In this age of wealth inequality, runaway development and gentrification, it’s easy for communities to feel powerless in the face of rapid change. Lynn Smith founded Buy The Block, a real estate crowdfunding portal and the first portal that is African American-owned, to help change that dynamic.
Smith (pictured above) has invested in real estate since she was 21, and experienced firsthand how difficult it can be for small investors to get financing. She also saw how the North Miami neighborhood where she grew up was radically altered by development, without any input from residents. Those experiences led her to found Buy The Block.
“I wanted to be able to offer an alternative financing source for developers and allow the community to be the financiers for these deals,” says Smith.
“As investors, we don’t always necessarily get access to these deals,” she continues. “XYZ developer that we’ve never seen or heard of before comes in and before you know it, the whole neighborhood gets turned around.” Buy The Block, she says “allows individuals to play a role in their community. They can actually see their money being put to work, and potentially get a return or interest.”
Even a single $100 or $500 investment in an apartment complex in Detroit, for example, can help to turn a block and a community around, she says. “There is empowerment in it.”
From Solar Farms to Food Deserts
To launch the Buy The Block, Smith raised close to $110,000 from 455 backers who donated money to a crowdfunding campaign she ran on BBnomics, a donation crowdfunding site she also owns. The campaign urged people to “Buy the Block and stop gentrification.”
Buy The Block, which is based in Denver, got its FINRA approval and opened its doors in October 2017. The portal handles Regulation Crowdfunding offerings, which are open to all investors, as well as offerings under Regulation D, an exemption limited to accredited investors that has no limits on how much money can be raised.
To date, Buy The Block has hosted a handful of offerings, including a restaurant and a hair care business. Current offerings include a solar-powered data center being developed on 100 acres in southwest Georgia (Reg D) and a distillery development in Florida (Reg CF). The latest offering: Roots & Vine Produce & Café, a cafe and farmers market on Chicago’s south side that will source from Black-owned farms.
Ena Jones, a chef and caterer, decided to open Roots & Vine after seeing so many members of her community suffer from diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. “I want to give the community a chance to learn about food and health,” she says. She plans to expand the concept to food deserts across the country via franchising.
Tapping Into Black Purchasing Power
Buy The Block may be off to a modest start. But as the first African American-owned crowdfunding portal, its symbolic power and economic potential is undeniable—especially in commercial real estate, which has been called ‘the least diverse industry on the planet.’ Real estate ownership is also key to building inter-generational wealth.
“A revolution in early stage finance is changing the way inner city African-American communities relate to capital formation, real estate development, entrepreneurship, and job creation,” says Bill Huston, founder of Our Crowd Rocks, a crowdfunding consultancy in Louisville that works with Buy The Block.
The JOBS Act, he says, is transforming how early stage investing and community economic development works. And Smith “has created the infrastructure for the African-American community to shift some of the $1.3 trillion we have in purchasing power to small Black-owned businesses, inner-city real estate development and tech businesses that lack access to capital to grow and prosper.”
Buy The Block is open to any sort of project as long as there is a real estate component, whether residential, business or industrial projects. The site charges issuers 4.5% of the money successfully raised. If an offering is not successful, Buy The Block makes nothing.
Smith is motivated by the power that crowdinvesting has to engage people and give them a sense of agency. “It’s really helps to get the community involved and show them they can be part of an action that’s being taken in their community and get the benefits and rewards,” she says.
That resonates with Jones of Roots & Vine. “I love what she’s trying to do for the community,” says Jones. We’re gentrifying our own neighborhoods. Everybody sees value in our community but us.”
Like other crowdinvesting pioneers, Smith acknowledges the significant amount of education that still needs to be done. But she has hopes that the new form of funding, and Buy The Block, will spread. “Ten years from now, I’d like to see at least five developments in every state showing that we bought the block,” she says. “We invested and here’s the proof.”