By Devin Blake
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
One could measure, down to the square foot, what Michael Emem has done and is doing for Milwaukee.
A builder, home designer and real estate developer, Emem, 35, has participated in the design, construction or development of residences, large-scale projects and mixed-use properties throughout the city for over 17 years.
His portfolio includes an arts center in the Bronzeville neighborhood, a public library in the Harambee neighborhood, a community clinic in the Williamsburg neighborhood and the historic Wisconsin Gas Building.
A Milwaukee native, Emem has traveled an incredibly direct path to where he is now.
“By the time he was a 3 year old, he told me he wanted to be a carpenter,” said Doris Louis, Emem’s mother.
When Emem was about 12 or 13, Louis bought him specialized software used by engineers and architects so he could learn more about design and construction.
He was 18 when he designed and built his first house, for his uncle – Louis’ brother – in the Lindsay Heights community.
“My son spearheaded the whole project,” Louis said.
After graduating from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School, which trains students in carpentry and construction, among other subjects, Emem worked for a general contractor for several years and then at a construction and real estate company.
In April 2013, he began working as the construction director at Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity, overseeing the construction of affordable family homes in the city.
This was a position that not only allowed Emem to continue to advance professionally but also to do something for the city he loves.
“Michael grew up in the city. He grew up in a lot of the types of neighborhoods that Habitat for Humanity works in on a regular basis,” said Brian Sonderman, executive director of Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity. “I think Michael has made a concerted effort to utilize his skills and experience to make this city better and stronger, and I really appreciate that about his values.”
‘It’s not all about the money’
After going back to school for business administration and finance and earning a real estate certification as well, Emem started his own company in 2018. He serves as its president and CEO.
The company, Emem Group, provides design, construction and development services for residential and commercial projects.
“It’s not all about the money (but) how can you take your gifts, your talents, your experience, your education and how can you use all of that to help make people and places better,” Emem said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about real estate. I believe real estate plays a major role in impacting people’s lives – the quality of their lives.”
“When you look at all the factors of a quality life – decent, affordable housing, having access to health care, education, all of these other things, they’re all centered around real estate within the community,” he said.
Emem has dedicated his life to making housing “first and foremost.”
“There are certain areas within the city of Milwaukee where most of the housing is just subpar: It’s dilapidated, hasn’t received any investment. Most of it is landlord-owned, absentee landlord-owned.
“If we can just change the physical environment that people live in, that will help change the mental and emotional environment of the people living in those neighborhoods,” Emem said.
He shared an example from his childhood.
“I grew up on 42nd and Garfield. I used to walk to the Mary Ryan Boys & Girls Club in the summer. If you’re familiar with Milwaukee … Grant Boulevard was sort of like a utopia when I was a kid,” he said. ”I felt the people living there had a better quality of life, better environment – they just seemed so happy and appreciative to be on Grant Boulevard.
“Just one block away, the feeling was very different – also the respect of the neighborhood was completely different,” he said. “We would walk Grant Boulevard, people wouldn’t litter. It was so well-kept, but literally one block away, in our neighborhood, that wasn’t the case.”
Emem, along with his wife and four children, lives in Brown Deer.
He credits his mother for helping him understand the relationship between real estate, neighborhoods and quality of life.
“If you bring something to people, it gives them hope,” Louis said. “Houses, apartments, townhouses, different buildings, libraries and all this kind of stuff – and it’s new and people feel like they are a part of it, it’s in their area, their neck of the woods. It gives them more pride, and they can help take care of their surroundings. A lot of times, it’s a mindset. If you can change someone’s mind, you can change the community’s.”
For more information
People can view the Emem Group portfolio, learn about the services it provides or contact the company via its website.