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The Real Deal

USC Gould School of Law • February 3, 2024
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Alumni Spotlight: Andrés Cantero Jr. JD ’16

Commercial real estate and social justice action don’t ordinarily fit in the same bucket, but Andrés Cantero Jr. JD ’16 has managed to blend his passion for both.

The 33-year-old real estate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, together with life partner Sam Prater, launched Los Angeles Room & Board. The pioneering nonprofit serves 200 college-aged students wrestling with housing insecurity.

“And we’re barely scratching the surface,” Cantero says. “There’s so much need.” Studies show one in five California Community College students experience homelessness.

Founded in 2019, LARNB is a student-focused nonprofit in Los Angeles, with more than $30 million in funding from the State of California, plus millions more in grants from about 30 private philanthropies, working in partnership with the Los Angeles Community College District.

LARNB operates three housing complexes — the 35-bed Excelsior House in East Hollywood, the 65-bed Dunamis House in Boyle Heights, and the 50-bed Opportunity House in Westwood. It recently signed a master lease for 10 suites in the USC-adjacent Lorenzo Apartments. Those rental units, offered at heavily subsidized rates, serve as transitional housing for clients who need a “soft-landing” as they exit LARNB’s services, which have a two-to-three-year limit.

Supported through continuous enrollment in post-secondary education, residents receive one-on-one case management that takes into account each student’s unique situation and develops a personalized plan.

“What sets LARNB apart is our dual focus on lifting our students out of homelessness and our commitment to setting our students up for success in their academic pursuits,” Cantero says. To that end, a 20-person professional team provides on-site wrap-around services like three meals a day, tutoring and academic mentorships, mental health and wellness support, job training and career development, financial literacy workshops and more.

Prater serves as LARNB’s full-time director, and Cantero continues his involvement as a member of the board. The idea sprang from Prater’s doctoral research in educational leadership. He had personally experienced homelessness as a youth in Detroit. With Prater’s vision and Cantero’s legal experience , LARNB solidified into bricks and mortar.

After setting up the 501(C)(3), Cantero negotiated a master lease for Opportunity House. “Once we had a facility, we could prove it was working and apply for funding, including state funds for Project Homekey. I represented LARNB in the acquisition of Dunamis and Excelsior. I negotiated state contracts through Project Homekey. This is exactly why I went into real estate—to do projects with social impact.”

Cantero grew up in Orange County, the oldest of three sons in a Mexican immigrant family. His father is a factory worker who makes storage boxes and packaging. His mom, for decades a drug store clerk, earned a medical billing certificate in 2004. She got so good at her job that she now teaches medical billing at American Career College.

Cantero’s own childhood was clouded by housing insecurity. His parents had qualified for low-income homeowner assistance but struggled to make mortgage payments. “My mom and dad both worked two jobs, but they still ended up in bankruptcy,” he says.

Education was another hurdle. Though born in Garden Grove, Calif., Cantero didn’t speak a word of English when he started kindergarten. He was a gifted student, but ended up on the ESL track for years. Had a fifth grade teacher (Mrs. Cheri Kaplan) not advocated aggressively for his transfer into mainstream classes, Cantero doubts he could have later gained admission to Stanford University and USC Gould.

Even with scholarships and generous financial aid packages, Cantero struggled to keep his head above water at Stanford. “It was a huge personal and family sacrifice to make it happen.”

To pay for his education, Cantero worked days at a university call center and nights as a student security guard. He took side gigs as an elementary school math tutor and a tumbling instructor at local gyms. He got active in student government, serving as a senator, and filling leadership roles with Stanford’s Derechos Pre-Law Society and the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán (MEChA).

After graduating in 2012 with a history degree, Cantero had signed up with Teach for America, but when a flood shuttered the Louisiana school he’d been assigned to, his plans changed. Cantero spent a year working multiple jobs to build up a nest egg while volunteering at the Solano County Superior Courthouse. That experience cemented his decision to become an attorney.

“I saw an overwhelming majority of our clients (in the court’s family law facilitator’s office) were Latino, yet no one spoke Spanish. Very rarely did I see a Latino attorney,” he recalls. Bent on filling this demographic gap, Cantero applied and was admitted to USC Gould.

“Law school was probably the best time of my life,” he recalls. “I could actually just enjoy studying and being a student. I had so much fun.”

Cantero took Prof. Clare Pastore’s Access to Justice practicum, in which he helped to halt, on due process grounds, the county’s injurious practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid tickets. The experience inspired Cantero to be a change agent for social justice causes.

The Rodolfo Montana Memorial Scholarship and other scholarships and grants covered much of his law school tuition, but Cantero still worked several campus jobs — as a student ambassador for the Admissions office and as a contracts tutor in the JD and LLM programs. To save money, he commuted from his family’s home in Tustin, Calif. and earned extra income through a remote externship with Knox Ricksen LLP in San Francisco. His 1L summer associate position at Hanson Bridgett LLP “paid more than my parents had ever made, collectively. For the first time, I was a major contributor to the family.”

By his third year of law school, Cantero was managing editor of the Business Law Adviser and president of the USC Latino Law Students Association. He was one of the students who helped shape the C. David Molina First Generation Professionals Program in its initial year, and he served as a lieutenant governor in the ABA Ninth Circuit’s student division.

For his many Trojan contributions, Cantero was awarded the USC Order of Arete, the highest university-wide grad student honor for community service, as well as USC Gould’s Shattuck Award and the C. David Molina First-Generation Professionals Program’s student of the year prize. Tipping the Scales, a resource website for law students, named him one of the top law school graduates of 2016.

After graduation, Cantero joined Sheppard Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP in their Los Angeles real estate group and later moved on to positions at Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Munger Tolles & Olson LLP. In 2022, he joined Willkie Farr & Gallagher, where he’s now a senior real estate associate.

“Our team at Willkie is doing impactful work like building parks and recreation centers, affordable housing and university buildings alongside our complex commercial real estate transactions.” he says, enthusiastically. “I have worked on housing for women experiencing domestic violence, and working on the first fully accessible homeless housing project anywhere.”

Cantero stays engaged at USC Gould as a lecturer in transactional law, usually in contract drafting, negotiation or deal making. He’s also a past member of the law school’s alumni association board.

Looking ahead, he hopes to make his way up the Big Law partnership ladder. His long-term goal is to take a leadership role in community college- and university-based real estate capital projects to continue addressing the student housing crisis.

As for LARNB, the young nonprofit continues to thrive and grow. “We’re constantly working on grants and funding,” Cantero says. “The Wells Fargo Foundation just provided a grant.” Fundraising is a never-ending pursuit. The need remains high and it is a costly venture to sustain, but LARNB is determined to see its impact and mission through.

The next phase in LARNB’s evolution is data collection.

“LARNB is beginning to step back and look at the big picture: What are the structures that help students matriculate and complete their educational goals? Is LARNB making a structural difference? Are we actually helping prevent the flow of people into homelessness, which is part of the mission?”

If the data continues to say yes, LARNB will look at scaling up the LARNB model so other municipalities and states can implement similar programming.

“These are very complex projects, facing the same issues and conflicts as some of my commercial deals — need of financing, tight turnaround times, negotiation with investors and approval bodies. I’m able to use my law degree and commercial real estate experience to help nonprofits really make a difference.

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