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Jeff Monge Found Success in Finance and Capital Raising, but He Didn’t Leave His Communities Behind

September 20, 2023

For a kid who fled an abusive household with his mother and brother with nothing but the clothes on their backs for the journey from Puerto Rico to the Bronx, Jeff Monge is an unlikely American commercial real estate success story.

Adhering to a lifelong mantra of “never forget where you came from” and a commitment to making life better for the underserved, Monge, pronounced Mon-heh, has scraped and scrambled his way to become one of the nation’s preeminent capital advisors for inner-city communities.

The managing director of Latino-owned Monge Capital — headquartered in Newark, New Jersey — describes himself as a unicorn among people of color in the industry. “There aren’t many of us in this business,” he said.

At the Monge Capital headquarters in Newark, Jeff Monge closed some of the first Opportunity Zone tax incentive projects in the country.

Considered a whiz in the complex world of New Markets Tax Credits, or NMTCs, giving investors tax credits against their federal income taxes to attract capital to low-income communities, Monge didn’t enjoy the financial backing most Minority Business Enterprises got when he went knocking on doors seeking seed money to expand his business. “I had to do it out of my own pocket to hire employees, going to my Fidelity account to use my life savings,” Monge said. “I was out there knocking on some of the same doors that I am knocking on for other people today and getting denied.” After what felt like a last-ditch pitch during a car ride with the CEO of equity-minded New Jersey Community Capital, Monge finally got his funding.

After almost 15 years of overcoming hurdles, Monge’s firm has closed some $2 billion in structured financial transactions, creating thousands of permanent and construction jobs by funding badly needed inner-city capital projects in public-private partnerships, not counting the billions of dollars in impacts he prompted in previous jobs.

Monge’s journey got off to a shaky start as he emerged from a tough Bronx high school during the crack epidemic. “While I had the time of my life, including playing on the football team, I felt angry and inferior when I got out because I knew I had a substandard education,” he said. Monge wondered if he’d ever get the chances that better-connected grads from superior schools got. “As I got angrier, I got more aggressive. If you came from my environment, you had to have a chip on your shoulder to get anywhere,” he said. “Like Chuck D of Public Enemy once said in a hip-hop song, I ‘refuse to lose.’ I had to figure it out.”

College seemed like a strange journey to Monge. Short stints at Wagner and Queensborough Community colleges were frustrating at times. “I realized I had the capacity to learn; I just hadn’t been given the tools for it,” he said. At the insistence of his mother, Monge persisted. He finally found his stride at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, earning a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering Technology and later a Master of Science in Business Management.

Fresh out of college in 1994, Monge joined a small nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing East Harlem, where he would advocate for a Latino partnership that would build a long-needed grocery store, Pathmark, on city property at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. “It was the first major grocery in that part of Upper Manhattan,” he said. “That experience was a first breath of what I would become. Economic development and redevelopment began to fascinate me.”

Monge accepted a post in 1996 to work in the same community as business director of Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corp., or UMEZ. The then-fledgling nonprofit’s purpose was to revitalize Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood with $250 million in city, state and federal matching funds. That laid the groundwork for redeveloping large swaths of Harlem’s main commercial thoroughfare, 125th Street, including the mixed-use Harlem USA.

In Monge’s three-and-a-half years with UMEZ, his industry knowledge and resolve grew exponentially as he rubbed elbows with retailers, brokers, bankers and other pros, all while taking night classes in finance and accounting. “I met some amazing people and really learned the business,” he recalled, “and I realized that real estate and what you do with it in the low-income communities really drives that environment.”

About the same time, said Monge, developers started to recognize the untapped potential of emerging inner-city markets, aided by research by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, who championed the idea that underserved communities should be viewed as neighborhoods rich in economic opportunities instead of the opposite. “He found that people in those communities were spending 70% of their dollars outside of them. In Harlem, they were taking their money to spend downtown.”

In late 1999, Monge seized an opportunity to join the $520 million private equity investment firm UrbanAmerica, a majority-Black owner-developer of commercial real estate in low-income communities in major U.S. markets. He rose through the ranks to become principal and senior vice president of business development. “It was a great opportunity for me to help grow a start-up business,” he said. In 10 years at the firm, he helped lead the acquisition and development of more than 40 real estate assets valued at more than $2 billion, raising $520 million in equity from market and social investors.

It was during that stint that he became involved with ICSC. Monge recalled traveling to the national convention in Las Vegas in the late ’90s as a new ICSC member only to observe a huge gap in Hispanic and other diversity representation. He began networking with professionals who shared his concerns, helping organize ICSC’s first Diversity Reception and later the ICSC Hispanic Initiative.

In that same period, he spearheaded the creation of a Community Development Entity to apply for NMTCs, securing about $200 million in allocations that would help create a portfolio of more than $500 million in social impact real estate transactions utilizing public and private financing.

Monge made the big leap to self-ownership in 2009. “I came out of UrbanAmerica with this idea to raise money to focus on Hispanic markets, but the timing wasn’t right,” he recalled. Leveraging his knowledge of tax-credit financing — including NMTCs, Historic Tax Credits and Opportunity Zones — would afford him an opportunity to make similar social impacts, he realized. “It helped that I had become an expert in the field and had been a numbers guy in commercial real estate,” he said.

These days, Monge’s capital sources are considerably more cooperative than they were during his company’s cash-starved founding. He would parlay early investor relationships with such entities as Goldman Sachs, U.S. Bank, Capital One and Chase into project funding for multiple developers and nonprofits, he said.

Along the way, Monge settled in Newark, a fitting environment for economic development projects with strong community returns. Much like his native Bronx and the Harlem/Washington Heights communities he helped redevelop, Newark was woefully underserved, he found. “I saw it had great potential with an amazing history and a strong infrastructure with major universities, a major airport and excellent mass transit and road systems, things that make cities great.”

Monge’s capital-sourced redevelopments in Newark have included a headquarters facility for audio book retailer Audible; Hotel Indigo, now Indigo Residence apartments; RockPlaza Lofts residences; the Boys & Girls Club of Newark; an affordable housing initiative with the Urban League of Essex County; and Monge Capital’s headquarters building, arguably the first Opportunity Zone transaction in New Jersey. He added: “If there’s no intent to bring social impact to a project, I won’t take on an assignment.”

Among Monge’s recent capital-raising projects are the Universal Hip Hop Museum, slated to open in 2025 in the same section of the South Bronx where the art form was born nearly 50 years ago not far from where Monge was raised. “It’s still a poor neighborhood,” he said. “We want to help elevate it.” The 52,000-square-foot, interactive museum, the anchor of a multi-use development at 610 Exterior St., includes a 300-seat theater, galleries and community space. More than just a multibillion-dollar business, hip-hop has become a culture, Monge said. “The museum will really bring the [historical] teaching element of this industry and so many other things to the community where it was born,” he said. “I experienced the birth of hip -op, so this is personal to me.”

Monge cited his very first closing as his most memorable. South Bronx-based Urban Health Plan, a federally qualified health center for low-income residents, needed $40 million to build a state-of-the-art facility. Its CEO, fellow Puerto Rican Paloma Izquierdo-Hernandez, “gave me a shot,” he said. “She realized I knew what I was doing, and we delivered in a big way; I helped them, and they helped my success. It was a great launching pad.” Ironically, the center is in the same neighborhood where Monge bought sneakers as a poor kid, “after hopping the subway when the transit cops weren’t looking,” he added.

A close second favorite is Destination Crenshaw, a $100 million Los Angeles revitalization that claims to be the largest public/private Black-art program and reparative development project in the U.S. Slated for completion this fall, Destination Crenshaw brings public art, pocket parks and multiple small businesses to 1.3 miles of historical Crenshaw Boulevard, in part with $30 million in NMTCs that Monge arranged for working capital “necessary to build a sustainable team,” he said.

Monge is frustrated with those dealmakers that use public subsidies and try to skirt the community-impact requirements. “These programs are supposed to meet community needs that create project feasibility, but it’s often the haves, not the have-nots, who are taking advantage of them,” he said.

Monge likes to bring people into his organization who were born and raised in urban markets “because they have real-life experience there,” he said. “Those kinds of people have always helped me make the best money-making decisions.” He recently took on three interns from the Newark area, one a Rutgers urban-planning graduate student and two recent high school graduates. “They want to be finance students, and that makes me happy.” The majority of Monge’s project partners have been people of color. “It is most impactful when the owners of the real estate, not just the people coming to it, are reflective of the community,” he said.

Monge’s give-back ethic extends deeply into volunteerism. He is co-founder of Open Access, a national executive group created to bring diverse people into all levels of the community-development finance industry. He has taught social impact finance classes for Open Access, LISC New York and Project REAP, which advances commercial real estate diversity through education, mentorship and partnerships. He’s also an active member of the Real Estate Executive Council and has served for 11 years on the national Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s advisory board. And he’s a volunteer and chief donor for La Casa de Don Pedro, which provides educational and charitable programs to Newark’s Puerto Rican community. “La Casa’s sense of humbled, selfless dedication to the community drew me to them,” Monge said.

Monge has been active in several ICSC roles, chairing the organization’s former Hispanic Markets Initiative in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut region; working with ICSC’s P3 Retail program, now called ICSC Community Advancement; and speaking on ICSC panels.

Jeff Monge addressing members of the former ICSC Hispanic Markets Initiative

A chief influence in Monge’s community-betterment career was the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican street gang turned community-advocacy organization that supported minority access to healthcare, education, housing and employment. Another was a Puerto Rican revolutionary he first learned of in college, Harvard-educated politician and attorney Pedro Albizu Campos, a frequently jailed figure in Puerto Rico’s independence movement. “He was our Malcolm X before there was a Malcolm X, and he was incredibly influential to me as a young man,” Monge said. “His dedication to the Puerto Rican people for economic self-determination and empowerment by any means necessary is such an important tool in the struggle of people of color. Another influence: Roberto Clemente, the Puerto Rican baseball player, MLB Hall of Famer and humanitarian who died in a plane crash delivering aid to victims of a Nicaragua earthquake. They are why I’ve dedicated my career to community development finance and real estate and why I’ve pretty much become a give-back guy.”

But Monge’s primary life inspiration was his late mother, Ana Santiago Pagan, who he describes as “my hero and one of the smartest people I ever met.”. She had little education, “but she was able to guide me to achieve heights she couldn’t. I graduated from college more for her than for me.” Despite the deficit in her education deficit, Monge’s mother worked her way up to a senior regional coordinator role at Pfizer in Northern Virginia, he said. “Growing up, she believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. She always looked for the best in people and was extremely well-loved and respected. She always pushed for a better life for her family.”

Family members who have met with misfortune also have influenced Monge heavily, including a brother who recently died after a hard life and a cousin who was murdered as a teen over a drug deal. “They did everything I wasn’t supposed to do,” he said. “Those were hard lessons.”

Monge loves family life and is extremely grateful to his wife of more than 20 years, Suehay for supporting him and his aspirations and being the backbone of his family, which includes daughter Suriajia and sons Lares and Diego.

An ardent music lover, he’s a big hip-hop and Latin music fan. He also likes dancing and playing “bad golf”, a sport that was not affordable to kids with his upbringing, he said. But his “chill spot” is Barrio BX in the Bronx, a Puerto Rican restaurant and bar that Monge described as “a cultural mosaic of art, music and food and a remembrance that Puerto Rico is a beautiful place.”

Monge added that he never got rid of his Bronx accent and embraces it as a badge of honor for a journey leading from the barrio to noteworthy business achievement.

He continues to aid those in need. After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, he felt he could do more than donate money, so he connected with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico and structured working capital to repair and upgrade 10 Boy & Girls Club centers on the island. With the help of ICSC, he organized a summit to educate investors interested in helping revitalize Puerto Rico. Not stopping there, he expects to close on financing this year to develop a kindergarten-through-12 grade school, a health center and a workforce-readiness center on the island.

“You can do good and do well,” said Monge. “How you make money should matter, and you can’t forget where you came from.”

By Steve McLinden

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today


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