When Ben Miller decided to use crowdfunding as a means to rehabilitate a beaten-down building in one of Washington, D.C.'s transitional neighborhoods, he didn't really know crowdfunding was a thing, That's because it wasn't, at least not in real estate, yet.
But Miller and his brother Dan were raised in both a real estate family and in the social generation. Their goal—to give everyone the opportunity to invest in commercial real estate—was just intuitive to them. Previously, commercial real estate was a playground for large-scale investors only.
"We didn't know it would become a movement, and that the movement would be our business," said Ben Miller, standing in the finished project—an open, modern/industrial-style space called Maketto. "We raised $350,000 from 175 people at $100 a share, and now the industry will do a billion dollars a year, and we're doing a project a week and raising probably half a million dollars a day."
Fundrise is an online crowdfunding platform offering individual investors a chance to buy shares in a commercial real estate project. The returns come from both rental stream and the appreciation of the property itself.
That was what was so enticing about the first project on H Street, a transitional neighborhood just east of D.C's Union Station. Not only was the neighborhood on the verge of big growth, but it also begged for an anchor destination to get the ball rolling.
When you first walk into Maketto, it's not immediately clear what the place is—and that is literally by design. It is a bar, a designer coffee house, a bakery, a retail clothing and sneaker shop, and a restaurant with a James Beard-nominated chef. Independent vendors all feed off each other, literally, under one roof. By sharing the space, the rent is cheaper, and therefore the profit greater.
"The whole idea was to do something different, to do something that the neighborhood wanted, so the space is both a restaurant and high fashion, it has a cafe," Miller said. "It's called Maketto meant to be a communal market, and the people invested in this project not only own a piece of the real estate but also a piece of the restaurants."
Miller may call it a market, but really it is a floor plan for the future: A social network of retail and restaurant on three levels, with communal seating everywhere (even in the chef's kitchen), and open-air spaces on the roof. It is what the millennials moving into this now-trendy new neighborhood expect.
"The point is to get people in there from the minute you wake up in the morning for your coffee through your nighttime cocktail and to meet people while you're there. It invites you to chat," said Gina Schaefer, one of the "crowd" investors in the project.
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Schaefer and her husband own 10 hardware stores in the District and in Baltimore, but they lease all their properties. Owning real estate was way beyond their means until Fundrise approached them with the crowdfunding platform. They bought into it, investing $10,000 in the project. Last year, they received their first dividend check.