Jacob Dochee, who uses the stage name Jacob da Builder in trade, is the most visibly active developer of single-family infill in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood. He’s also very active throughout the Douglas and Grand Boulevard community areas, although for simplicity (and branding) he carries the Bronzeville stamp to all his mid-South Side projects. If you cruise the blocks between 33rd and 49th, King Drive and State you’ll see “Bronzeville by Jacob da Builder” on banners fronting soon-to-be developed vacant lots as well as several active construction sites. Dochee is a native of Grand Boulevard and wife Sawsan is the broker and marketer for the business.

Bronzeville has great 19th Century housing stock that attracted gobs of investment from the mid 1990s to the economic free-fall of 2008. New homes are getting built again, but lots are still plentiful and cheap. You shouldn’t have to pay more than $50,000 for a standard city lot, and some go for half that. It costs Dochee around $130 a square foot to bring product to market.

As we drove through the area last week, he took pride in recounting the deals he’s found on bank-owned lots, getting many of his parcels for pennies on the dollar.

You’re building mostly in Bronzeville right now. Is the area once again alive with infill?

You’ve got be real careful in Bronzeville. The boundaries are tricky. You get appraisers that aren’t paying attention, and then we (the developers) get sideswiped by appraisals. A few [developers] are successful down here and a lot of them lose.

A lot of people are afraid to build down in Bronzeville since the crash and after we didn’t get the Olympics. I lost a lot of money because I bought lots in Washington Park. So I diversified and went into rehabbing in different areas, buying two-flats because it was easy for people to get approved for loans with a second floor rent offsetting their mortgage. I decided when the REO prices [Real Estate Owned] started jumping back up and we got into bidding wars that it was time to get back to building.

When was that?

In 2012. People who were already down here rehabbing looked at me building and started laughing, saying I’m gonna lose. And then 4502 South Forrestville went into a bidding war and sold for $315,000. After that I bought 4400 South King Drive, an overpriced lot lost to the bank that I ended up getting for $25,000. I put up the home—brick and block—and sold it for $350,000. And I just went on and on, building and building. 

When did your first round of development in the area begin?

I started in 2006 in Chatham, Auburn Gresham, South Shore, and Hegewisch. Before that I was in Florida and Indiana doing small rehabs. There were a lot of Irish builders that had faith in these neighborhoods too, and we ended up collaborating. A lot of them went under and plenty never came back. It was really brutally sad when the recession hit.

Back in 2005, 2006, 2007, the only way most people could buy down here was to grab a condo for $399,000. Even garden units were selling for, like, $279,000. Now people can get a four-bed new construction single-family in the high-$300,000s.

I’ve been on the MLS lately and I’m surprised that condos are moving again. Condos went all the way down with a lot of owners going underwater, and now closed sales are back in the $200,000s. The market is definitely doing well. Right now inventory is a little shallow, but we’re getting close to Thanksgiving.

That’s encouraging, that people are less likely to lose their pants buying in Bronzeville. Who are you selling to?

This area is getting very diverse. I’m selling to government officials, teachers. I’d say probably 80% of my clientele are police officers.

Why so many cops?

Well, they want to live somewhere up-and-coming, central, and close to the highway. Police headquarters is also right here in Bronzeville, on 35th Street.

How much have you built in Bronzeville and elsewhere to date?

From the end of 2012 to today, I’ve built and sold 37 homes in the Bronzeville area. Eleven more are under contract. In my career I’ve built 389 homes and rehabbed over 700. The vast majority has been in Chicago. 

I’m seeing a number of what look like stalled projects around the neighborhood. What’s the story there?

Some investors (not naming names) got started on lots years back and stopped cold. The contractors weren’t getting paid so they walked off the job. The investors don’t want to fuss with building anymore, just sell off the half-built and vacant lots that they still hold. It’s amazing because you’d think the alderman would try and work with developers and help us out with TIF money.

Why isn’t that happening?

I don’t know. But at least I’m in an enterprise zone so building material is tax exempt on all my sites. The alderman and I (Pat Dowell, 3rd) had a little falling out because the community didn’t like the look of my work initially, saying it was too modern and European. I ended up giving them a more traditional look, a closer fit to the local architecture. [The alderman and I] are back on good terms, though.

You come up with most of interior designs, then? How about the architecture?

I do all my own designs, from light fixtures to colors. I sketch out all my drawings and I have an architect stamp the plans.

What would you say are the main issues facing Bronzeville right now? Will prices continue to recover and local market fluctuations settle down?

I think the mayor’s doing wonderful things in Chicago with infrastructure. We have Mariano’s coming in right over here at 39th and State, a Walmart is on the way, and a pretty nice retail strip is coming in [along King Drive]. When you look at Bronzeville averages, like [individual] income being around $24,000, it’s very misleading. There are a lot of white-collar people moving in. I have people paying cash for their homes. In fact, I’m doing better in sales in Bronzeville than in Frankfort and Tinley Park put together.

Where are you taking your projects next? Will you keep the focus on Bronzeville?

A lot of people say I should go up North because my look is a nice North Side look. But this is already happening all over up there. What am I gonna prove? I like this area because it has a lot of potential. I’m from the area, down at 49th. My father owned a lot of buildings in Bronzeville—hundreds of homes—doing REOs in the 1960s. He was buying Greystones for $2,000, $1,500. If he bought a few, the mayor would give him extra lots to redevelop for a buck.

Other developers get mad at me for selling cheap, calling me up saying I’m driving the market down. It’s not really about that for me. I believe in selling homes to families and leaving equity in there. That wasn't happening when the market crashed. My competitors are selling similar homes for $200,000 more than mine. They sit on the market longer, but do eventually sell. I believe in leaving $100,000 to $150,000 in homes instead of maxing out and sucking everything out of a deal. 

I love it when people move in these homes and start crying. Sometimes it’s a middle-aged buyer in their first home. I did a two-flat at 7234 South Lafayette. The buyer was 80 years old and never owned a home in her life. She bought it with her daughter, who moved in upstairs.

Click through the photo gallery for excerpts from our driving tour and the interiors of a few rehabs and new-builds.