It’s no secret that housing in Los Angeles is in crisis. The Southern California Association of Governments estimates it would take a minimum of 600,000 additional units to meet the current need. The University of Southern California’s Lusk Center for Real Estate reports that rental rates shot up 5% last year, way above the national average, and are projected to continue to rise. It’s not an easy problem to solve, and certainly not something for which any one individual or company can provide a quick fix. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some significant players actively working to address the demand.
Meet 32-year-old Jaime Lee, CEO of Jamison Realty, Inc. Lee represents one of the biggest under-the-radar realty companies in Los Angeles. Founded 20 years ago by her father, Dr. David Lee, Jamison currently owns, manages, and leases about 18 million square feet of office, mixed-use, and multi-family properties in Los Angeles. They have more than 20 projects in the pipeline right now, a third of which are Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO) conversions, with the remaining projects ground-up construction totaling about 6,700 units, primarily through mid-Wilshire and Downtown. That’s roughly a quarter of the 23,000 units permitted in Los Angeles last year.
Jamison has not always been such an influential player, but has been around long enough to experience both booms and busts. From the mid-nineties through the early 2000s, growth was so rapid that it prompted Lee’s father to switch careers and found the company. “My father was trained as a medical doctor,” Lee tells CSQ. “He practiced internal medicine for about 25 years in the Valley and around the time I was in high school, he transitioned to real estate, which had been a side business of his.” Lee was about 15 at the time, and it was then that she knew she would one day go into the family business.
“There’s a trend toward urbanization and creative office, which allows us to take on new types of tenants and speak to a millennial mindset.”
Originally from Encino, she is the oldest of four children – the only girl – and has taken her role as responsible leader to heart. “It was my job to have good grades and not get into trouble. I’ve noticed a lot of first children don’t always have that innate sense of ‘I need to go out into the world and start something completely new.’ Our strength comes from working within the system.”
A child of Korean immigrants, Lee saw her parents’ dedicated work ethic and emulated it in school. She skipped her senior year at Harvard-Westlake to begin classes at USC. After considering going to college on the East Coast, she ultimately chose to continue at USC, completing both her undergrad and law degree there by the age of 24. She began working full time before she even graduated, managing the two-million square foot California Market Center downtown for Jamison. From there she moved into leasing and became the regional manager of all of Jamison’s assets downtown. This led to her current corporate role as CEO of the leasing and brokerage arm of the company.
“It’s definitely a family business,” she confirms. “Two of my brothers work with me. Garrett leads our residential development company, and Phil runs all the commercial property management.” Their father, Dr. Lee, remains at the top as CEO of the Jamison companies. Lee’s third brother is the entrepreneur of the family and recently opened an art gallery wine bar in Koreatown.
Reviving the Neighborhood
The Lee children work together, supporting the business with their various talents and bringing fresh energy to the table. “We’re bringing more technology, customer service, and public relations into the business,” Lee explains. “We’ve updated the website, branding, and the spaces themselves, too.” This is particularly important, considering that much of their space is in the surging market downtown and in the mid-Wilshire/Koreatown corridor.
“I focus on developing strong teams where everyone contributes and feels good about what the mission is and where we’re going together.”
Until recently, both those areas were not desirable, particularly in the wake of the 1992 riots. But Koreatown’s prime location as a bridge between Downtown and the Westside is attractive to urban millennials who prioritize living close to work. The area is second only to Manhattan in terms of population density and is arguably one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America, between its foreign-born population of Asians and Latinos and its home-grown American demographics. Likewise, its residents span the income spectrum from low-income families to wealthy up-and-coming business talent. The younger demographic is especially important to privately owned companies like Jamison, which are able to adjust quickly to marketplace changes.
“There’s a trend toward urbanization and creative office, which allows us to take on new types of tenants and speak to a millennial mindset,” Lee explains. “Nimbleness – that ability to adapt – is crucial, especially in Los Angeles. We can make adjustments on a day-to-day basis.”
Lee’s current initiatives are to spearhead capital improvements in their buildings, renovate lobbies and common areas, and refresh restrooms. Having graduated from school directly in the midst of the uncertainty of the 2008 economic downturn and global financial crisis, Lee knows firsthand the importance of positioning the company to be prepared for any future downturn.
“Even though we’re experiencing rapid growth, we want to position our assets to weather any storm,” she says. Lee’s early entrance into her field gave her a head start but also meant she has spent a good portion of her life working “like a freight train” to prove herself in the company. “In the beginning, I felt an innate need to work harder than everyone else, having come into the business as a family member at a young age. It was important that people could see that I was there for a reason beyond just being part of the family. I also hoped that this early commitment would get me farther ahead in my career before I needed more flexibility in the future.”
Call of Double Duty
Balancing this rigor with family and personal passions isn’t easy. Lee took time off after her daughter’s birth to bond with her before returning to work. She moved her family closer to the office to minimize the commute. And she’s kept up with her civic and philanthropic passions as well: She is Commissioner and Board President for the Los Angeles City Employees’ Retirement System, a board member of Town Hall Los Angeles, and a board member for the California Speech-Language Pathology, Audiology, and Hearing Aid Dispensers Board. She also remains heavily involved in alumni volunteer boards at USC and Harvard-Westlake and will become the next President of the USC Alumni Association Board of Governors this May. “These organizations are important to me, so it’s all about prioritization.”
With so much on her plate, it might seem overwhelming, but Lee is energized by the work she does. “I love leasing and that’s why I gravitated toward it. You meet different people every day, and you have no idea what’s going to happen. Every deal starts the same, then as the negotiation progresses, you see different elements of personality, motivation, or leverage come through and these factors are what make every deal unique.” But it doesn’t stop there for her. “Real estate is very tangible. You see how the deal terms get translated onto a paper lease and then the paper plan turns into a full build-out. You see it as a drawing for months, and suddenly it’s a reality.”
To Lee, success is more than the thrill of the deal or the satisfaction of a build-out. Success is an ongoing project, not something distilled into a single point in time. “I succeed most when my team feels like their voices are heard. I focus on developing strong teams where everyone contributes and feels good about what the mission is and where we’re going together. But to say ‘I’m successful’ is too much of a period at the end of a sentence, and I want to leave that open-ended, because I’ve got a long way to go and there’s a lot more that I want to do.”
Opening & sidebar photos courtesy of Zach Lipp