Meet an immigrant entrepreneur revitalizing Fort Wayne’s neighborhoods—one home at a time

David Perez De Leon only renovates a house when he feels a connection to it.

“When I walk into a house, it’s got to click with me,” he says. “I will spend four months looking at houses because I want to have that connection with the home.”

That’s because “home” is a sacred concept to Leon. As an immigrant to the U.S. from Guatemala, he’s long associated the American Dream with the desire to own his own house—a goal he achieved in Fort Wayne at the age of 21.

Since then, he’s put his 16-year career in the construction industry to use, launching Leon Properties Enterprise in 2019 as a way to share that feeling of pride and belonging with other people, particularly residents in his old stomping grounds on the city’s South side.

One of Leon's most recent projects involves constructing a house in a massive pole barn near Columbia City.

When Leon decided to start his business, he enrolled in a business course designed to inspire entrepreneurship and small business investment on the South side, too. The Build Institute is a cohort-style program for early-stage startups administered by the Summit City Entrepreneur and Enterprise District (SEED) Fort Wayne.

Trois Hart, Director of SEED, says Leon’s business is one of many emerging among current and former South side residents eager to infuse their neighborhoods with hope and momentum.

“There’s a renaissance of interest in supporting the South side, which has experienced historic underinvestment,” Hart says. “Many are envisioning the return of strong commercial corridors, like Pontiac Street, South Anthony Boulevard, and Oxford Street.”

Amenities like Pontiac Mall are assets in Southeast.

Hart sees graduates of the Build program, like Leon, as prime examples of entrepreneurs making this vision a reality. Leon Properties Enterprise buys, renovates, and sells homes across Northeast Indiana, authentically increasing their value. For example, his business's first project was a house off Fairfield Avenue, which was a complete redo from the ground up. Leon purchased it for $21,000, and sold it for $109,000. But more than profits, he says his work is focused on people and places, revitalizing neighborhoods by creating homes that put quality, craftsmanship, and customer satisfaction first.

“I want to turn homes into places that people love,” he says.

Before

After

It’s these reasons he shirks the label of a “home flipper,” or someone who renovates houses quickly and often cheaply to turn a profit. While Fort Wayne’s highly affordable housing market is infiltrated with “flippers” looking to make a fast dollar, Leon wants to do things differently, investing his time, passion, and energy into each project he takes on.

This commitment to quality over quantity has limited his annual production and business partnerships, but it has allowed him to sleep at night, knowing that he’s doing his work in good conscience.

“I might renovate one house per year as opposed to four houses, but even though I don’t make as much money as other companies are, I want to give something to other people,” Leon says. “Many people don’t know much about how houses are built, and it allows them to be taken advantage of. I want to educate buyers and create a reputation for myself and my company, with a philosophy of: Do it now, do it right, and do it once.”

Leon chooses his business partners carefully to ensure that they have his same commitment to quality and craftsmanship.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has sent small businesses across the U.S. into crisis mode, it’s also driven booming real estate sales and opportunities in the home industry. Leon says that while the historically hot market in 2020 has created extreme delays in shipping and material availability, it's helped his business stay busy. As a one-man operation, he spends about half of his time doing client projects and the other half working on homes he's renovating to sell, primarily on the South side, where he first lived with family when he moved to Fort Wayne as an 18-year-old college graduate.

While Leon came to the city with a teaching degree and a minor in child psychology, his job options were initially limited by his language barrier. So he began working for a construction company to send money back to his mom and sisters in Guatemala. As he learned English and acquired skills, he ascended the company’s ranks, developing a deep love for the craft and becoming a manager who oversaw all levels of construction on custom-built houses.

One oddity that surprised him about his work was that many homeowners would only make improvements to their houses when they were ready to sell them.

“That caught my attention a lot because they never got to enjoy the work,” Leon says. “That led me to start working on houses on my own to create places that people could enjoy.”

A before and after of historic staircase Leon restored and updated.

This desire to help people reap the benefits of homes and neighborhoods drives him to work primarily on the city’s South side, which he feels is full of potential, yet held back by housing challenges and systemic disinvestment.

“It feels like a forgotten area,” Leon says. “The Southeast side is where I’ve seen a lot of houses in poor condition and a lot of rentals.”

Leon says that while Fort Wayne’s hot housing market can create opportunities for homebuyers like himself, it also creates an environment susceptible to the exploitation of slumlords and landlords from out of town, looking to spend as little money as possible on properties, which they rent for the sole purpose of profit.

“That lack of investment creates a domino effect,” Leon says. “If I’m a renter, and I come home to a property that’s not taken care of, then I’m not going to want to take care of it either.”

As Leon grows his business, he wants to improve the South side’s built environment as a means of advancing its opportunities—one home, one neighborhood at a time.

“I want to start creating at least one nice, renovated house in neighborhoods to uplift the area around it,” Leon says. “If we keep doing that, eventually, we’ll bring the South side back to its former glory.”

A before and after shot of a fireplace Leon brought back to its former glory.

With this in mind, he is using 2021 to grow his business into the 46803 and 46806 zip codes of Fort Wayne—two of the most economically depressed areas in the state. He’s also planning to outfit more homes with smart technology and earn his real estate license, so he can be a one-stop-shop for home-seekers.

Along with uplifting neighborhoods, another goal on his list is increasing the number of Hispanic and Latina business owners in Fort Wayne, like himself. As someone who’s successfully graduated from Build Institute, earned his business degree, and launched his own venture, he hopes to partner with SEED Fort Wayne in the future to keep giving back.

“They opened my eyes to all of the resources this city has to offer,” Leon says. “I know from personal experience that a lot of non-English speakers in Fort Wayne don’t know where to go or how to start a business here because of the language barrier, so I want to share what I have learned.”

This story is part of an Entrepreneurship series made possible by funding from SEED Fort Wayne. To learn more about SEED, visit its website at fwuea.org.

Contact Leon Properties Enterprise

David Perez De Leon is currently developing his website for Leon Properties Enterprise. He can be reached at 260-416-6298.