When Bryan Cumby drove to Austin from Dallas in 1991, he towed the smallest U-Haul trailer he could get. It had everything he owned inside of it— things he needed to set up a new life. The 6th generation Texan came to the Capitol city for the "vibe." He felt there were opportunities here that didn't exist in the bigger cities of his home state. And maybe part of him just wanted to forge his own path away from Dallas— the city his ancestors helped found in 1841.
"I felt like Austin was a place that a young person could land and get involved with what was going on," Cumby said.
Now, he is head of Cumby Group, a family firm specializing in real estate development. For the last twenty years, the company has acquired land, gotten projects titled, and designed and built residential homes primarily in and around Austin's urban core.
"For the last twenty years, Austin has been trying to reach its potential. You've got this interesting convergence of state government and a high quality of outdoor living, together with higher education at the University of Texas. As Austin has evolved, you see a natural progression in the way the economy has developed," Cumby said. "It's nothing short of amazing. Some of it has happened just because Austin is a cool place to be, but there was also a serious plan laid for how to go about the business of developing Austin's local economy. And it's been pretty effective."
Like the evolution of a city, Cumby has experienced his own growth as a businessperson and a citizen. When he first got to Austin, one of his community and networking strategies was to get involved with organizations he believed in. He joined the Austin Chamber of Commerce and got on a committee. There, he met Alan Graham, who was a real estate developer at the time.
Cumby and Graham became fast friends. They served on the Board of Directors of the Austin Chamber of Commerce throughout the nineties. A couple of years later, Graham decided to follow what he described as "a calling" to serve others in need. He started Mobile Loaves and Fishes as an outreach effort to provide food, clothing, and hygiene items to chronically homeless people.
"I found myself making random donations to Alan's cause," Cumby recalled. "I followed him as a friend and a small donor. And then, through his work with people on the street and his real estate background, he came up with the notion of trying to create a community for folks who experienced chronic homelessness. He wanted to provide them with a community they could live in and get access to services that would help them deal with what they had encountered in their lives and try to give them a support system."
That was the beginning of Cumby's philanthropic journey. He adopted a "give back" mindset after finding success in Austin— an experience he describes as a blessing for which he is forever grateful.
"Austin's been very good to me. I didn't know a soul in this town. I’ve been able to serve on boards for the Paramount Theater, Junior Achievement Central Texas, and the Boy Scouts of America. Austin opened its arms to me as an outsider coming in," Cumby explained. "In large part, one of the reasons that I adopted a community service model early on in my career was because I felt an obligation to give back to the place that gave me the opportunities that I've had."
As a real estate developer, Cumby's business has built and donated ten homes in the Community First! Village, with five more in the process right now.
"We're excited about the expansion that's underway," Cumby said. "It's a real-world solution that's working. And it's almost all privately funded, which I think is also amazing. We'll continue supporting Community First! in any way that we're capable of into the future as they continue their journey. I look at this as a marathon, not a sprint. We're in it for the long haul."
Through his friendship with Graham, Cumby's understanding of chronic homelessness deepened, and his commitment to helping solve it became more significant.
"The most impactful experience I've had with chronic homeless is moving these two fellows off the street. It was the hardest work that I ever engaged in because sometimes it doesn't work out," Cumby explained. "But Alan and his wife Tricia told me you have to do what your heart's calling you to do, and you can't have any expectations. Just keep on putting one foot in front of the other. They're extremely inspirational in that way."
Cumby says he knows a lot more about the roots of homelessness than he did before becoming involved with Graham's work. It's been a journey he didn’t expect to take.
“People misunderstand homelessness,” Cumby explains. “At its core, it's about mental illness and addiction. I don't think anybody who is functioning at a high level would choose that lifestyle. We've got a lot of work to do in that area."
In addition to Cumby's involvement in Community First! Village, his business goes into dense urban areas to work with residents to identify community and neighborhood needs. For example, in the past few years, The Cumby Group has donated money to community parks to support significant improvements.
"We work with communities and try to leverage other funds from the city to help enable improvement projects in public parks in those areas we develop in," Cumby said. "We think that's just part of what we should be doing when we go in and become part of a neighborhood.”
Cumby is also a large investor in Opportunity Austin— the economic development engine of the Austin Chamber. He believes this "give back" model is good for communities, businesses, and people.
"Quality of life starts with a paycheck," Cumby said. "We can create good-paying jobs that benefit people who want to live here and people who do live here now. We created as many jobs in Austin from January to July 2021 as we did in the entire year of 2020, which was a record year."
It's nothing short of remarkable. But, Cumby says, Austin made another list recently where the city was identified as one of the least affordable places to live.
"Our company wants to be part of trying to figure out how to crack the code and to create more thoughtful development in the urban core that still respects the wishes of the neighborhoods but allows for greater plan density and greater volumes of housing to be developed in shorter periods of time," Cumby stated. "We want to do something about making Austin more affordable. It's a travesty that our teachers, nurses, firefighters, and police officers can't afford to live in the same city that they serve every day. It doesn't have to be this way."
In the end, Cumby wants to be part of helping drive the thought processes and transformational thinking around how Austin is developed in the long term. He wants to do this by working with the city to create more sustainable or affordable housing around Cesar Chavez and South Congress in the urban core. And making service a significant part of his commitment to Austin's economy and people will undoubtedly pay a debt of gratitude to the city Cumby calls home.
Box 2: Community First! Village
51-acre master planned community in East Austin
Houses more than 200 residents who experienced chronic homelessness
Cumby Group has so far built and donated 10 homes, have 5 in process, and plan to do more in the future
Bryan Cumby's Community Outreach:
Community First! Village / Mobile Loaves and Fishes
Austin Chamber of Commerce / Opportunity Austin
Junior Achievement Central Texas
Austin History Center
The Boy Scouts of America
"We'll continue supporting Community First! Village in any way that we're capable of into the future as they continue their journey. I look at this as a marathon, not a sprint. We're in it for the long haul." – Bryan Cumby, CEO, Cumby Group