Alumni Spotlight: Damon Duncan

Damon and Aubie

Despite the fact that he holds several degrees, is a successful entrepreneur and has decades of experience in the public housing sector, Damon Duncan doesn’t consider himself an expert on anything. “I am a jack of all trades and a master of none,” he said. “I’m not an architect and I’m not an engineer, but I know enough about those areas to manage people effectively. I haven’t specialized in anything other than getting projects done.” Duncan, who graduated from Auburn’s Master of Real Estate Development (MRED) program, is President and CEO of Clesia Ventures, LLC, a real estate development and management consulting firm.

Based in Atlanta, Clesia Ventures works with government entities and private companies across the country doing consulting, program management and grant writing in the development of public housing solutions. In addition to his degree from Auburn, Duncan holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Eastern Michigan University and a master’s in Public Administration from Central Michigan University and also completed the Center for Government Services’ Executive Director Education Program at Rutgers University. Duncan started out in the public housing sector in 1992 and worked his way up through the ranks, eventually overseeing multimillion dollar operations at housing authorities in Montgomery, AL, Richmond, VA, and Elgin, IL. He began consulting independently in 2005 and then expanded his services with the founding of Clesia Ventures in 2008. He and his four employees, all of whom are Auburn graduates, currently have 15 clients in seven different states and are on pace to bring in over $1 million of revenue this year.

While Duncan has been thinking about solutions to affordable housing for years, he’s aware that many Americans are just starting to consider it. “Recently the conversation surrounding housing has exploded because of the effects of the pandemic,” he said. “Folks who never thought about it are now finding themselves needing quality housing they can afford. People living paycheck to paycheck still deserve affordable housing, and the pandemic has dispelled the myths that people had about public and affordable housing before.” While there are no easy solutions, Duncan says the international field studies in the MRED program taught him how other countries manage to provide affordable housing. “Here in America, there’s conflicting interest between providing social support and capitalism. Construction costs are up and it’s more expensive to build affordable housing than market rate housing,” he explained. “There’s risk and fluctuating federal budgets and just so many other layers that you need in order to make it a reality.”

Since graduating in 2015, Duncan has been highly involved with the MRED program. He is the immediate past president of the MRED Alumni Council and an MRED Advisory Board member. Last year he organized and hosted the program’s CityBuilders Symposium and Industry Networking Event at Truist Park in Atlanta, which brought together leaders in affordable housing from areas like design, construction, financing and development. He is still in touch with many of the other alumni from his cohort and says that one of the best parts of the MRED program was the relationship building that went on outside the classroom. “The MRED program is a comprehensive education, but the peer-to-peer learning is probably just as important as book learning,” he stated. “The program brings together a diverse set of people with a wide range of experiences. You develop relationships with people who are performing at very high levels in their respective fields and are looking to expand their knowledge so they can grow.” Duncan says that the MRED program stands out from other graduate degrees because it’s for professionals who really want to make things happen. “People get an MBA because they want more money. The MRED degree is not about getting a higher paying job, it’s about what you can do. You get an MRED because you want to go out and build something or be a partner. And entrepreneurialism is not for the faint of heart.”

Right now Duncan and his partners at Clesia Ventures are juggling a lot of projects. They are working as planning coordinators for the housing authority in Fort Wayne, IN, where they have guided the staff through applying for and implementing a $250,000 Choice Neighborhoods grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They are also providing development consulting services for housing authorities in McDonough, GA, River Rouge, MI, Inkster, MI and Waukegan, IL. While many of these jobs involve the development of actual structures, they can also go beyond buildings. “Another aspect of providing affordable housing services is the people component. Housing authorities can offer services to help people continue their education and get job training, and elderly folks need supportive services for a higher quality of life,” he explained. Clesia Ventures has recently secured two Youth Build grants from the U.S. Department of Labor for housing authority clients, and the staff will now act as project managers for the implementation of those grants. In addition to these larger projects, Duncan and his colleagues also do plenty of smaller consulting jobs and strategic market analysis projects, and they’ve been hosting trainings in Atlanta that Duncan calls “strategic repositioning retreats.” Staff members from housing authorities across the country come to these retreats for several days to receive training and tour Atlanta-area housing authority projects. “We’ve had about six of those in the last year and a half, and they are growing tremendously,” he stated. “We have a lot of plates spinning with all of these projects!”

In addition to his day job, Duncan is also an adjunct instructor in Auburn’s Master of Community Planning program in the College of Liberal Arts where he teaches classes on public sector leadership, affordable housing and grant writing. He advises students who want to work in the public sector that they may not get rich, but they can build a solid career and make a difference in people’s lives if they focus on hard work and long-term success. “You can’t rush success,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since the 90s, since before many of my students were born! I had to take the work that was available to me, but I learned to develop a passion for serving families at the housing authority, and from that I became pretty good at it. Sometimes passions will emerge when you find yourself being good at something. Whatever opportunities are afforded to you, work them and be patient and diligent.”