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A new movement is creating ways for low-income people to invest in real estate

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There's a new movement to help people build wealth through real estate. It gives neighbors in some communities an ownership share of big commercial properties, such as shopping malls. From Portland, Ore., here's Deena Prichep.

DEENA PRICHEP: In a lot of ways, Plaza 122 looks like your typical mid-century suburban strip mall, a taxi company, hair salon, some nonprofits, including the Ethiopian and Eritrean Cultural Resources Center.

YONAS KASSIE: This is our finance department, you know?

PRICHEP: Yonas Kassie is the director.

KASSIE: This is my office. Yeah, it's open.

PRICHEP: But Kassie doesn't just rent this office, he owns it, at least a share of it through the Community Investment Trust - or CIT.

KASSIE: This really gives us opportunity to feel a sense of community. We are also one of the investors and even small, big - it doesn't matter.

PRICHEP: Participants pay from 10 to $100 each month for a share in the building. They get dividends as the value goes up and can cash out whenever they want.

JOHN HAINES: We were looking at where poverty resides. And the big bubble is renters.

PRICHEP: John Haines founded CIT eight years ago. It's a project of Mercy Corps, the international relief and development agency.

HAINES: So what we did was brilliantly - right? - just go ask people what's going on in their lives. Do they save? Do they invest?

PRICHEP: Some people were saving, but nobody was investing.

HAINES: And when we asked why not, they said, well, what do you do with 10 bucks a month?

PRICHEP: So CIT bought this building.

OLENA BOROVA: We have 61% investors women and 60% BIPOC communities. We have some investors, they didn't have bank accounts.

PRICHEP: Olena Borova is the CIT's education and outreach coordinator. And she's also an investor.

BOROVA: This is a great opportunity for immigrants like me, because I'm from Ukraine. And just an idea of you owning something in a new country for you, this is completely different.

PRICHEP: CIT now has around 300 investors.

BRETT THEODOS: The wealthy and, really, the truly wealthy have had these options at their disposal for some time.

PRICHEP: Brett Theodos studies housing and communities at the Urban Institute. Property is one of the main ways people build wealth in this country. But Theodos says the benefits go beyond the bank account.

THEODOS: The hope is that these models support some measure of community participation, of engagement, of a sense of place, a sense of ownership, and that if you own the thing, you're more likely to frequent it and build up your neighborhood brick by brick.

PRICHEP: At Plaza 122, you can see that. The share price has almost doubled. And over $100,000 has been cashed out or paid in dividends. And CIT just received $1.75 million from JPMorgan Chase to bring this model to cities across the country. But executive director John Haines says it's not just the numbers.

HAINES: And what we're seeing is that the majority of the investors, 60%, are voting regularly when they didn't before. And when we asked them - why is that? - they said, because I'm an owner. I own part of the neighborhood. My footprint, my engagement goes beyond my front door.

PRICHEP: And it's also helped investors like Olena Borova get a front door of their own.

BOROVA: So on January 27, I bought my first house in the United States. And this is like a dream came true.

PRICHEP: The American dream is about making a better life. The Community Investment Trust is offering that opportunity to people who never had it before and creating neighborhoods that feel like home.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep at Plaza 122 in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMEWORKS' "SAND AND STONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deena Prichep