OZ Job Creation Success Story: MIT Modular, With Roi Maufas

Four years into the Opportunity Zone program, success stories are abundant. Today’s podcast episode is the first in a series of episodes that will highlight stories of true impact that the OZ program has helped to create.

Roi Maufas, co-founder and lead designer at MIT Modular, joins the show to share the job creation success story of MIT Modular, a builder of affordable, sustainable housing.

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Episode Highlights

  • How MIT Modular designs and builds robust, net-zero, affordable housing out of shipping containers, and the importance of the thermodynamic properties of their container units.
  • Roi’s personal struggles with homelessness, and his passion for affordable housing.
  • The need to tell positive Opportunity Zone success stories, and why the Opportunity Zone policy has been crucial to successful job creation of MIT Modular — 40-50 day jobs for the homeless population in Provo, in addition to a core staff of eight employees, who Roi describes as, “folks that the rest of the world has left behind.”
  • An impromptu cameo by Blake Christian.
  • Why transparency and reporting should be welcomed by OZ operators.
  • The amount of venture capital in the United States that goes to women and people of color, and how the OZ program opens the door in a way that’s meaningful for investors to help reverse this trend.

Today’s Guest: Roi Maufas, MIT Modular

Roi Maufas on the Opportunity Zones Podcast

About The Opportunity Zones Podcast

Hosted by OpportunityDb.com founder Jimmy Atkinson, The Opportunity Zones Podcast features guest interviews from fund managers, advisors, policymakers, tax professionals, and other foremost experts in opportunity zones.

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Show Transcript

Jimmy: Welcome to “The Opportunity Zones Podcast.” I’m your host, Jimmy Atkinson, joining you today on site at the OZ Expo in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. And I’m joined today by Roi Maufas, co-founder and lead designer at MIT Modular. Roi, thanks for joining me today.

How are you doing?

Roi: Absolutely better every day. Thank you.

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Jimmy: Fantastic, Roi. Well, MIT Modular was on OZ Pitch Day a few months ago. Your partner, Blake Christian, who’s also a CPA at HCVT, was on and walked us through the investment opportunity that MIT Modular provides to Opportunities Zone Fund investors. But can you tell us a little bit more about MIT Modular, the project, and what you’re doing there in Provo, Utah?

Roi: Certainly. Well, MIT Modular, we design affordable housing out of shipping containers. We make all of our buildings able to withstand 180-plus mile-an-hour winds, pull 2.5Gs in a seismic event. We like to make them net zero as well. and, you know, keeping in mind affordability being key, and that’s really our mission.

Jimmy: Is it? Tell us a little bit more, before we get into the mission behind MIT Modular, the jobs that you’re creating, the Opportunity Zone aspect, tell us a little bit more about the actual building materials you’re using, why they’re green, and maybe who some of your customers are, who you’re delivering to.

Roi: Okay. So, we’re using shipping containers, and the idea there is to have a highly thermodynamic material insulated well. And then we’ve always taken consideration the line of the sun as well, to take advantage of passive solar design as well.

We also use solar panels. We make our buildings super insulated. It’s really important, at the end of the day, like, the final user, you’re talking about affordable housing and you’re talking about these price points, and heating and cooling a home, when you make it sustainable, you’re actually adding, like, another $300 or $400 a month into that family’s income, into the basket.

Jimmy: Yeah. It’s pretty phenomenal how inefficient a lot of our buildings all over this country are, especially older buildings. We were upstairs in Blake Christian’s party suite last night, right, having a couple of cold wines, and I overheard a conversation you were having with our friend Clint Edgington over at the Nest Opportunity Fund. You were telling him something about the thermodynamic properties of the shipping containers.

Can you summarize that for us briefly?

Roi: Okay. So, have you ever had to work on your car when it’s really cold and you’ve got to hold a cold ratchet and it starts to hurt your fingers, it’s so cold? Or inversely, have you ever stepped outside and put your arm, in the summertime, on a metal railing? All right.

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So, if you leave the steel exposed, you’re now fighting your building material and you’re trying to insulate from either the hot or the cold. We like to insulate on the exterior and the interior sometimes. So, we can actually use the shipping container like a thermos, right, so that we can control the thermal bridging.

We make it disappear, basically, so one side doesn’t touch the other side. And so, we were able to create higher R values. Are you familiar with R values?

Jimmy: I am not, no. But I’ll be sure to link to some resources in the show notes page for today’s episode if anyone wants to look into it more, for sure.

Roi: Basically, when I say I have, like, an R30 or an R40 wall, that means the exterior temperature has to go up 40 degrees before the interior surface of the wall goes up 1 degree. And so it really matters. And when you’re talking about long-term efficiencies, that’s what really needs to be there.

Jimmy: Very good. I want to talk about OZ policy in a minute, but you have a really interesting story. You grew up in Louisiana.

Roi: Actually, I grew up in Virginia.

Jimmy: You grew up in Virginia, I’m sorry, but you were living in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit. Can you tell us about how that impacted you and how that helped lead you to where you are today?

Roi: Absolutely. Well, first of all, if you’ve never been to Southern Louisiana, once your soul visits Louisiana, a part of your soul never leaves, beautiful people, beautiful food. I just bought a piece of land, and my son was about to get born and Hurricane Katrina came along and wiped everything out, my life savings, everything was gone.

And we ended up moving to Salt Lake City, Utah. And we were living on the side of Redwood Road with our newborn baby.

Jimmy: No shelter, no home, no roof over your head.

Roi: Yeah, in the winter. What we actually did was we actually found… Somebody had an RV that we put and then we ran an extension cord across to this very friendly neighbor who gave us some electricity. And that’s what we had all winter.

Jimmy: Right on. And when was it that you worked your way out of that situation?

Roi: Wow. I guess in a lot of ways, I’m still working my way out of that situation. If you ever lose everything, like, housing is so much more important than people realize. You know, it’s losing your life, it’s losing your opportunity. It’s losing the opportunity to pay for your kid’s education.

I mean, lots and lots of college educations have been paid for with second mortgages. And so when people don’t have that chance… That’s why I do what I do because I’m still working through that process and still trying to, you know, rebuild my life.

I understand where other people are coming from. I understand the struggle. I’ve been homeless twice in my life, so, you know, I’m deeply passionate about affordable housing and what we do.

Jimmy: And that is what you do at MIT Modular. So, when did you first learn about the Opportunity Zone program? And then when did you decide you could apply it to this business that you’re underway with now?

Roi: You know, it’s really kind of bizarre. I read about it, and then I went looking for it, and I actually had to read the legislation to find it. And then there were no guidelines or anything. So, like, just…it was sort of, like, Wild Wild West there for a little bit.

And then I had met Blake before, and I actually built a project for Blake. We never put it together. And then one day, years later, I actually called him up, kind of, out of the blue and I’m like, “Hey, man, it’s Roi. I think we should do this, and I think it would fit what you already do.”

And I just pitched him and he said, “You know what? You’re right. That’s a great idea, and affordable housing is a huge market. And yeah, let’s do that.”

Jimmy: So, I want to talk about now part of what I spoke about on my panel, which was a legislative update that we gave about an hour or two ago now. I talked about, toward the end, the need to tell positive success stories about Opportunity Zones, which is one of the reasons why I’m excited to be having this interview with you today, Roi, right, is you have some positive success stories.

So, can you tell us, tell me, tell my viewers and listeners why the Opportunity Zone program has been so crucial for you and for MIT Modular? And also, talk about some of the jobs that your project at MIT Modular has helped create in the Utah area.

Roi: Okay. Let me just say, like, part of that success is that…. on your panel that you were talking about and some of the difficulties are… Let me just say that I welcome transparency. Like this is Blake.

Jimmy: Hey, Blake. How are we doing? We’re filming right here. Yeah, but that’s okay. No, that’s okay.

Blake: Can we walk through on that?

Jimmy: You did, but we lost our bouncer, so no worries.

Blake: It’s okay.

Jimmy: You can come on in here. All right, there goes Blake.

Roi: It’s all right.

Jimmy: It’s live TV, folks. Sorry about that.

Roi: That’s how that goes.

Jimmy: Exactly. So, you were telling us about some of the transparency. So, the transparency reporting is welcomed by everybody, but it’s the logistics of doing it that’s a little bit challenging. But what are your thoughts there?

Roi: Well, my thoughts are that, A, there are people to, kind of, help us with that process. Blake is one of those people. The guy, Reid, was it?

Jimmy: Reid Thomas from JTC Americas, yes.

Roi: Thomas, right. And the services that he offers, and plus, I think that this program is so new that we all need to learn more about it. And, you know, it’s as simple as checking the wrong box sometimes. And, like, you know, I think that comes with being a leader, you know. If you’re doing it first, like Blake, you’re going to make mistakes, and yeah.

Jimmy: Yeah, if you’re blazing the trail, you might get burned, right?

Roi: Exactly, it’s totally true. It’s totally true.

Jimmy: So, can you tell us about some of the jobs you’ve created? How many jobs have you created in Provo, Utah, and maybe some of the types of the employees that you’re employing down there? Where would they be without the Opportunity Zone program?

Roi: Absolutely. So, we’re ramping up right now. So, in addition to creating, I don’t know, 40 or 50 sort of day jobs for the homeless population, because we’re actually taking them off the street, hiring them to do work, and then in addition to that, we have a core staff of eight people that we really put together.

And my employees are folks that the rest of the world has, kind of, left behind. They’re battered women or vets, they’re ex-convicts, ex-offenders, just people that, for us, the world doesn’t care about anymore. But I’ve seen…

One of our employees is Shane. And Shane, he had the courage… And just for a second, like, what it takes to show up at a job interview and say, “Hey, I’m certified in all welding processes but I just got out of prison for possessing meth,” right? That’s what he said to me, which I think takes an enormous amount of courage.

So, I kept listening and leaning to what he was saying, and I’ve watched as he’s helped his mom save her house, rebuild his relationship with his kid. And do you know what he asked me for?

He asked me to get off work early for three days a week because he knows that he can’t make it without his meetings. So, I do. You know, Perla is one of our employees. She is a woman who got beat up pretty bad on a consistent basis.

And then, you know, things didn’t turn out so well. She, you know, lost her children, that sort of thing. But, you know, she’s got an apartment now. And, you know, I watched her go from a shelter to an apartment. And I think, this week, she’s actually vacationing with her kids in California while I’m here.

So, that’s a difficult thing to put a dollar on, to put a price on, you know, a cost on it. But those are anecdotes of two very big impactful turnarounds in two individuals’ lives that wouldn’t have happened without Opportunity Zones.

Is that right?

Jimmy: Absolutely.

Roi: Further, you know, I asked you this question earlier, you know, I don’t know if you know how much in all the venture capital in the United States, what percentage of it goes to women or people of color? Most folks think…

Jimmy: I got it wrong, by the way, yeah.

Roi: You thought it was 10…

Jimmy: I thought it was 10%, under 10%, yeah.

Roi: No, it is less than 1%, less than 1% So, we have a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion, but this program actually opens that door in a way that’s really meaningful for investors and really meaningful for people being invested in. I was doing this for 16 years, you know, before I met Blake.

And Blake was like, “Hey, Roi, this really is a good idea.” And I can’t tell you, like, the difference between investing someone and empowering someone, right? Like, investing in somebody, you may not… Investing in someone is you may not see what that is or what that value is, but when you empower that person, you teach that person how to fish, you know, right, he can feed himself for the rest of his life.

That’s a game-changer. And we’re talking about affordability, we’re talking about opportunity, we’re talking about the opportunity gap, right, and filling that opportunity gap, you know, with people who have the wherewithal because where else would we get it from? Right?

The guys who have it want to share it. This program is a way to build bridges between huge fractures in our society and their complicated problems, right?

Jimmy: Oftentimes, I’ve described them as intractable problems that a lot of…

Roi: I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as an intractable problem. I say never waste a perfectly good crisis. We have an opportunity for investors to actually be able to invest their money and protect their money and make profit, right, and communities that have been largely disenfranchised to be at the table and empowered, and that is something that we cannot waste, we cannot waste.

It actually…these are groups of people who wouldn’t be in the same room. We might never have dinner for that.

Jimmy: Yeah, no, probably not. Yeah. You’re right.

Roi: If it hadn’t been for that… I’m just some schmo. You don’t know what I have in my head, you know, and I don’t fit the image of your typical investor, but I welcome the conversations. I welcome the challenges and, you know, it really is exactly that, an opportunity.

And I’m just going to tell you, brother, you give me an opportunity, I’m going to come knock down that door. I’m done knocking.

Jimmy: I love it, Roi. And as you told me before we went live, representation matters.

Roi: Yeah.

Jimmy: And we think, you and I both think alike that the Opportunity Zones program, and, you know, it’s led to a lot of the people in this room doing great things. It’s going to help put that into reality, right?

Roi: Absolutely, absolutely I think that, you know, the more conversations we have about it, and the difficult conversations, you know, the more conversations we have about it, the better off we’re all going to be. And so, it’s not just an investment. It means so much more, just a long-term view of how our country treats each other.

Like, these are old, old wounds, you know. And this is a way to heal those wounds, and I’m down. Anytime you need me, you let me know.

Jimmy: Awesome. Well, thank you, Roi. Thanks for joining us today on “The Opportunity Zones Podcast.” Before I cut you loose, can you tell our listeners and viewers where they can go to learn more about you and MIT Modular?

Roi: Absolutely. You can catch us at mitmodular.com, you can Google us, you can look us up on YouTube, you can look me up on YouTube. We’re there.

Jimmy: And now, this episode is going to be on YouTube. And that reminds me that for our listeners and viewers out there today, as always, we will have show notes for today’s episode on the Opportunity Zones Database website at opportunitydb.com/podcast. There you can…

Roi: [inaudible] to a corner?

Jimmy: Yeah, no, we don’t do that, but go to opportunitydb.com/podcast. We haven’t figured that part out yet, and be sure to subscribe to us on YouTube or your favorite podcast listening platform to always get the latest episodes. Roi, thanks so much again.

Roi: Thank you so much, man. Thank you so much.