cove and what it would’ve been — a place for Lafayette’s lower-income residents to find safety, stability, and a roadmap to longterm wealth through homeownership.

So, when President Donald Trump announced his Opportunity Zones Initiative in 2017, the now experienced Realtor, entrepreneur, and investor knew it was the best way to revitalize the Cove.

“I knew it was the perfect opportunity to be able to revitalize [Madeline Cove] because now investors have a reason to invest dollars into a distressed area,” Smith said. “It’s already a high-risk investment, but now it’s incentivized because you can do the tax [deferments] through the Opportunity Zones.”

Smith and her team of six at SALT Capital Equity Group went to work pitching the idea to more than 100 investors. Madeline Cove would have 30 for-sale single-family homes priced at $100,000, 90 for-rent townhomes, a 50-unit senior complex, and a 10,000-square-foot commercial retail space.

Much like her entrance into the real estate industry, Smith and her team were denied, as they told her “to put her money somewhere else.”

“The first part of an opportunity zone is that you have to change the hearts and minds of people,” she said, referring to her tenacity when pitching Madeline Cove. “While they care about a return on investment, I care about a social and economic impact. If I can kill two birds with one stone, and make money while making an impact, then it’s a win for everybody.”

After receiving pushback, Smith went back to the drawing board and pulled in accountants and legal experts to help her create a pro forma, a document investors use to outline the financial benefits of a project.

“Your pro forma should really be done before you approach an investor,” she said with a laugh. “But I’m so passionate about this project.”

After creating the pro forma, Smith went back to investors with estimated returns on investment and explained how the Opportunity Zones Initiative could benefit them, since they could defer capital gains into Madeline Cove’s Opportunity Zones Fund.

For the first five years, they’d be able to reduce their tax penalty on capital gains, and after 10 years, the penalty would be eliminated, a deal most investors couldn’t refuse.

Smith’s team now has $14 million to bring Madeline Cove to life, with construction slated to begin in six months — a date that can’t come soon enough for the 300 people on Smith’s waitlist.

“I come from a community like this,” she said of Lafayette. “I know what it’s like to grow up in a community and not have a superhero to look up to.”

“You see violence, you see people getting arrested, you see people getting murdered, and you see young girls getting raped,” she continued. “The only way to be able to change the activity that’s taking place in communities like this is taking ahold of the community, cleaning it, and bringing back true home affordability for homeowners who want their kids to be brought up in a safe area.”

“Not everyone makes it out, and in fact, the majority of children don’t make it out,” she concluded. “Someone has to break that cycle. It might as well be me.”

We’re highlighting agents with extraordinary stories through a new series, Agent Plus. Do you know someone who should be highlighted for their work inside and outside of the office? Send your nominations to AgentPlus@inman.com.

Email Marian McPherson

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