Developers to Watch

Josu'e Velney | 6 Boston Developers to Watch in 2023

Whether it was in his role as a Marine, a firefighter, or now, as a developer, Josu'e Velney only has one gear: all-in.

NAME: Josu'e Velney

COMPANY: Velney Development

Take me back to your teenage years. What were your plans?

I knew from an early age that I really wasn’t interested in going to college. I actually took shop in high school. I worked for Boston Closets doing closets for a little bit, and then after that I was working at a shelter for boys. From there, I went to community college for criminal justice before realizing it wasn’t a good fit. I didn’t enjoy it. I felt that the criminal justice system was positioned in a way that if you have more resources, you’re going to get away, and if you have fewer resources, even if you didn’t do anything wrong, you may still pay for a crime that you didn’t commit.

So from there, I decided I wasn’t going to go to school anymore. I was living at my mother’s house at the time, and she basically gave me an ultimatum. She said you can either go back to school or you can go find somewhere else to live, but you can’t stay here. And that opened up a window for me, like, oh, I can be my own man now and do what I want. And what I always wanted to do was be a marine. I didn’t want to worry my mom, but that’s what I wanted to do.

So you’re only about 18 at that point when you received that ultimatum. Was it scary? Energizing?

It was full excitement. I was all in. When I decide I’m all in on something, I put all my time, resources, vision, passion, everything goes into this.

So how does that process go, breaking into the Marine Corps?

In the Marine Corps, we believe that every Marine’s a rifleman. So we learn these skills to be pretty much a grunt, an infantry person early on. We have to go through 13 weeks of basic training. Then, from there, we have about a week off to go home and spend time with family. Then we come back and do marine combat training, MCT they call it, and that’s another six to eight weeks in the field. We’re out in the woods and hiking and just doing the grunt stuff. No lights, no bathrooms.

From there, I went to Missouri. My MOS was military police. It was Fort Leonard Wood. We did military police training. They basically teach us that there are two sides to what we do. There’s police, and what we know police to be. And there’s the field side, which is pretty much like infantry, except we have a different mission. Convoy security, EOD security. We have canine handlers. I was on the SWAT team after that. I have friends that were HMX-1. When you look at the President’s helicopter, that’s a military police marine in front of that helicopter, saluting the President. That’s another field job in our sector.

So we have a bunch of different specialized job fields that we can branch off in. So that means I’m a double MOS — I’m a 5811, which is military police, and a 5816, which is Marine combat, pretty much the SWAT team — the Special Reaction Team.

How does it work — were you seeking this opportunity, or did they see something in you?

I was just fortunate that the SWAT commander came in one day and was like, oh, I think we have something here. He kept asking me to come train with his guys, and then he was like, you’re one of us. You have to go to training. I’m taking you under my wing. And it was real early. It was only two weeks that I was there before he said that.

And some people may not realize that the Marine Corps is the only branch that if you go through the bootcamp and cross over to any other branch, you do not have to go to bootcamp again. So if somebody was Army and they want to do four years in the Army and then cross over to Marines, they have to go back to basic training.

After that, were you deployed overseas?

I was with the SWAT team probably four or five months. All the Marines that came on base with me after MP school were selected to a new unit because they were getting ready to push to Iraq. And because they already spent all this money on my training, they didn’t want to let me go. But they still needed the numbers. So then I got selected to go to the same unit and deploy. That deployment was seven months.

I was fortunate in that we really got to do what Marines get to do. I say that from the point of view from my third deployment when I was chasing pirates. I already had all this field time, and I had already been to Iraq twice by that point. Just hanging out with the recon Marines, and they usually have a few scout snipers in their crew, and these poor guys, they’re like, “I never got to go overseas and do what Marines do.” There’s just that mental aspect of unfufillment for them. With the Marine Corps, you’re the tip of the spear. You definitely think very differently.

At the beginning, I was a team leader. And then I got selected for a point of transition team. My crew was a group of 20, all hand-selected. And we were doing security on the border of Iraq and Syria at the time. So our base was 20 of us, and then we had 120 infantry men. There was no women on this base. There was no bathrooms on this base. I took four showers in four months. The food was horrible. The training I did was my best fitness training, even better than bootcamp, just because the place was so dangerous. We had to wear the FLA jacket and the helmet just to work out. So I got used to running with the gear, and once I took it off, just felt so much lighter. It shows how the mind and the body can break barriers of places you have never been.

And just to add some context of the culture of my Marine Corps upbringing, one of my best friends at the time, he’s now since a hundred percent disabled. His vehicle was hit by an IED in Falluja. Falluja is the scariest place I’ve ever been to. The whole front end got blown up. He had shrapnel in his back. And I remember going to visit him when he was in medical and our First Sergeant was there. First Sergeant didn’t ask, how are you doing? He asked, “When can you go back on mission?” That was the culture of our unit. One of my best friends, even to this day, he was in my wedding — he’s a Marine in Rhode Island. He has a purple heart. He had internal bleeding from his first deployment in Iraq, and that’s the culture. It’s not uncommon for guys in my unit to have purple hearts.

I always believe that great men only do great things because they are forced by great challenges and would be ordinary if they never had that challenge. They had it in them, but they were just never challenged. So it's almost like, can you rise to that occasion? And I feel that's where I am, as a pioneer of what I'm trying to do as a developer, as a minority developer in the city of Boston where, we have not always had the opportunities that I currently have. How do I take advantage of these opportunities that could open more doors for people who actually look like me and want this information?

You mentioned the pirate chasing — I have to ask about that.

Nobody ever told me how to chase pirates. So it was really like we had to create a whole new system, a whole new way of fighting a battle that we never thought would be our mission. We were fortunate in that when we floated in on the MEU, the Marine Expedition Unit,  that they don’t know what we’re going to do. So we have so much training, non-lethal training. We had training on body language and understanding people. We would become like, specialized warriors.

We had the Coast Guard come on ship to see what we were doing because they’ve been chasing drug lords all over Miami for so long. They already had the blueprint. And we look at them like, no, we got this, you can take your long hair, long beards back to Miami, and we’re going to take care of business, and that’s what we did. We created a whole set of rules for how to chase pirates to the point that when we first started there, we were on a regular naval ship, and eventually transitioned to being on a yacht, so that we could be the target, and then we can attack.

How did you transition out of active duty?

Even before I was on the ships chasing pirates, with the direction of a mentor, I was told to take the civil service exam. This was probably two years before I got out. So I took the exam, and was fortunate enough to be number four on the list. And after chasing pirates and really just being around the recon marines, they were like, hey, have you ever thought about going recon? And at that time, that was the hardest decision. Am I going to pursue this and become the most elite Marine? Or am I going to go home and be a firefighter?

And I tried to do both, actually. I asked about it. And they said they could only hold my spot for so long if I reenlist. I asked my mentor what he thought I should do, and he never told me what to do in my life. He always guided me, but he would never try to make a decision for me. But he did say, “You have three combat tours. You have nothing to prove. You need to come home.” So that was the main reason why I decided to come back.

Got it. Did you immediately go to firefighting at that point?

So you have to start off as a firefighter. I was a firefighter for three years before I took a promotional exam. And at the time, I was going to school, back to community college, Bunker Hill, going to school for fire science. And a lot of my professors would say, oh, you really understand this stuff, have you ever thought about taking a promotional exam? I said that I don’t have a lot of experience, I’m still learning. And they were pretty much like, hey, at the end of the day, when you get promoted to lieutenant and sit in that seat, it doesn’t matter if you have three years or 20 years. It’s just a different responsibility. So I pretty much took that and ran with it.

But I can tell you that my transition to being a firefighter wasn’t easy. There are a lot of people with fathers, grandfathers, who were firefighters, they’re playing with firetrucks at an early age. That wasn’t me. And so coming into that space, I was doubting myself for a few years if I made the right decision, or wondering how my life would’ve been different if I just stayed in the Marine Corps, because that was my true passion.

My mindset was that the Marine Corps or the fire department, it chose me. I did good on an exam. I excelled at it because it was my job and I enjoy working in the community that I grew up in. So I’m very passionate about that aspect of it. But it wasn’t like the Marine Corps, going out on patrol — it was like getting one or two fires a month. It wasn’t as high speed as I was used to.

But when I started buying real estate, that’s when the light bulb really clicked because I got to start using those skills again. That, “Okay, how do I strategize, how do I get house number one, how do I get house number two to three to four to where I am today?”

You figure out what tools and resources you have at your disposal and put them to achieve some goal. It’s like flowing water, like watching an orchestra play. If we are on a convoy and I’m truck one, and we hear that we have fire from the left, I know what to do. Truck two knows what position to take, I know what position to take, because we’ve been working together.

You did twelve years at the fire department. How do you go from firefighting to real estate?

I was going through this transition of trying to understand that my time of service was ending. I bought an H2 Hummer, just like I had an H2 Hummer in Iraq. The problem was that I had nowhere to park it because I was renting. So that was the spark of, this is why I need to buy a house that has a driveway, so I can park my H2 Hummer. That was a year after I came home from the Marines.

I told you earlier, once I focus on something, I’m all in, to the point that I had a real estate agent, but I took the real estate course — not because I wanted to be a real estate agent, but because I wanted to know what they knew. I couldn’t allow my agent to care more, because they might have other clients, they might be busy, and I know that when it comes to making a decision, it’s mostly based on having enough data and points of view to make that decision.

So what I did is create a quota. I would go to ten open houses every weekend. So by going to so many open houses, I understood what I wanted. I understood what I didn’t want. Then I started going through the first-time home buyers course, and there were a few firefighters that already owned real estate. I kept asking them, because we’re at the firehouse for 24 hours, “Hey, how do you buy your first one? How do you buy your second one?” And they told me how to do it, and I was like, I got it.

But what really clicked was, and it still seems like this today, I rarely win on price, right? I won on terms. So when I pulled up to my first house, it just so happened that the homeowner was there and my agent was late. So the homeowner actually showed me the property, and he happened to be a retired Navy, so there was that automatic connection, right? And the negotiation came to be like, “Okay, what do you need? How do we make this work together?” We were working together for a common goal.

What realization did you have that made you want to do this for a career? What did you love about it?

All of it. The negotiating, doing the research, being, in my opinion, as good as my agent without them. It was to the point that I was supposed to close on November 1st, and it got bumped to November 14th, but I had already given my notice to my landlord, but the old house’s homeowner let me move in, because he had the first floor vacant. We actually drove to the closing together.

At what point do you start looking for your next deal? You’re still a firefighter at this point, right?

Yeah, I’m still a firefighter at the time and I have one brother who was buying a bigger complex in Springfield. I understood that I might not be able to afford another house in the city of Somerville, but Springfield is a lower market, and because of the way I structured the first deal, I saved a lot of money — and I was able to take that money and push it into the next one, which happened about a year later. Both the first and second property were two-families.

Did you start getting the itch to leave your full-time job by then, two deals in?

No, I didn’t have a desire to leave the fire department. At that time, I was just continuously getting ready for the lieutenant’s exam. My focus was all in on the fire department. But over that time, I kept buying two, then three, then when I was buying in Springfield, I realized that I was paying so much money on management, on snow removal, that it made more sense to start buying bigger portfolios. So I bought a 16-unit building and learned how to do seller financing and creative financing. I never had enough money to do it, but it never stopped me from purchasing because I knew how to structure those deals. People always ask me, “How do you do seller financing?” and I just say, ask! Figure out how to make it work and why someone would want to do it, and educate them on why this is a good decision for them. I actually did seller financing again with a 14-unit portfolio in Springfield. And that was two six-unit buildings and a two-family.

Did people at the firehouse take notice of what you were doing at this point? What was your mindset at the time?

They knew I was definitely focused. They were still trying to understand my drive, what I was doing, my vision. Obviously they understand that most wealth is built through real estate, but why was I so driven? Because a lot of times, as firefighters, especially lieutenants, they’re like, man, we made it, have a good job, great benefits. But for me, because of the Marine Corps, it’s go. I just can’t turn it off.

I think part of the reason why I kept going is that I always see myself as an operator, right? In the Marine Corps, as a corporal, as a sergeant, you’re still an operator. You’re in the field. If I had taken that leap to captain that’s starting to push more administration, and it’s not the direction I wanted to go in.

What does ultimately prompt you to leave the fire department?

What happens is, a few years later, I have a horrible rehab. It just went terrible. And by this time, I already had my real estate license. I was already on the number one team in the city of Somerville for selling real estate. I worked for the property management company in Springfield prior. So now, it was like the next progression. Once you get past buying, it’s like, how do I rehab? That’s the next level.

I was aggressive that year in buying another property in Somerville and another one in Medford and doing this rehab at the same time. So the rehab went terrible and I had to take the contract to court, right? So then I realized that if I was making money because I knew how to buy, I was losing money because I couldn’t control my construction. I didn’t have the license. So I said, you know what, I’m going to really learn this. I got my construction license. And then after that, I said, you know what? I don’t want to be a contractor. I want to be really good. So that’s when I started going to Wentworth.

And as I got deeper into Wentworth, that’s when I started seeing that getting my degree, managing all these assets, and being a fire lieutenant…it was just too much. Something was going to suffer. I looked at it like, I served my country, I served my community, but now is the time when I don’t feel guilty doing something that serves me. And really, it still does serve the community in a way, because you’re providing housing.

How many properties did you have at the end of your time as a firefighter?

By that time, I was restructuring everything. By the time I ended my career, I had no more assets in Springfield. I was trading them into more assets in Somerville and really focusing on the Boston area. I wanted to take things to the next level, and for me that was being a bigger operator in Boston.

You mentioned earlier that you got experience with a property management company too, as part of your education. How did that come about?

At the time, the property management company that I was using out in Springfield had about 700 units, as far as their own rental portfolio and other investors’ rental portfolios. And my intent was to learn as much as I could and understand their operations, because if they had a portfolio of 700 units, they must have a great system. That was my thought process.

But I knew eventually the goal was to become independent. Even now, my rental portfolio we manage in-house, and it’s because of all those lessons I learned from working with them that I took from Springfield to Boston.

So I was a client and I also held my license there, because they had a real estate brokerage too. I had to hold my license for three years before I could take a broker’s exam. That’s the fastest you can do it, three years. I spent half my time with the property management company, and half my time with the Steve Bremis Realty, because I like to think of it as clouds and dirt. The property management’s the dirt — the toilets, the cold. And working with Bremis, it’s like, you can’t see it, but I have my initials in my shirt. If you’re going to sell a million-dollar condo, you can’t wear jeans, right? So they helped with understanding the luxury side of our business.

Thanks to our 2023 Boston Developers to Watch sponsor, RD Advisors.

When do you take your first entrepreneurial step in real estate?

At the time, I was starting to build Winter Hill Homes on the property management side. I’m originally from Somerville, Winter Hill. I was really building out that company and — it just so happens, I’ve had great mentors through my career — and I was having a meeting with one of them, and he was trying to teach me about positioning and posture. We’re meeting with these other developers. I give them my card, he looks at it, and then puts the card back on the table and says nothing.

After that, he goes, “You know, I like the company, and I’m not telling you to start over, but I don’t think this is the best position for you. You’re putting yourself in this community, and I know you love the community, but you’re not thinking big enough.” And I say okay, then what should I call it? And he said, I don’t know, maybe Velney Development. That’s what you do. And then some time later, when we were set up, I send him the new business card, and he just starts laughing, because he knew it was going to happen.

My company today, Velney Development, I can go to Ohio, Atlanta, New York — I don’t have to rebrand the name. I don’t have to explain that it’s a smaller area right above the city of Boston. But Velney Development, I’m never going to change my name. I said I go all in — I wasn’t going to call it Velney Companies. I know what I want to do. The vehicle I chose is development.

I still own Winter Hill Homes because Velney Development is focused on acquiring assets and development projects, and Winter Hill Homes is my management company, mostly for friends. Most of our energy is definitely on the Velney side.

Do you have or aspire to have a brokerage too?

I do have a real estate brokerage, but it’s not advertised. As my company grows, I think it’ll be another stream of income. What I’m doing now is, because of SEO, I still get a few leads every month. So I’ll partner up with another agent and just say that I want a referral fee, because you do need a license to get a referral fee.

As my team grows, I may have agents that work on my side — but the goal would be to benefit the property management side. Not to go get more listings. Even today, having my brokerage makes it easy to analyze deals, because I can go on MLS and get all the data.

What’s the state of Velney Development today?

We have a lot of companies looking to connect with us. From prior relationships in Somerville and some of those developers coming into Boston, I’ve been involved with pushing a seven unit project in Roxbury through zoning, 28 unit in Roxbury, 37 unit in Roxbury, a 61 unit in Roxbury. Right now, my biggest public project is 230 units in Roslindale, we just filed the letter of intent. So I’m really focusing on learning from seasoned developers alongside me. Boylston Properties is my joint venture partner on that project.

It’s great to have a joint venture partner to do a bigger project, but my company is still focused on 20 to 70 unit projects. I don’t want to say we’ve outgrown the smaller ones and we won’t do them, but that’s definitely not the focus of the company at this time.

For my own properties, I’m buying and holding. I own in Somerville, Charlestown, Medford, Roxbury, Dorchester. I have a project going through zoning in Mattapan, another small project in Roxbury. So I really have my six-mile radius from my front door.

What’s your favorite part of the development process?

Honestly, I like the whole process. There’s not one part of the process I would say I like the most. I like the beginning, talking to sellers and trying to find a deal everyone can live with, designing the project with an architect, going into the community and trying to understand the vision that the community has for the project, understand the vision that the city has for the project. And then as developers, asking that question of, how do we design this project so that everyone is happy? And then getting it built, getting it completed, getting it leased. Then having enough in the pipeline to do it all over again!

And taking the momentum from that project into new projects. If you go into, let’s say Roxbury, by the time you get through the process, you know a lot of the neighborhood people, so it actually makes it a little more understandable and takes the variables out of what’s going to happen next.

How important is that community buy-in for these bigger deals?

I think I have a better track record as doing right by the community than I do even for my development. And what that means is — if someone doesn’t know me, they can do the research, they can see, oh this guy was a Marine, this guy was a Firefighter, he has real estate, but you can’t Google anything bad about him.

And for some of the projects, like in Roxbury, even if it’s not my project, I go to neighborhood meetings, I listen to what they want, I tell them about my projects in advance, say “Hey, I might have a project coming up. I’d love to get your input.” So I’m getting that buy-in early, it’s not a surprise, it’s just building that relationship. They also understand that I don’t just build in the community, I live in the community, and I really do have an open door policy. If you have a problem with something or just want to discuss something, we can have coffee at my house or at a coffee house. I’m really all ears. One of my mentors always told me that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Can you talk about your experience as a Black developer in the City of Boston?

It’s really deep-rooted from my father’s beliefs. He doesn’t have a belief that the color of my skin is going to dictate how far I can take something or whether I can break these ceilings. So just having that from an early age, just his vision for how far I can go, wherever I want to go — his feeling that color won’t dictate where I can go, that was very profound for me.

Another thing was that being in the Marine Corps, you get comfortable with the uncomfortable. You might not be comfortable with the room that you’re in, but you have to get used to it. So if I can do my part to show that we can do this work, we just need opportunities, it makes it easier for the next generation.

I want to get to where I don’t even have to put it on my website. But what I’m trying to show and get across is that we might have struggles, we might have more challenges, but we can do it. That should not stop you. A challenge is just an opportunity to be great. Someone may say, I didn’t grow up with all these resources, I didn’t get this, I didn’t get that. How do I get to the next level? And all I can say is, this is how I did it.

Practically speaking, how do you translate that Marine mindset to your role today? What habits and systems do you have in place?

I can tell you my schedule for tomorrow. I’m going to wake up at five o’clock. I’m going to study or work until six o’clock, and then I’m going to go to the gym. That’s how it start my day. It doesn’t matter if it’s Saturday. The only day that doesn’t happen is Sunday, and that’s because I go for a hike with my wife.

At one point, for that study period, I felt like I needed to learn more about development, so I would read about development in books for at least an hour every morning. Today, I’m big on SEO. Starting a new company, seeing that my other company has X amount of backlinks, how is the content on this page, how is it different from my new company, how do I connect them. Understanding all that. I’m not a techie. But most people won’t go through the lengths that I will on SEO, to understand it personally. I’m always working on my systems and SOPs.

What are some of your aspirations in the next few years?

I challenge myself. I’m driven by a scorecard. I’m not one of those people who believes in the soccer game with no score, or not knowing who really won. I have an internal scorecard. It’s financially-driven. But the second challenge is to be really mission-driven, like, how do I have as much passion on the scorecard as I can and give back to the community?

That’s why I sit on the board of the YMCA. I’m a board member of the Somerville YMCA. The beauty of being a developer, of creating my own schedule — I never miss a meeting. I try to maintain a good balance, financially driven and mission driven.

I got a message from someone recently who heard me on a podcast, and it basically said, “Hey, I love what you’re doing, congratulations. You’re the reason I went back to school to get my construction management degree…” So that is legacy. That’s what gives me energy, helping the next generation of developers. Because if you ever hear me talk, I always give credit to the mentors that I’ve had in my life.

Imagine it’s 2033. There’s a hot neighborhood in Boston that every developer is in on. What would you guess it is? In other words, is there an area in Boston that you think will attract some heat in terms of development over the next decade?

I would say Chelsea. Roxbury. I think that, because of the lack of housing, it’s only going to push the values further out. And I don’t feel like Chelsea has fully taken off as much as other areas yet.

Last question: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a Marine. And the reason is, I’m Haitian-American. In Haiti, the Haitian people really respect Marines, because Marines have been in Haiti before, and they’re always like, those guys are so serious. So we always held Marines to such a high standard.


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