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Young developer is agent of progress in Milwaukee's central city – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Ariam Kesete

The building that Ariam Kesete plans to buy and renovate is vacant and sits on a block with other empty, boarded-up properties on Milwaukee's north side.

However, she is undaunted, even with the recent news of a homicide just three blocks away.

"That neighborhood used to have so much life," said Kesete. "I'm trying to bring back development and make it a hub."

Kesete is about to invest nearly $300,000 to restore the two-story, 9,060-square-foot building at 3821-3825 W. North Ave. It will mark the largest project so far for Kesete, who just turned 28 and bought her first income property in 2013.

The building was acquired by the city in 2014 through a property tax foreclosure.

Kesete, who operates AK Development LLC, will buy it for $7,500 and spend around $285,000 renovating the building under a proposal recommended for approval by the Common Council's Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee. The full council will review the proposal at its Tuesday meeting.

Kesete plans to renovate the first-floor commercial space for her firm's office and a possible retail use.

She also plans to renovate seven one-bedroom apartments on the second floor.

The renovated apartments will include appliances, new kitchen and bathroom fixtures, new carpeting, walk-in closets and new flooring, according to a Department of City Development report.

The units will have monthly rents of around $600 to $650, the report said.

Kesete also plans to renovate the building's exterior, with tuckpointing, painting and new windows, lighting and signs.

Her plans drew praise from zoning committee members, including Ald. Russell Stamper.

Stamper, whose district includes the building, called Kesete an "up-and-coming developer."

The building's redevelopment could help attract other investors to the neighborhood, said Deshea Agee, a former Department of City Development official. Kesete, he said, is sincere and diligent.

"I think she will be successful," said Agee, Historic King Drive Business Improvement District executive director.

Kesete graduated from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in business. She was a care coordinator at Wraparound Milwaukee, a social services program operated by Milwaukee County, for four years until leaving the agency at the end of 2016 to become a full-time developer.

Kesete was working at Wraparound Milwaukee when she bought her first property, a duplex. She mainly got it as a place to live, while renting out the building's apartment to earn some income.

Kesete later bought another duplex, and then additional small properties. What was at first a hobby became her passion.

"I just like the idea of giving people an opportunity to have a safe place to live," Kesete said.

Her income properties are on both the north and south side of Milwaukee's central city. They include a four-unit apartment building and a six-unit building. She focuses on renting apartments to working people who need affordable housing.

The North Ave. building will be Kesete's first project that involves a commercial lender.

She financed her other acquisitions in part through money she saved from her job at Wraparound Milwaukee, and from investments provided by her mother, Mhiret Ketem.

Ketem, of St. Paul, operates a commercial cleaning business.

"I have a college degree, but she has been my teacher," Kesete said about her mother.

They immigrated to the United States from the eastern African nation of Eritrea when Kesete was 7 years old. By age 11, Kesete was joining her mom in helping clean offices and other commercial buildings.

"It was her way of babysitting me," said Kesete, who lived in St. Paul before moving to Milwaukee to attend UWM.

Kesete says she learned the value of hard work from her mother. And she applies that lesson to her job as a developer, said Que El-Amin, co-owner of Index Development Group.

"She's very motivated," said El-Amin, who was in Kesete's class during the 2015-16 Associates in Commercial Real Estate program, which helps minority students launch careers in commercial real estate.

"All throughout the program, she would ask a lot of questions," said El-Amin, whose firm plans to develop an affordable 41-unit apartment building south of W. Villard Ave. and east of N. 37th St. "You could always see her drive."

"I think ACRE just gave me the confidence and energy," said Kesete, who graduated from the program in June.

Kesete sees her developments as both investments and as a way to build a stronger community. She teaches her renters about improving their credit ratings to help them eventually become homeowners.

"They have the means to do it," she said. "But they lack the knowledge."

She also hopes to see people take a more active role in improving their lives.

"We depend too much on other people," Kesete said, "rather than depending on ourselves."

Read article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.