Derrick Tillman pulled off a business coup when his proposal was chosen by the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh to pursue a $51 million, mixed-use development in Uptown that later generated a $1 million PHARE (Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund) grant for a major affordable housing component of the plan. Growing up knowing what it’s like to need affordable housing, Tillman became an entrepreneur after college, working in real estate sales and building a multi-million-dollar weatherization business, among other ventures. He was motivated to get into affordable housing development based on the need he saw in the Pittsburgh area and by his own personal experiences. A little more than a year ago, Tillman and his company, Bridging the Gap LLC, completed its first significant project, redeveloping the former Miller Elementary School in the Hill District into a 30-unit affordable apartment building.
Tell me about all the places you’ve lived.
We moved a lot. I lived all over the city. As I look back, I see where I used to live as an advantage. I’ve been able to build relationships with different communities and understand different neighborhood dynamics. I lived in Homewood, East Liberty, Lincoln Larimer, Penn Hills, Wilkinsburg, Oakland, Point Breeze … Rankin. Living in different communities has really given me an … understanding. I grew up in Section 8 housing. My mom was intentional in making sure I didn’t get caught up in gangs and had the best possible learning environment. That really helped me to see both sides of the tracks … both sides of the table.
How did you first decide to become a real estate developer?
I basically got to a point where I said, “Do I continue to build this opportunity to own a couple hundred or a couple thousand units as me and my wife (had started doing), or do I go into a particular involvement in development?” That’s when I drew on my childhood experiences to wonder how many people could I help. … That’s when I as a man of God really felt the call to the development world. I view it as more than just a business, but really a calling.
So you never viewed development as your first choice as a way to make money?
Career-wise, I could’ve made money much easier just pursuing investment real estate … and buy value-added properties without the additional political components that come with development. There’s much easier ways to make money. But I had seen developments and developers come into communities and really change the whole dynamic. I’ve seen people get displaced. I’ve seen family members get displaced. I’ve seen my mom get displaced. My view was part of the calling that I could do it in a different way. I got into it to be a solution and not the problem. That if I just had a vision and I put together a project that made sense from a financial perspective, that we could get what we need to move it forward. I definitely underestimated all the other components that are necessary beyond those two.
Why do you say that?
It has been very challenging to line up the capital to do these projects. That’s one aspect for it. The other is the politics. Development has a political connection. I think I underestimated that.
How did you learn that?
There were folks who weren’t necessarily for us, and I had to learn how to navigate those waters and also how to build a broad consensus. That’s where our strength lies anyways.
What did it take to learn to put together financing for projects?
We had studied development. I was trying to get into this for years, probably a decade, before we actually broke in. A lot of that time was in having the door shut on our face so many times. Each time that created an opportunity to strengthen our plan, to sharpen our sword, so when we came back next time it was almost bullet proof.
But you don’t do your affordable housing projects as a charity, right?
Make no mistake about it, we are a business, and we are in this to make money unapologetically. But our focus is not just money making. You can do good and make money at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive.
What did it feel like to successfully complete your first affordable housing project?
It was very, very highly rewarding … similar to the day I graduated from college. It was that additional affirmation that I could do anything with God. It was just that confirmation that we’re doing the right thing, we’re doing it for the right reasons and we belong. I already knew that, but it was that affirmation even more so seeing the excitement and joy experienced by the residents.
How important will the $51 million Fifth and Dinwiddie project be for Uptown?
It’s huge. The project will be catalytic in the sense that it really is an anchor project for this commercial corridor. You add on the strength that (Bus Rapid Transit) is going to bring. … That adds a ton more value. It’s really going to be a more anchor building on the success that was already there and taking it to a whole other level. This project will be that next ripple that causes the development of this entire corridor from Fifth and Dinwiddie on into downtown.
What will successfully completing Fifth and Dinwiddie do for your company?
It will just be an additional form of credibility. At one time, we doubted that we could pull off Miller, and we did. Well, it’s normal to shock the world now. We have a lot more believers and supporters than we originally had. It will open us up to a whole other level of opportunity, and it will grow our company substantially. So we’re excited.
President and CEO, Bridging the Gap LLC
Family: Married to wife Nykia, three children
Education: Bachelor’s, information science, University of Pittsburgh
Hobbies: Fishing, boxing, basketball, riding bikes
Causes: Member of the Macedonia Church of Pittsburgh in the Hill District; board member, City of Pittsburgh’s Housing Opportunity Fund; board, Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania; board member, Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship