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Report on Business When banks balk, ordinary investors can become city builders with ‘small change’

In today’s new model of real estate investment, a prospective investor can search for projects of interest on a laptop and, several mouse clicks later, send funds along. With no middlemen and no banks to decide which projects are worthy of financing, investment opportunities are no longer restricted to the very wealthy or the tried-and-true.

“This is investing democratized, and this is how capital will be formed going forward,” said Eve Picker, a Pittsburgh-based architect, city planner and founder of a real estate equity crowdfunding platform called Small Change.

Ms. Picker was a keynote speaker at the recent Building a Better City forum at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa, co-hosted by The Globe and Mail and Dream Unlimited and Zibi. She was among a diverse group of panellists who discussed the challenges of progressive development as urban populations continue to grow around the world.

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At Small Change, Eve Picker uses crowdfunding to fill the financing gap by matching investors with real estate developers. Here she speaks at the Building a Better City forum on Thursday in Ottawa.

According to Statistics Canada, more than 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities, which is one of the highest rates of urbanization in the G7. And as municipalities across the country tackle challenges that range from protecting heritage to improving road safety, finding capital to create more liveable cities is an ongoing challenge.

Ms. Picker believes crowdfunding is the answer, citing figures from the World Bank that estimate a global crowdfunding market potential of up to $96-billion by 2025.

“In 2010, that figure was under $1-billion. In 2016, crowdfunding surpassed all investments made by venture capital,” she said.

At Small Change, Ms. Picker uses crowdfunding to fill the financing gap by matching investors with developers, raising funds for transformative real estate projects with the goal of making cities more vibrant and liveable.

When she first arrived in Pittsburgh to work as an urban designer for its planning department, the city had lost half of its population due to the relocation of the steel mill industry. She began purchasing and remaking buildings in abandoned neighbourhoods in which no one else was ready to invest.

What she found was that making abandoned buildings functional and attractive again was the easy part. Despite the success of ground-breaking and innovative improvements that paved the way for the city’s revitalization, she struggled to find enough capital.

As banks became more skittish and federal community-building funds dried up, it became increasingly impossible to continue. Her financial partners evaporated, leading her to create Small Change.

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“Innovation makes banks really nervous. They want to finance tried-and-true solutions, not new ones. But we need innovation – lots and lots of it – to build better cities,” she said.

“So how do we break the cycle? How can we finance change?”

Cue the arrival of fintech – the merger of finance with technology that has made possible now-ubiquitous products and services such as shopping on Amazon, online bank transfers and the ability to purchase bitcoin. As one of the fastest growing areas for venture capital, fintech is all about innovation.

“Banks won’t lend to tiny houses, your village on a barge, or your condos on a cruise ship, but the crowd just might,” she said.

“This rapidly growing tiny industry is the future of capital formation.”

So how does crowdfunding build better cities? Ms. Picker cited several of her own success stories when banks refused credit, which include funding a construction loan to build Pittsburgh’s first tiny house in an underserved neighbourhood.

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With the use of crowdfunding, Small Change helped to convert a historic building to a premier co-working space, build affordable starter homes in New Orleans, and bring to fruition an artist co-op bed and breakfast that will provide affordable housing to artists.

Along with the need to provide more affordable housing and reimagine public spaces, other panellists at the forum spoke of the need to be more intentional in reflecting diverse cultures and meeting the needs of local populations.

“We need to be more intentional about creating places that reflect Indigenous culture,” said Aaron Aubin, a registered professional planner who works with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients across Canada. “You see it in some cities like Vancouver the moment you arrive at the airport, but in places like Calgary or Ottawa there isn’t as much of a recollection that people existed here before the Europeans arrived.

“The backbone of our cities is formed on Indigenous knowledge, from our highways to the food we eat and our fresh drinking water supplies. Yet Indigenous people still don’t have the opportunity to leverage their culture and ways of knowing.”

Diana Petramala, a senior researcher at the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development, addressed the need to make public transit more equitable for women and their families.

“Studies show that women not only use transit more than men, they also don’t tend to travel outside of their census division for employment. Time commuting is seen as time not spent with their children,” she said.

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“Bringing more transit options, as well as jobs and daycare centres, to the neighbourhoods they live in will help lower costs and make conditions overall more favourable for residents.”

Urban planner Gabe Klein, who helped to launch two of the first and largest bike-share systems in the United States, says government policies are still largely at odds with citizen needs when it comes to planning cities.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Government policies are still largely at odds with our needs and desires when it comes to planning cities we want to live in, said keynote speaker Gabe Klein.

As the former commissioner of the Chicago and Washington, D.C. departments of transportation, Mr. Klein helped to launch two of the first and largest bike-share systems in the United States, build protected bike lanes and better pedestrian infrastructure, and facilitate private car-share and ride-share services.

“From a cultural standpoint, we’re moving from a century that focused on hyper consumption, cheap credit and individual ownership to a collaborative consumption economy – which we have to do if we want to survive as a species,” he said.

“We need a long-term vision, to break it down into edible, constructible chunks and do a much better job of communicating all the outcomes and benefits. We need to ensure there are benefits for everyone: the private sector, the government and all citizens.

“It’s not that hard to get there. We need more sociologists looking at these problems and working with us.”

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