Cuong Phan came to the United States as a Vietnamese refugee in 1975 and settled in North Texas, where he went on to work as an engineer for Lockheed Martin.
Now, his son, Tuan Phan, a born-and-raised Fort Worthian, has decided to give back to the community through his family’s nonprofit organization, The Phan Foundation.
“The Phan Foundation is my family’s namesake. It’s named after my father,” Phan said. “He always believed that we should give back to this country, because they did so much for us. And now that we have the ability to, we have the obligation to.”
The foundation’s goal is to create opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and low-income families. This ranges from providing affordable housing opportunities to offering job training to those who need it.
“We believe everyone deserves a fair shot, but also a second chance to make the most of themselves,” Phan said.
Phan returned to Fort Worth in 2020 after the refinery he worked at in California laid-off staff during COVID-19. His father encouraged him to work in real estate with him full time. Eventually, Phan started the foundation to address affordable housing.
For him, the new path — although very different from his previous career — made sense and aligned with his interest in public service.
“I just kind of enjoyed myself in California and tried to fit into a role and just kind of live my life over there. But I always still felt a sense of, ‘I kind of need to do something a bit more,’ because just working in oil and gas, it didn’t feel like I was doing enough for the public interest,” Phan said.
Despite earning its nonprofit status only last year, the Phan Foundation has quickly begun to work on its first project. The organization is working on obtaining funding to purchase 37 multifamily units.
Members of the foundation applied for the initial round of funding available through the American Rescue Plan Act for 12 multifamily units but were not recommended because of a technical error in their application. But Phan said they are determined to try again for the second round of recommendations to be made in July where they hope to present their plan for 37 units.
Rather than build new units on an empty lot, the Phan Foundation hopes to repurpose already existing infrastructure into appropriate housing units, similar to Casa de Esperanza’s success with converting a motel into apartments.
“Because we will produce these units through adaptive reuse, the process of finding, designing, and getting the approval of all those affected is much more precarious than a new build where you just need an empty lot. We’re kind of finding a needle in a haystack,” he said.
Coming back to Fort Worth after a decade, Phan said the city has grown rapidly and become more receptive to different housing ideas — a vastly different approach than what he and the rest of the team members have seen in California.
“You can kind of see it in the last election with newer faces on the City Council… No offense to California where it’s a bit more recalcitrant, and it’s entrenched,” Phan said. “Out here people are a bit more cavalier. You’re more willing to try new things such as Casa de Esperanza. It’s the first one in the nation to have an adaptive reuse of a motel…”
Most importantly, Phan said, the open-mindness of Fort Worth means things can actually get done.
“My family has deep roots out here. We’re proud to be out here. We’re proud of what the city has afforded us. We owe it a depth of obligation. So for all those reasons, like we feel that Fort Worth is a great proving ground to show that these can be done, that — as high-minded as it sounds — chronic homelessness can be ended, if the city applies money correctly, if you have good leadership in in government, as well as private and nonprofit organizations working together.”
Although the foundation is still in its infancy, Phan and his family have seven years of experience running their for-profit real estate investment company. Another part of Phan’s housing goal for the foundation is to help low-income homebuyers compete in the current market against investors.
His approach? He calls it BRRR: Buy, renovate, rent, repeat.
“We would make the house very nice within a reasonable budget and we could sell it to them but instead of selling it for the maximum bidder or finding a bidder that just pays cash, we would find a bidder who traditionally wouldn’t qualify for regular mortgages, who may have to use special mortgage programs,” Phan said. “Although it’s a revenue generating component, it also has a purpose of helping and alleviating the housing problem that we have.”
While Phan’s parents are not immediately involved in the nonprofit organization’s work, the foundation remains a family affair.
Kathleen UpdePac, is the president of the Phan Foundation and a former colleague-turned friend of Phan’s. As a founding director of the foundation, UpdePac helped the organization obtain its nonprofit status last year.
A chemical engineer by trade, UpdePac became involved with the foundation as she became more interested in tackling housing issues. She is now helping grow the organization alongside her job.
“We’re best friends, and we happen to work well together. And then we’ve really made a strong group of people that are passionate about this and are weirdly diverse but still make it work to have this be a functionally nonprofit. So it’s been really nice,” she said.
Although the shortage of homes demands new construction, the Phan Foundation believes that a balance of new builds and renovations are key to tackling this issue, said UpdePac.
“One of the things that kind of sets us apart is that we’re trying to do renovations. It reduces the environmental impact, just because you know, new builds are more harmful in that aspect. But we would have a much faster move in time, just because the renovations won’t take as long,” she said.
Bruce Lynn, a Realtor with Keller Williams, has been working with Phan and the foundation for the past two years to find property to renovate for both the for-profit and nonprofit. He said it’s been nice to see younger people like Phan and the rest of the board get involved in the housing world through the foundation, which he described as usually dominated by older individuals.
“(Tuan’s) kind of the driving force behind everything,” Lynn said. “Tuan’s kind of the boots on the ground — the motivated one. It’s really nice to see a younger person that’s maybe mid-career be willing to take on some projects that are not easy and have long histories and issues and lots of political implications.”
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Tuan Phan’s Bio
Birthplace: Fort Worth
Moved to Fort Worth: Left after college in 2011 but returned in 2020
Family: Father Cuong Phan, Mother Canh-Thinh Do, Brother Tung Phan, Sister Canh-Tien Phan, Stepfather Charles Roedema, Dogs Pegasus and Lisa
Education: Bachelor’s of science in biochemistry from University of Texas-Arlington.
Work Experience: The Phan Foundation where he serves as secretary, as well as the family’s for profit real estate investment company. Previous job was with Baker Hughes providing chemical applications support at the Marathon Martinez refinery in California.
Volunteer Experience: Huong Dao Buddhist Temple, Houston Food Bank, Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth
First Job: Cashier and food preparation at Skillman Wok on Camp Bowie Boulevard.
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Leaders can only serve others, never themselves. Anyone else is an opportunist.
Best advice ever received: “A piece of spaghetti or a military unit can only be led from the front end.” – George Patton. You have to pull people along with your leadership and vision. You can’t push them into following you.