Gino Dante Borges thinks there's a problem with apartment complexes, and it's not the buildings themselves.
"People share walls but don't necessarily share lives," he told me.
That truth — and a desire to change it — motivated him to become a partner at OpenPath Investments, a company that buys apartment complexes and transforms them into thriving communities.
It takes an urban village
According to Borges, communities are based on two things: needs and offerings. People need each other's help. And people have time, skills and energy that they want to offer.
"It's the nuts and bolts of life," Borges said.
When the company first buys a complex, OpenPath’s Urban Village Director Sara Mossman visits to get a feel for the local community. One thing always stands out during these initial visits: nobody’s outside. People aren’t hanging out with their neighbors.
That's why the company works with residents to create resident-led initiatives. Every community is different, so every community’s programming is different too. Sometimes, families create a meal rotation, which saves time for everyone and creates an easy community moment. One complex was full of kids who were interested in art. So the company hired a local graffiti artist to make murals on apartment walls and teach kids about painting.
"After a year, [programming] typically has enough momentum where a lot of the heavy lifting on our part is done," Borges explained. Residents become friends. Neighbors hang out together outside.
By creating programs for neighbors to share needs and offerings with one another, neighbors can become a lot closer than they could by, say, having a cocktail party.
"A much different connection evolves when people actually collaborate on a project," Borges explained.
Socially responsible real estate
In addition to changing the social life of the complexes, OpenPath Investments also makes complexes more environmentally conscious and sustainable. It teaches residents to reduce their carbon footprint, implements recycling programs, installs solar panels and builds community gardens. The company also replaces apartment-wide equipment with systems that save energy and water.
Unlike many intentional communities, these urban villages aren't built by a group of like-minded composting fans moving together to live more communally. Instead, these apartments are full of residents who may have never recycled before.
OpenPath Investments is an unusual kind of business, one that requires unusual people to run it. Borges considers himself a melding of two worlds: bohemian and financial. It takes a bohemian to imagine a business based on social cohesion, rather than numbers. It takes a finance expert to run it.
"You're dealing with people," said Borges. "It's messy, it's non linear, and it's surprising … It's a constant fireworks show."
And that's one of the reasons he likes it. But it wasn't always that way. A decade or so ago, Borges grew bothered by this gulf between his values and what his money was doing. He lived in communities, shared resources, planted his own food and invited neighbors over for dinner. But he had no idea what effect his investments were having on other people and the planet.
"The way I was living in the world was so different than the way my money was acting in the world," he said in a TED talk (video above). "I saw money as the very currency that could create change, yet I didn’t know where my money was or what it was doing."
That's why he became a partner at OpenPath Investments, which was founded by Peter Slaugh in 2002. Since 2010, OpenPath has bought, transformed and sold seven apartment complexes and is turning 17 more into urban villages in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. Other landlords are starting to hire OpenPath Investments to set up communities in their buildings.
"Our current apartment complex investments are valued at more than $360 million and we target 15% to 18%+ returns for our investors," says the OpenPath website.
Real estate can be an incredibly lucrative investment. Perhaps it can be a socially responsible one as well.