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Jair Lynch Quietly Built A D.C. Development Powerhouse. Now He's Going National

Jair Lynch thinks of life in 20-year windows.

As a young man growing up in Washington, D.C., he saw his city struggle to recover from devastating post-Civil Rights-era riots and disinvestment, but he became one of the world’s top gymnasts, competing in two Olympics and winning a silver medal. 

His second act was defined by founding his development firm, Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners, and growing it from nothing. Through a mix of projects that included schools, libraries and affordable housing, he boosted neglected areas in his hometown that other developers weren’t yet willing to touch.

Now, Lynch is ready to go national.

Jair Lynch, the founder and CEO of Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners

After quietly amassing a portfolio of $3.2B assets under management and partnering with Nuveen and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System to build a $1.3B attainable housing portfolio, Lynch’s eponymous firm acquired its first properties outside of the D.C. region this month, buying two income-restricted apartment buildings in Atlanta. 

Lynch, 50, understands better than most how to bring a long-term vision to communities on the verge of change. Half of his life to this point has been spent taking his firm from a one-man operation to one of the most active developers in the D.C. region, and he believes he has what it takes to bring positive outcomes to places on the frontlines of gentrification.

“It was never my belief that the door was just going to be open for me,” Lynch told Bisnow. “You have to put in the work. You have to be disciplined. You need a little luck.” 

Lynch’s vision has been guided by an education in urban planning and a love of cities and place, as well as a passion for preserving communities that are at risk of displacement. His track record in D.C. is held up as a model for other developers to follow.

"[Lynch is] an example of what we hope to see in the D.C. business community and the D.C. real estate community," former D.C. Planning Director Andrew Trueblood told Bisnow. "He started very small, kind of bootstrapping, and now he is doing really major, important ... even bigger projects. I think it's really a model in the District, in terms of just success begetting success."

This month, Lynch's firm made its latest and farthest move yet, partnering with Nuveen to acquire 716 apartments in east Atlanta. It’s far from the only market he is eyeing outside D.C. — his firm is partnering with New York real estate giant Tishman Speyer on a bid to redevelop a former court building in Philadelphia. 

Lynch said he wants to be in two or three new markets over the next few years and has no limit on the number of units or properties he'll pursue. 

"It is a further expansion of lessons learned in D.C.,” Lynch said. “It's taking that same playbook.”

People who have worked with Lynch describe him as deliberate, confident and happy to share the spotlight. He wants to be defined by his track record and impact on communities — not by his identity as a Black entrepreneur or an Olympic medalist — and each new endeavor he takes on represents a step toward that goal.

“I think of him as really representing one of the first of this sort of next generation of minority-led development companies that went out and said, 'Hey, we're going to seek to build an enterprise that competes and is one of the best real estate firms out there,'” said Bo Menkiti, founder and CEO of D.C.-based The Menkiti Group. “Not the best minority-owned firm, but one of the best firms period.”


Seeing Scars

Born in 1971, Lynch grew up as D.C. entered a deep decline. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, riots destroyed large swaths of the city. The District lost nearly 185,000 people — roughly a quarter of its population — from 1970 to 2000, as White Flight and the new Capital Beltway fueled a boom in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. 

A U.S. Army truck patrolling 14th Street, near the U Street corridor, during the 1968 riots

Lynch recalled learning about the 1968 riots from his mother, an economist, and father, a professor of African American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“I left for school 20 years from the riots, and the buildings were still shuttered, blocks were still empty,” Lynch told Bisnow while sitting in the leasing office of an apartment building he developed in the Takoma neighborhood, not far from where he grew up in Shepherd Park.

Lynch took an early interest in sports, and became the No. 1 youth gymnast in the country when he was a 16-year-old sophomore at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School. At the time, he told The Washington Post that he wanted to study sports medicine. 

But as he traveled around the world for gymnastics, he developed an interest in the evolution of cities, bringing life to a childhood spent building D.C.’s landmarks out of Play-Doh and Legos. Lynch enrolled at Stanford University in 1989 and studied civil engineering and urban design. 

While he was building the academic foundation for his future career, he was thriving athletically. He qualified for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and narrowly missed out on a medal in his signature event, the parallel bars. Four years later, with the Olympics on U.S. soil in Atlanta, he won silver.

Not long after, he put his studies to use, moving back home to D.C. and founding the Jair Lynch Cos. in 1998. When he returned, the District was still recovering from the neglect and financial mismanagement of his childhood, the markers of which resonated with Lynch’s time in the Bay Area.

“Three months after I arrived [in California] was the Loma Prieta earthquake that took out major chunks of San Francisco and Oakland and other places. And it became a learning laboratory for a lot of what I did there,” Lynch said. “San Francisco described the issues that were from the earthquake as scars on the city, and I came back to D.C. and saw very similar scars on 14th Street, on U Street. It was not an earthquake, it was a riot.”

So Lynch went to work. 


Developing Excellence

Lynch returned to D.C. when the city’s struggles with disinvestment were evident: Its finances had been wrested from local officials and placed in the hands of a federally appointed control board, although momentum for change was starting to build.

He founded the company with a mission to pursue development opportunities in underserved neighborhoods like the 14th and U Street corridors, telling the Post in 2002 he was avoiding the city’s central business district to find places other developers were overlooking. 

His early projects included the Southeast Tennis Center and the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, two public-private partnerships in underserved areas, the kind of deal that would become a hallmark of his career. He chose those projects, he says today, because his urban planning background taught him to think holistically about each community over a 20-year time frame.

The Southeast Tennis and Learning Center developed by Jair Lynch, as seen in 2021

Trueblood, who was D.C.’s planning director from 2018 to 2021, was a redevelopment planning specialist at the D.C. Housing Authority around the turn of the century, working with Lynch and his firm in its early days.

Even then, Trueblood said Lynch was a model for developers in the city. He often took on projects that served the public, and earned a reputation as a passionate but fair-minded developer who would show up to community meetings in order to garner support for his work.

“Quality and place are tied, and he's one of those developers that isn't just gonna do the easiest, cheapest thing,” Trueblood said. “He might do something that is more rooted in the community or more signature, but hopefully also is actually more financially rewarding in the long run for him.”

Phuc Tran recalls being impressed with Lynch when he saw the developer speaking about community development around 2010. At the time, Tran was working in finance and specialized in Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, but was looking to move to the development side.

Tran, who is now director of investments for Lynch’s firm, was hired just as Lynch was pursuing the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments project on U Street, where the tenants had organized through the District’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act process. 

While Tran brought his tax financing expertise to the project, which received federal and District loans as well as private investment, Lynch successfully competed against other developers to secure the approval of the tenants’ association for renovations.

“We were able to earn their trust,” Tran said. “We shared their desire to keep the project affordable and not displace anybody.”

Tran joined just after Lynch landed a break — in 2008, development icon Victor MacFarlane decided to invest in and mentor the young company through his firm’s CalSTRS-backed Emerging Managers Fund I.

MacFarlane Partners Chairman and CEO Victor MacFarlane said Lynch is "like a little brother I didn't grow up with."

MacFarlane told Bisnow he took a liking to Lynch early on because of his intelligence and Stanford degree, but also because he combined an entrepreneurial spirit with an attention to detail. 

“You don't become an Olympic silver medalist and not have a great deal of discipline,” MacFarlane said. “One of the things that I like most about Jair is he's an entrepreneur, but he's not reckless.”

Through their partnership, MacFarlane assisted Lynch in financing and shepherding through several major projects, including the Dunbar apartments, the 307-unit Anthology on H Street, the 312-unit Kelvin mixed-use building a block from Nationals Park and the 206-unit âme in Columbia Heights.

Lynch broke ground on each of those projects as their respective neighborhoods were starting to transform into thriving hubs of retail, residential and commerce. 

Trueblood praised the firm’s work during this period, saying a Jair Lynch project was often a “leading indicator” of where developers would start moving next. And there have been a lot of Jair Lynch projects: He has frequently ranked in the top five most-active developers in D.C. since cracking the list in 2008, according to the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership.  

“As D.C. prospers, so has he,” Trueblood said. “The health of the city is the health of its businesses, and he is a sign of the kind of growth, prosperity and opportunity that the city offers.”

An Inspirational Figure

Lynch shies away from being pigeon-holed as a Black developer, and he doesn’t market Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners as a minority-owned firm. But to other Black real estate players in the D.C. market, he’s seen as a trailblazer.

“Jair is really inspirational, to me at least, as someone who set out to build an enterprise that wasn't limited by race or limited by local political engagement, that was something that could be scaled beyond geographic boundaries and that was going to hire people, a diverse staff from a lot of different backgrounds that was going to create opportunities downstream for other service providers and people in the industry, and help to build that ecosystem of businesses in the real estate development space,” said Menkiti, a Black developer who owns The Menkiti Group.

Menkiti credits Lynch with being one of the first developers of color who successfully took on projects as the lead sponsor, rather than a minority partner, a role many Black-owned developers have historically been relegated to on teams bidding for city projects.

"Jair is one of the first who said, 'No, hold on a second. I believe my firm has the capacity to lead the development projects and we're going to take the risk,'" Menkiti said.

Menkiti has followed in Lynch’s footsteps, winning a bid as the lead developer on projects like the mixed-use MLK Gateway development in Historic Anacostia, a neighborhood itself on the verge of change. 

Menkiti Group CEO Bo Menkiti at a 2018 Bisnow event

Lynch’s partnerships with CalSTRS and Nuveen have likely meant taking on less risky projects, Menkiti said, trading off creativity for scale. When Lynch “graduated” from the Emerging Managers Fund in 2018, he landed a $200M equity commitment from CalSTRS.

The access to a new major source of capital allowed Lynch to make a move he had been planning for years — acquiring apartments in the D.C. suburbs where the housing market was beginning to heat up. Lynch’s attainable housing portfolio now reaches $1.3B, with nine acquisitions with Nuveen alone over the past two years covering thousands of units across the D.C. region. 

But the companies have acquired stable, multifamily properties that are still allowed to raise rents, albeit restricted to a certain income band.

“From a macro institutional economic standpoint, [workforce housing] is the safest thing you can possibly buy,” Menkiti said. “It's not without its huge social impact. But it's not as cutting edge as it could be, right? It's dialed back."

Menkiti said the next generation of developers should push the envelope further, and begin directing institutional capital toward projects that may seem riskier but that have a greater community impact for areas that are historically underserved.

Lynch said he hasn’t stopped taking risks. His firm acquired the Shops at Penn Branch in 2016 and he has worked to revamp the once-struggling, 89K SF retail strip in Ward 7 in Southeast D.C. Lynch's firm brought on local chefs to open two sit-down eateries in one of the city’s food deserts. While the firm announced plans to add housing to the property when it acquired it, Lynch declined to comment on what future development will come to the site.

Lynch hopes to bring institutional partners on board to support his firm’s commercial offerings in underserved neighborhoods, and he believes he can do so by demonstrating the turnaround job he’s done at Penn Branch and elsewhere. Regardless, he feels he has already been able to convince his pension fund backers to explore new terrain. 

“We've met institutional capital at a good place,” Lynch said. “We're bringing them to ZIP codes that they may not have thought of.”


‘Every Single Investment, We Put Purpose Behind It’

Lynch said legacy has always been a guiding preoccupation for him. He wants his to be one of creating economic opportunities for the neighborhoods he serves. 

Jair Lynch joins D.C. officials on a preview tour of Entwine on June 16, 2022.

“I think that it's important for everyone to understand where we're going, and to see themselves in the plan,” Lynch said. “The plan may be micro, what trees are planted on my block, the plan may be macro, what's an affordable housing strategy, or what's a tax policy across the city. And so we want to make sure that we're connecting people to those forward-looking visions, and make sure that they recognize where we play inside of that.”

That is part of why his firm has ventured outside the District for most of its latest acquisitions. He views areas like suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia, and now East Atlanta as he once did D.C., as places on the verge of change and in need of a plan to preserve existing communities.

“Places like Hyattsville, like certain parts of Arlington County, were on the verge of really tipping in a place where there would be an elimination of existing stock and not a focus on making sure that there was diversity of people and incomes in those communities,” Lynch said. “We recognize that that's where the trend was going.”

Lynch’s apartment acquisitions in East Atlanta mirror his recent purchases in the D.C. suburbs — his firm is acquiring and preserving workforce housing in a city that is rapidly running out of it as tech giants like Microsoft and Google open huge offices nearby. The firm and Nuveen bought two buildings that operate under a federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, with plans to address deferred maintenance, improve security and upgrade its amenities.

“We think that there is major demographic and job changes in the Southeast. Population increases, job increases, they're attracting new talent,” Lynch said. “We see that as an inflection point in the generation of these cities.”

Even though Lynch doesn’t eagerly discuss his athletic exploits these days — he prefers to focus on the work he’s done to rejuvenate his hometown — Lynch has twice joined committees looking to bring the Olympics to D.C., and his first investments outside of the region are in the city where he reached the peak of his gymnastics career.

“I was training and competing in Atlanta in the early ‘90s, and you can very much see some of the urban design moves, some of the transportation and infrastructure that was placed, some of the thoughtfulness of how they put together their downtown, and you're seeing the fruits of that now 25 years later,” Lynch said. “And so I definitely understand where the city was and where it’s going.”

While Atlanta is now the only region outside D.C. where Lynch has holdings, his firm’s bid on a development in Philadelphia echoes some of his most cherished projects.

He calls his work with libraries, schools and nonprofits in D.C. the “gems” in his portfolio, and he could add another jewel if his Philadelphia proposal is selected. His joint bid with Tishman Speyer is on a shortlist to redevelop the city’s Family Court building with an African American History Museum and public library.

“We think there is great opportunity to really make a city create a sense of pride as well as chart a new path via great civic spaces,” Lynch said. “That can come in the form of a library, that can come in the form of schools.”

One of Lynch’s favorite projects is the renovation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Downtown D.C., which hosted a Covid-delayed grand reopening in September 2021. He loves to bring his daughter to the library, but admitted that it hasn’t done much to interest her in joining the family business.

Her interest, like his at her age, is in sports — she’d rather be the owner of a franchise than of a commercial real estate portfolio, he said.

So instead of focusing on a successor, Lynch is focused on building a platform from which others can create boundary-pushing projects of their own.

“Every time the excellence of Jair Lynch finds a crack in that glass ceiling, it expands that crack for others that come behind him,” Menkiti said. “It shows that it is worthwhile to focus on that level of excellence.”

Lynch said he is always looking ahead, touring potential new markets years before he makes a move. But when he does make an investment, he does so with the full expectation that he’s investing for the long term, throwing his lot in with the community he serves.

“We're very diligent and very deliberate in all our decisions, and I think legacy is a way to get to that. It does not mean that we are in the fourth quarter of the business, it does not mean that I'm in the fourth quarter of my career. It means that every single decision, every single investment that we're doing, we put purpose behind it,” Lynch said. “That's what motivates me.”