Across the country, lower-income Americans face common barriers to building personal wealth. Mercy Corps’ domestic economic development arm examined these barriers, which include insufficient experience with money management and a lack of financial products suited to people’s means and desires. These conditions prevent an ever-growing number of families from building financial resilience, which leaves them vulnerable to even small financial setbacks. Unexpected expenses can become calamities that exact a high cost upon families – and upon the resources of social safety net programs. For over a decade, one in four people in the nation are susceptible to “asset poverty,” an economic and social condition that is more prevalent over the past decade than income poverty. A household is asset poor when it lacks resources to be able to provide for its family members basic needs for a period of three months. Renters, single parents and minority populations make up a disproportionate share of asset poor households. The number of asset-poor households is increasing annually due to the intransigent challenges of intergenerational poverty, a culture of personal finance inaction, entrenched tax policies that favor debt and home ownership, and inadequate access to long-term and affordable real estate investments. With that situation in Portland and the nation, Mercy Corps took action. We used human-centered design principles to understand the motivations of low-income and renter populations and the impediments that hinder them from taking personal financial action, such as long- term investing, that would improve their lives. The Community Investment Trust (CIT) is the product that emerged from that research. It is both an inclusive wealth-building path for families and a community economic development strategy.
A NEW INVESTMENT PRODUCT
Long-term investing in real estate is a proven way to build assets – and, as we learned in our research, it is an avenue that appeals to renters and other low-income people. The CIT is a proprietary investment product owned by Mercy Corps but built for replication by other organizations. Designed to meet the needs and desires of low- to moderate-income families, the first project, East Portland CIT Corporation (and its commercial retail property, Plaza 122), will provide 300-500 families with a long-term investment opportunity in a commercial-
retail building in their neighborhood. Investors will purchase, over time, the $450K in initial equity, provided as debt to purchase and improve Plaza 122 by Mercy Corps and two impact investors. Mercy Corps’ CIT program will track outcomes and impact on three mutually reinforcing levels: the individual/family level, the property/ tenant level and the community level. We anticipate a neighborhood incorporating a CIT will become safer, more equitable, and more economically viable with higher quality of life, and more engaged citizens. Mercy Corps believes that the CIT will be a powerful tool to inspire and enable people to improve their own financial well-being as well as their community’s health and prosperity.
No other financial product or community development model in the private, public or nonprofit sector has been designed like the CIT. The model’s unique advantages include:
- Low dollar investments ($10 to $100/ month).
- Short and long-term returns for investors through an annual dividend and share price change annually.
- Guaranteed protection from loss for investors through a direct pay letter of credit from a bank.
- Investor education course, called “Moving from Owing to Owning”, offered in five languages covering budgeting, goal setting and the risk and return profiles of investments.
- Investor efficient management and communication including a website – investcit.com and an investment management portal.
The CIT addresses long-standing community economic development challenges in cities, counties and states throughout the nation: financial inclusion, equitable development and inclusive growth. This case study recounts how Mercy Corps developed the CIT from its vision to launch, highlighting key legal, financial and community engagement challenges and hurdles and how Mercy Corps addressed them. It concludes with a vision for the model’s replication through organizations who can build upon the success of the pilot project to create a learning community of projects that leverages the unique character of each community’s CIT project. Mercy Corps is completing capitalization models and case studies for a range of variations on its first project as a companion to this case study.