This Southern University grad is turning Houston’s crack houses into homes
For nearly 30 years, Leslie Smith has been a force for change in the Third Ward
Leslie Smith — 6-foot-3, bald, with a debonair look — may have GQ magazine appearance on the outside, but he certainly has a heart of gold on the inside.
In fact, some say the Southern University College of Business graduate has that Midas touch. With an abundance of dignity.
A minister without a traditional congregation, Smith buys and refurbishes dilapidated crack houses in Houston’s Third Ward and rents the refurbished homes at affordable rates. He has become a force for positive change in a depressed, 90 percent black area in dire need of transformation.
He bought his first crack house in 1989, the year Smith founded and became CEO of a community-help organization that he named Change Happens! (with a swoosh for the exclamation point). By 2017, Smith had purchased a total of 10 crack houses.
Combine that with the 18 other neglected housing structures he’s purchased, and Smith has renovated 28 homes in Houston.
The 63-year-old Smith explained his mission to The Undefeated: “My work is my ministry. I love to give to those that are living and existing in very poor areas.”
During the Fourth of July holiday weekend, while many of us stuffed ourselves at barbecues, Smith was canvassing New Orleans’ Seventh, Eighth and Ninth wards, areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and still in search of hope.
Smith’s goal: to one day bring to the “Big Easy” his Houston model of transforming ramshackle structures into livable residences.
No holiday for a man on the move
As Smith says, “Time is money.” And access to capital and credit are necessary requirements to accomplish great deeds for the masses.
Theodore Taylor, a 42-year-old tow truck driver, knows about that. He is a tenant in one of Smith’s reconstructed houses. Taylor pays $650 a month for a two-bedroom, single-family home with central heat and air conditioning. These houses, cream-colored with burgundy trim, are surrounded by black iron fences and a feeling of safety, unlike before. Taylor had many kind words for Smith.
“We need more people like him,” Taylor said. “Nobody wants to invest in neighborhoods like this.”
Smith is currently leading a 12-person contingent from Houston to Haiti for a two-week humanitarian mission.
The group plans to deliver powdered milk, peanut butter, children’s backpacks and blankets to three orphanages.
“I’ve been doing this for 13 years,” Smith said. He visits Haiti three or four times a year.
Smith got an early start over most in the spirit of entrepreneurship and business acumen. How about at 9 years old?
“One day, my dad told me to come go with him,” Smith recalled. “He took me to a car dealership. He bought a Chevrolet Impala for $2,800. Back in those days, that was a lot of money. He pulled out that $2,800, all in $100 bills. The people at the dealership were shocked; a black man came in and did that. And my dad had only a high school education.”
The lesson: the power of paid in full. No lingering debt. “Cash on the barrel head,” as the folk of wisdom used to say back in the day.
“My dad had a Gulf Oil franchise (service/gas station) back in the late ’50s, early ’60s, in Shreveport, Louisiana,” Smith said. “His mom and dad helped put up the collateral for the franchise, so I consider myself a born entrepreneur.”
Now, with specks of gray in his goatee and an affinity for suits from Dillard’s, the bespectacled Smith lives in a loft in downtown Houston, participates in long-distance bicycle charity events (try pedaling from Houston to New Orleans), vacations in Mexico and retreats to saunas at the area YMCA to de-stress from a wildly busy schedule.
Asked whether he’s a millionaire, Smith responded, “No, I just control the millions. Remember, the bank owns the loans.”
Smith uses the business principles that he learned from Southern and his own entrepreneurial instincts to make a difference.
Donald R. Andrews, the 68-year-old dean of Southern’s College of Business, said we need more black folk like Smith who understand the tenets of small-business management.
“They must understand human resources, product management, sales, payroll management and economics,” said Andrews. “All of that is needed, even if it’s a nonprofit enterprise.”
Recognition for dedicated work
During Southern’s homecoming against Arkansas Pine-Bluff the weekend of Oct. 21, Smith was inducted into Beta Gamma Sigma, an international honor society serving business programs accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Membership in BGS is the highest global recognition a business student can receive in a business program accredited by AACSB International.
Said Smith: “Business administration, marketing, management and entrepreneurship are the educational backgrounds that would help one become a successful entrepreneur. Southern University’s business school taught me the theory and the methodology of the practice of managing and growing a business.”
And Smith has experienced the delight of business growth.
His office is in a three-story brick building that houses Smith’s Change Happens!, formerly known as Families Under Urban & Social Attack. It’s 2,700 square feet, $3 million built from the ground up. The doors opened in 2005, and it’s within walking distance of Smith’s redeveloped houses. The colors of the office building: cream base with burgundy trim, again. “That’s my branding colors,” Smith explained.
“When I first came to the neighborhood and started buying property, a lot of black people thought white folks owned this,” Smith recollected. “They were surprised when they found out it was black people like me who owned these properties. It blew them away. We have to change that mindset.”
The Change Happens! building is the epicenter for Smith’s 70 full-time employees and his 18 community-help programs, which include after-school facilities for adolescents, health care enrollment assistance, youth drug prevention, computer training centers, adult education projects, libraries and more. Smith has gotten federal contracts with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Centers for Disease Control. He’s also been aided by contributions from fundraising events, sponsors and affluent donors.
“Leslie Smith is doing more than just remodeling houses,” Taylor the tenant said. “He’s also making changes. Unlike other contractors in the Third Ward, he’s saying you can stay here but with stipulations: no drugs, break-ins, stealing, none of that stuff.”
When Smith first started buying rickety structures in “Crack House Alley” with a $25,000 bank loan, he had to run off the drug dealers with their pit bull guard dogs and clean up the stashes of dirty needles, drugs and other paraphernalia left behind.
That process didn’t come about without confrontations with dealers and users.
“I told them that’s playing dirty,” Smith remembered. “I told them if they didn’t stop breaking into my houses, I would call the police.”
Then, Smith posted signs scattered about his properties with a rather eye-catching inscription: “God’s Property, Drug Free Zone.”
The criminals got the message. And so have others, in a more positive manner, as Smith has come a long way since 1989.
A heart of gold in a time of need.