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SHARING THE PROMISE OF HOME OWNERSHIP by Ellen Donker

It starts with education


Camille and Luis Estrella
Camille and Luis Estrella have worked as a real estate team for the past five years. Photo credit: Sam Renee

It’s not easy to keep up with Luis Estrella. Talk to him about his career in real estate and he’ll rattle off a half dozen projects he’s involved with, whether it’s cryptocurrency investing, lending seminars, a children’s book, or financial literacy. His ideas bounce around like a pinball, hitting the bumpers of his mind and reeling off to another related thought, with the aim of deepening his understanding of a topic so he can represent it to an audience. Luis is a big picture guy, a communicator and a passionate individual.


Camille, Luis’ wife and real estate partner, is the measured one. She has known Luis for half her life, having met him in 2006 via a high school internship at UBS (United Bank of Switzerland) in New York City. As a former teacher, she methodically takes Luis’ ideas and turns them into curricula that they use to educate their buyers and sellers about the real estate process.


The couple brand their business the Estrella Consulting Group, and although they serve any type of buyer and seller regardless of income level, they have a heart for those who never imagined they could own a home. Their orientation comes from personal experience.


Luis, raised by a single mom, hails from Brooklyn. With few financial resources, the family bounced around a lot, living in one-room rentals and even experiencing homelessness for a stretch when Luis was in his early teens. He credits his education at George Westinghouse High School, a vo-tech school, for teaching him to use his voice for good, writing and reciting poetry as a way to productively channel his thoughts. Luis went on to attend DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, thanks to a full tuition scholarship from Posse, an organization that helps top colleges recruit outstanding young leaders from diverse backgrounds.

Camille was also raised by a single mom, a Zambian emigrant, and grew up in Maplewood. Her mother chose the town so she could be close to Seton Hall, where she was pursuing her master’s degree; she went on to teach business accounting at Columbia High School. Through grit and determination, Camille’s mom bought her own home, but not without first being told by a realtor that she couldn’t afford to live here. When it was time to enter high school, Camille was awarded a scholarship by the Wadleigh Scholars Program to attend Stoneleigh Burnham School in Greenfield, Massachusetts. She went on to Willam & Mary, and, eventually, grad school.


After graduating college, the couple continued the relationship that had started when they were 16 years old. Camille taught special education at a middle school and Luis sold life insurance, taught children in a low-income community, did motivational speaking and pursued his poetry. But in 2012, things took a bad turn for Luis: he was brutalized by police near his home in East New York, resulting in a long, drawn-out fight for justice and fear of retribution that haunted him well after his exoneration.


When Luis got his life back, he went into the rental side of real estate and became known as the guy who recited poetry on his subway ride to and from work. Instead of waxing poetically about love, he educated straphangers about the real estate game – in rhyming verse.


In 2015, the couple got married at Village Hall in South Orange and decided to build a life in the place where Camille grew up. Luis was still in real estate and failing badly, by his own admission. It wasn’t until he took the conventional route to real estate, training at Keller Williams to sell houses rather than pursuing the rental market, that he starting seeing success. Meanwhile, Camille was rising in the ranks of her teaching job and became a supervisor of her department. As Luis puts it, she was working a lot of extra hours and not getting paid for them.


Believing she was a gifted teacher and that what his buyers and sellers needed most was to be educated in real estate, Luis convinced Camille to join his team. He says, “I know a lot, and she knows a lot, but she takes what I know and she makes it simple.” He continues, “She’ll teach anyone to think correctly. I know, because I’m starting to get a little organized just a little bit. And that is miraculous.”


New Home owners
Luis and Camille Estrella helped Ashley Dennis and Genesis Tramaine become first-time homeowners. They credit the Estrellas for providing them with comprehensive information on the market and the buying process.

This emphasis on education is personal to Luis and Camille. Reflecting on how he grew up, Luis says, “If my mom would have known about the NACA program (a nonprofit that helps facilitate affordable homeownership), if my mom would have known about down payment and closing cost assistance, if my mom would have learned about any of the things that I know…my mom would have never experienced homelessness, and we would have built wealth in ways that you cannot imagine.”


Thinking back on her mother’s quest to own a home, Camille says, “I want to be the antithesis of agents that look at a file and say you don’t deserve to live in a certain place because, quote unquote, you can’t afford it. There should always be an opportunity [to] exhaust all options before you’re told no. And that’s how Luis and I operate for any of our clients.”


Ultimately, the couple want to teach other Black and Brown clients how to build generational wealth, something that Luis says is eventually accomplished in the third generation. Camille says, “It begins with education. And that’s it.”


For Luis, the pattern of renting versus owning starts with experiences in childhood. He says, “A child that grows up in a home is more likely to purchase a home. Statistical fact. A child that grows up in an apartment is more likely to pass that same knowledge or capacity thereof, to a child that they raise, and their child is more likely to rent for the rest of their life, instead of ever purchasing a home. Statistical fact. These two things tell us your exposure to things greater than you understand will dictate your capacity in life. And the sooner we relay that message to our children, the more impactful our entire mission will be.”


Citing research from a racial perspective, Camille says, “We have 70% of white citizens in this country owning their home. …And then we’re at 46% of Latinos owning their own home. And then we have less than 40% of Black and Brown citizens [owning their home] in this country.” Acknowledging the impact her mother had as a role model, she says, “We don’t trust until we see someone who looks like us achieve. And we need that playbook to see.”


The Estrellas aren’t just talking about those in middle income brackets. Camille says, “We have folks who are making $150,000, $250,000, $300,000. But they’re still renting. They’re scared like, ‘Oh, if someone’s looking into my financials, they’re going to judge me.’ No, we’re going to help you get to where you need to be. And then that is what allows generational wealth to begin – so then that education and that family that we were able to educate can now educate their children, because they were given that chance to listen.”


With the renaming of their business to the Estrella Consulting Group, Luis has expanded into lending so he and Camille can present their clients with more options for financing a home. He has developed curricula that he uses in webinars, podcasts, and on social media platforms. In the end, it’s all about being able to educate their clients, care for them, and show gratitude for the buyers and sellers who trust them with the biggest investment of their lives.


Eager to give back, Camille says, “We wouldn’t be where we are without programs that supported Black and Brown children. What we’re trying to work towards is not only having an opportunity at the closing table, but we do want to be able to donate to 501c3s that are Black and Brown-centered so that with every closing, we’re able to give back and really, really make an impact that just propels and advances those in their communities.”


Besides building their business, the Estrellas are also busy raising two little boys with whom they make a comfortable home. It’s no surprise that Luis has already started teaching his first grader financial literacy. In fact, they’re writing a book about it, and it all starts with learning the difference between renting and buying a bike.


Ellen Donker saw home ownership modeled by her parents and is grateful for the advantages it gave her, even if she didn’t realize it at the time.

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