Young Developer Michael Emem Aims to Revitalize Neighborhoods

For as long as he can remember, Michael Emem knew he wanted to design and construct houses and buildings. As a kid, he liked working with wood, tools and materials. He spent countless hours stacking plastic cassette tape cases to build office towers as high as the ceiling in his home. By middle school, his mom had bought him AutoCAD software for design and drafting. He designed buildings, houses, and even neighborhoods on his computer screen.

Today’s Michael Emem is an entrepreneur real estate developer. His Emem Group has a mission: to build communities and revitalize neighborhoods. He’s young, handsome and ambitious, and he happens to be Black. 

We talked in his office in the central city, his cell phone regularly buzzing. He is a busy guy. He’s 34, married with four kids, but he looks 22, and he speaks with the wisdom of someone twice his age.

Tell me about your background, where you grew up, your parents, your neighborhood and your early schooling.

I grew up on 42nd and Garfield, the Washington Park neighborhood, in a single parent home, and in the 7th grade we moved to 38th and Fairmount after my mom married my stepfather. I’m one of three children. My mom owned our home, and she worked different jobs to provide us what we needed. 

That would have been in the 1990s. What was the Garfield neighborhood like back then? 

Kind of a rough neighborhood, but I liked it. I enjoyed being innocent, playing in the streets. Summers I went to the Boys & Girls Club in Sherman Park, spent full days there. But we had enough frequent shootings where that kind of criminal behavior became a way of life. I got used to drive-by shootings. First sound of gunfire, and we’d duck below the window in our house. I just assumed this was normal life. Wasn’t until I became a young adult that I realized these shouldn’t be acceptable living conditions.  

What schools did you attend and what was life like in high school for you?

From first grade on, I went to schools on the South Side, took the school bus or even the city bus. I graduated from Bradley Tech in carpentry and architecture. My junior year I found out that MPS was building additions onto some elementary schools. VJS Construction had the contract, the requirement being VJS had to hire MPS students as workers. When I was 16, I got hired as a summer intern for Carla Cross who ran Cross Management Services. By the fall, I was working there full-time.

My junior and senior year, I went to school from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., then worked full-time the rest of the day at Cross Management. Started out making seven dollars an hour. By the time I was 17, Carla was planning a new single family home development called Vineyard Terrace Estates, and she asked me if I could design houses. She bought some AutoCAD software, and I started designing houses. That was 2004. I graduated high school in 2005. In around 2006, we won the RFP (Request for Proposals) from the city of Milwaukee for the housing development on Walnut Circle. I designed the houses in the RFP. That was my first experience at real estate development and being part of a project team. 

Take me forward. Did you continue to work at Cross Management as a designer?

First, let me back up. I had a daughter when I was 18. She’s now 15. I had picked up a second job at Home Depot, and I bought my first house when I was 18. When I was 19, I designed and built my first house. I was also a part time student at MATC. Got my associate degree in architectural technology in 2010. Anyway, I worked at Cross Management for five years until 2009 on the housing side and also in project management supervising minorities in the work force. I learned a lot about commercial real estate development.

How did you start the Emem Group and how did that come about? What was your vision?

I started the Emem Group in 2014 on a part time basis. Basically, I designed small scale projects like basement or kitchen remodels for different clients, and my clients were mainly house flippers. I did that part time for five years. 

From the Emem Group website:   

“We believe that real estate is the foundation to economic prosperity and we are dedicated to investing into projects that uplift neighborhoods often overlooked. We believe in social and corporate responsibility, environmental stewardship, and equitable business that reflects the communities in which we build.”

For my full-time work, I had left Cross Management in 2009 and took a job at TL Reese Construction. Worked there for five years as a project manager in commercial construction. We did the Marquette Varsity Theater renovation, gorgeous facility. After TL Reese, I worked for three years at Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity managing the building of new single-family affordable homes.

Then, I worked at Wangard Partners for three years. 

Back to your company, the Emem Group. When did that actually turn into your full-time career? 

I got married when I was 21. We now have four kids in our blended family. With that big responsibility, I felt it was necessary to get a lot of job experience. I also wanted to get my college degree. I left Wangard and went to college at UWM full-time starting in January 2020. At the same time, I launched the Emem Group. I earned my degree in Finance and Real Estate. My first Emem Group contract was the renovation of an 1887 Victorian Queen Anne home on historic Second Street and Meinecke.  

Then, I think you took on your big project, which you are still doing. The subdivisions at Walnut Circle and Josey Heights.

I approached the city in early 2020, and we established a partnership in June 2020 to build new single-family homes. I had designed three house models and priced them out. We landed our first contract in October 2020 to build the homes in those two subdivisions. We’ve now completed four of those homes and have two more under construction at Walnut Circle. Each home is owned by a private client who bought their lots from the city. 

What else is the Emem Group working on currently?    

In addition to our residential jobs, Emem Group also provides real estate consulting services as owner’s representatives on commercial projects. We’ve worked on some significant development projects. For instance, the Innovation and Wellness Space on 16th and North Avenue, the $3.6 million office building addition. Walnut Way was the developer. We guided them through the process and managed the project. 

That’s an impressive building. I was there not long ago with the manager of the Fond du Lac and North Avenue Business Improvement District, BID #32. She was showing me around the neighborhood. I’ve done a number of stories on Black inner city residents, street leaders and politicians, all with their own ideas on how to improve the troubled neighborhoods, rid them of crime and drug dealing, and uplift the lifestyle and economy. There are a lot of ideas out there, but I’ve found the number one issue always comes back to infrastructure. If there was a way to establish new housing, renovated buildings, businesses and good jobs, the rest of the problems will take care of themselves.

I agree with that. Infrastructure is a big problem in the inner city. But I think the biggest problem is education. We are at a pivotal point if we don’t invest in inner city education. I’m talking about investing emotionally and socially in our youth so that they understand the opportunities that exist for them. Children believe what they see, and they too often see negative role models. I’m talking specifically our young boys of color. The city cannot improve unless African American boys and men improve their status. Too many boys have no mentors or fathers to help them make better decisions.

Black street leaders and male mentors tell me what’s lacking in families are fathers or strong male role models. Too many kids have no strong male figure in the home. 

We in the community need to understand that we’re fighting for our children’s attention especially with the access to technology. Every middle school kid has a smartphone feeding out all the confusing information from the internet. Much of that information comes from the influencers, and it’s negative —the things that society tells these kids what is cool. The kids go to Instagram, TikTok, and celebrity websites. They don’t see enough family men, working men, businessmen, community leaders. In other words, men who are doing the right things. And then there is the negative influence of the music.

You are talking about the negative rap music with its profanities and its attitude toward girls as sex objects. 

Absolutely. My wife works in the juvenile justice system. I believe that half of the auto thefts in Milwaukee are committed by children, young teens. Also, compared to previous generations, our younger generation doesn’t have the work ethic and that includes young people of any color. 

I keep wondering. Why has the North Side, the inner city, been neglected? I walk those neighborhoods and see un-repaired streets, alleys piled with junk, vacant stores, houses and buildings, many owned by the City of Milwaukee. I walk downtown and see high rise condos, well-kept streets, thriving stores, bars and restaurants. The city seems to put money into the Downtown area but not the central city. In the last 20 or so years, the inner city has gotten worse, not better. The city owns hundreds of empty houses and buildings. 

That’s true, but the core issue is really racism. Segregation. But I do believe there needs to be more investment in the neighborhoods. You need to have both investment in the downtown and in the central city neighborhoods. I do think the city’s current leadership understands the challenges and the needs for investment.

Unfortunately, African Americans have not been educated on the opportunities available to them through the vehicle of real estate. For instance, take the ACRE program. I graduated from ACRE in 2015. The impact of ACRE graduates has been phenomenal. They learn to have access to information, mentorships, relationships. Many are now developing and re-envisioning buildings and spaces in the inner city. The tool of real estate is very powerful. 

The Acre Program, Associates in Commercial Real Estate program, is designed to train people of color for careers in commercial real estate including real estate developers, construction executives, non-profit leaders and elected officials.

Let’s talk about racism since you brought it up. I refer to tensions between whites and people of color. I can tell from my own research that through social and mainstream media, misinformation and hatred are rampant. Racism still exists. Any thoughts on how to tone down the rhetoric? What can we do as Americans? I mean, whether we like it or not, Americans are an amalgamated mix of ethnic and tribal people. I find it really sad that a country that offers so much is infused with anger and hatred.

Yeah. What can be done? I still think it’s all about education. America has not really educated its citizens on the race issue. For generations, we’ve had a whole class of people in a subordinate role with isolated and underfunded education systems. For generations, Americans were taught that being different was wrong. ‘Don’t be like them.’ I think it’s slowly changing, and America is less racist than it used to be, but white people need to be aware of the social and economic conditions of Black and brown folks. Segregation has had a catastrophic effect on the fabric of America. But I do believe that most people want peace, love and prosperity.

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