When his playing days in the National Football League ended in 2012 Jamar Adams was heading to a job at Goldman Sachs and thinking of applying to the Ross School of Business at his alma mater, the University of Michigan.

Then a friend set up a meeting for him with Stephen Ross, the billionaire chairman of the Related Companies, one of New York’s biggest property developers, and benefactor of the Ross School. Ross also owns the Miami Dolphins football team. The young black athlete and the then-septuagenarian Jewish mogul hit it off.

“He kind of spouted out, ‘Hey, why don’t you come work for me?’” recalled Adams, who at first did not take the suggestion seriously. “About five minutes later, he said: ‘You know what? You should really come work for me.’”

So began an unlikely journey in the real estate world for Adams, 35, that has culminated this month in the launch of his own firm, Essence Development. It will specialise in affordable and workforce housing that tends to go overlooked by many other developers.

“I want to be sitting at the table to help make the decisions of how we build the next generation of affordable housing — from a sustainability perspective as well as how we make this user-focused,” Adams explained. “You don’t get that unless you sit at the table, and you don’t sit at the table unless you’re an owner.”

For black Americans, joining the elite club of property developers to which Adams aspires — that is, the giants such as Ross who have literally built the New York City skyline — has been frustratingly difficult.

The greatest success may be Don Peebles, a university dropout who parlayed a relationship with Washington mayor Marion Barry into an east coast property empire. After Peebles, there are not many others.

“Black developers and minority developers are significantly under-represented in the real estate community,” said Sam Chandan, the dean of the Schack Institute of Real Estate at New York University, who has been a champion for greater diversity in the industry.

If not by outright racism, minority developers have been thwarted by a lack of capital and a paucity of the high-level business and government contacts that are essential to bring large-scale developments to life.

“You need to have the network,” Chandan said. “The complexity of development means relationships with the community, with the construction companies, with the brokerages — that well-established network is an essential ingredient to success.”

As a black athlete growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Adams found he had plenty of potential role models in professional sports — but few other careers.

In high school, his mother forced him to join Saturday meetings sponsored by 100 Black Men, a mentoring group that paired him with a black executive from Wachovia bank and opened his eyes to the possibility of a business career.

“That’s the challenge,” Adams said. “When you’re a young person you want to be able to look up and see someone that you say: I can be like them. And we just don’t have representations in many fields at all.”

Adams attended Michigan on a football scholarship, becoming the first member of his family to graduate from a four-year college, before spending two seasons in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles.

Related is known for bold, glitzy projects such as the $25bn Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan — an office, retail and luxury condominium development that has been rendered a veritable ghost town by the pandemic. But Adams went to work in its affordable housing division, which was Ross’s focus when he founded the company in 1972.

Affordable housing, incidentally, is the same trade that a Queens developer named Fred Trump used to build a family fortune. It requires cost discipline as well as the ability to navigate government subsidies and incentives.

While the materials and budgets might differ, Adams argued that luxury and affordable projects were not entirely distinct. For both, the key to success was understanding the user and providing the right amenities.

At Hudson Yards, that might be an Equinox Hotel. For an affordable project, those amenities might include on-site healthcare for low-income recipients, childcare and luring a health-conscious grocery store.

“People try to commoditise affordable housing. They say, ‘Look, you throw something up there. You get the bonds, you get the [tax] credits, you build the same thing over and over.’ But with affordable housing you have to take the same intent and the same focus as when you build market-rate housing,” Adams said.

From Ross, he says he learnt many things, particularly salesmanship. “He’s the pied piper,” Adams said, describing the older man’s ability to sway an audience. He was not troubled, he said, by Ross’s decision to host a fundraiser in 2019 for Donald Trump. The event provoked a furious backlash among progressives, who accused the developer and his friends of giving succour to a president they believed was encouraging racism.

“I’m not a Trump supporter. But I’m a supporter of Stephen Ross,” Adams said, recalling how his mentor took a chance on him years before the current outcry over racial injustice.

The affection is mutual. “I remember sitting in that first meeting with him, hearing why he went to Michigan and knowing of the success he had there, and I could feel that his character, intelligence and his ambition would set him up for success,” Ross said.

All told, Adams helped lead the construction or rehabilitation of more than 5,000 units of affordable and middle-income housing during his career at Related and rose to vice-president.

He began to consider a new path after the police killing last year of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis, and the racial injustice it exposed. For Adams, there was the realisation that he had been sitting through too many meetings about affordable housing in which minorities were barely present.

“I always saw non-black people and non-minorities in the position to make decisions when it came to housing for low income and affordable residents,” he said.

When Adams informed Ross and Bruce Beal, Related’s president, of his plans, the two men asked to join his board. Their presence should help when it comes to a persistent complaint of minority developers: financing. Time and again, Adams was warned by others in the industry that — all things being equal — a white developer would obtain better loan terms.

Another challenge is the economy. A historic crisis precipitated by a once-in-a-century pandemic might seem like an inopportune moment to start a new development business. It has certainly clouded Hudson Yards’ prospects.

But Adams is convinced that the need for affordable housing has only grown as coronavirus has put millions of people out of work and threatened families with eviction. The Biden administration has talked about creating a $100bn affordable housing fund as part of its plans to address the shortage.

“I think it’s the perfect time,” Adams said, with all the confidence of New York's biggest developers.