An innovative real estate professional constructing great ideas that benefit the whole community
By April Blake
Photographs by Rashawn Merrick
Working in real estate can be a wild ride, and no one knows that more than Lauren Taylor, founder of Realty Haven in Columbia. The powerhouse real estate professional with 15 years of experience opened her own firm in 2017, and it took off at an overwhelming rate. But the real estate market — and life in general — is wild and unpredictable. Many twists and turns led Taylor to end up contemplating her life and goals in early 2020 as the pandemic was setting in. She ended up taking the encyclopedic knowledge of real estate she already had and following her heart to use it for a better cause.
Real estate can be a complex business for the average person to understand. So, what exactly does Realty Haven do? Taylor used her background of working with institutional investors to build a full-service operations company that would assist investors who purchase single family homes and turn them into rentals. Real estate operations consist of departmentalizing every sector from acquisitions (buying) and underwriting, to the transaction team consisting of inspections, dispositions (selling homes), renovations, and property management. “Full service operations can handle all of these things for clients, and that’s what makes us valuable,” said Taylor, whose relaxed mannerisms put people at ease as she explains these complex concepts that she knows backwards and forwards.
Things took off at the end of 2017. “A large client came to us who wanted to start their own fund,” Taylor said. “We committed to be their operational partner, and deployed over $250 million in capital — we grew really fast through 2018 and 2019, purchasing, renovating, and leasing or selling around 120 homes a month in South Carolina and Georgia. I blinked and had over 30 employees.” She pointed out that this is an example of how she grew her company backwards.
When the unexpected occurs
Like so many things that balloon quickly, it deflated just as fast. In February 2020, the large client that comprised 95% of Realty Haven’s operational side pulled its business. This meant a huge loss of business and layoffs for employees across two states. “I was buried in the company and couldn’t think about the future. It was all about the day to day,” said Taylor.
And then the world shut down in March 2020. “I went from being a 120-hour, seven-day-a-week person to just kind of sitting with myself and looking at what we accomplished, the decisions I had to make, and how I thought I always wanted to be a hyper-successful CEO,” said Taylor. “When I looked at the industry that I was so proud to be a part of, I saw a harsh reality of the impact that secondary market financing was having on the housing market. I wanted to focus on what kind of company I wanted to build, and I realized I am not cut out to be a cutthroat CEO-type or traditional private equity person. I had worked my whole career to be in a position to raise my own fund, but when I finally arrived I just didn’t’ feel good about doing it.”
This soul searching led to a few months of research that stemmed from the realization that many local middle-class people like teachers and police officers were not able to afford the rental prices that were pushing to an unsustainable level. Taylor said property values [at the time] were growing four times as fast as wage growth, and rents growing twice as fast as wage growth. This stemmed directly from a system that has been created to push for growth regardless of consequences. This did not sit well with her empathetic and problem-solving personality. “We didn’t know how delicate the balance was. It’s a big problem when we are all in some regard working from paycheck to paycheck, even if we don’t want to admit it,” said Taylor.
“I saw systematic problems and felt guilty about not being able to do anything about it, and even putting people from our employee base into a situation that made me fearful for them.”
Choosing to do things differently
Taylor said once she stopped and had a moment to see the role that she played and why the system was broken, she was forced to choose if she wanted to continue to play a role in an industry that she now believed was causing more harm than good. She had to choose between her head and her heart. But then, she realized that it is possible to achieve a sustainable model, and that there would be no need to choose. This became Haven Home, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is fueled by the work done by Realty Haven. “The mission for Haven Home is to take the institutional practices and use the same models to harness the power into affordable housing with a nonprofit relationship,” said Taylor.
This, she figured, was a way to take their quite viable structure and make it work for the public. The goal is to bring investment into areas that desperately need it the most, neighborhoods experiencing or on the brink of gentrification. The model allows for the purchase and upgrading of these homes to a high standard without the over-inflation of rents. Their average rent is targeted for under $1,000. Taylor has a goal for Haven Home to have 100 single-family homes in South Carolina over the next year. She plans to start in Columbia, and expand to other markets like Greenville, Charleston, Augusta, Macon, and parts of Atlanta. “I want to take the same growth pattern we had for Realty Haven and grow strategically to make the most impact on Columbia, and then when we have extra money, open up to new markets to feed that growth,” said Taylor.
The prospect of starting again is overwhelming, she noted, but is confident that her diverse team can use the same processes from the institutional side to maximize their output and be part of solving the housing problem.
“I call my employees a tribe. We focused on the culture of the company from the start. I want the people who work for me to enjoy what they are doing, feel important, and like they are part of something bigger than themselves,” said Taylor, who herself gives off a calm and collected vibe that makes you want to hear more about what she thinks.
Taylor’s plan for affordable housing
And that something is no longer just making other people very wealthy – something Taylor admitted she has a talent for. Instead, she and her employees are using the same skills to do something different in trying to create more affordable housing opportunities for those who need it most. Taylor’s model will help bring investment into these neighborhoods that need them the most with green renovations that will also solve utility affordability. Many of the older homes people rent are not properly graded or insulated, which results in spending exorbitant amounts on electric and gas — something most rental companies don’t think to care about. Since February 2021, Rent Haven (the property management division) was awarded the Columbia Housing Authority contract to serve as their property management company, and the company is currently managing apartment communities and pursuing additional landlord relationships.
For now, as 2021 continues, Taylor has two goals: being fully funded and buying houses by the second quarter of the year, and bringing awareness to what they offer the community. She knows they were flying under the radar as Realty Haven because they were focused on serving large-scale investors. To solve this, Realty Haven has launched a public facing model to help continue to fuel growth and push change in the industry.
Taylor is repurposing her acquisition and disposition team to help people in the community buy and sell real estate.
“Many people don’t know that investors get discounts with agents for bringing them volume business. Because our operation is built for large volume, we want to help the community by offering the highest level of real estate expertise for less money.” Realty Haven offers anyone selling their home a 4% total listing commission, which saves them 30% or more. If looking to buy a home, Realty Haven gives back 1% from their own pocket, which can help the buyer with closing costs or lowering the purchase price.
“We’re changing our tune and want to use our skill set to help people in the community,” she said. “There are other ways to do real estate, and it was a pivotal moment in my career to have the opportunity to think about it differently — I wanted to build something that would last for the next 20 to 30 years that I would be proud of.”