A New Way to Create Wealth

A New Way to Create Wealth

Innovative renter equity program also helps build community

In a Cincinnati neighbourhood marked by some of the country’s worst crime and greatest poverty a new way for low-income residents to create wealth has been proving itself for more than 10 years.

  Margery Spinney (right) with co-manager Carol Smith receiving the Stephanie Bevens Award in September, 2012. The award is from the Ohio Community Development Corporation Association and honors strong community advocates who have demonstrated commitment and entrepreneurial spirit.

Margery Spinney grew up in a household saturated in economics  — “I didn’t study it, I just absorbed it,” she says. A grandfather was the first head of the National Labor Relations Board, appointed by Franklin Roosevelt, and a cousin was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for economics this year.

When you’ve been given a gift and a vision for how to use it to make the world better, you really have no choice but to act, Margery says.

In 2000, Margery sent postcards to residents of this Cincinnati neighbourhood, where the median household income is less than $12,000 and the crime rates are the highest within a census track in the U.S.

“If you’re somebody who pays your rent on time and cares about how you take care of where you live, we have another opportunity for you that could help you build some assets like an owner would,” the postcard read.

Some people showed up for that first meeting and heard Margery’s idea: what if there were a way for them to earn equity as affordable housing renters?

Imagine it worked this way: they agree to pay their rent on time, attend every monthly renter equity meeting and complete six or so hours of maintenance around the property each month.


As they do so, they start to build equity credits towards a cash payment. Each equity credit earned has an equivalent cash value. For example, the first’s month credit has a value of $57.78, 12 months have a cumulative value of $715.98 and so forth. After five years, residents are vested and the credits can be converted to cash payment.

Some people were keen.

The financial opportunity was a magnet, but also the chance to have more control over the safety and cleanliness of their housing; and they liked the thought of joining a close-knit, respectful community.

Today, residents from that first community have earned more than $100,000 in equity credits. The money comes from a variety of sources such as developers fees, management fees, grants and reserves saved by keeping the occupancy rate high. Owners of this affordable rental housing setup earn tax credits dollar for dollar and aren’t looking to profit off the low rent payments anyway.

Since the renter equity program was introduced, the quality of the property has also increased; crime in the vicinity has dropped, and the property has become much easier to manage because people are working together with common purpose.

Two other affordable rental housing units have since become renter equity communities in the same neighbourhood, with similar outcomes.

Margery foresees a day when there’s a new word in the English language for this tweak on the property system — renter equitying, maybe?

She’s now, in fact, working out what’s needed to make this approach replicable.


Top of the list is creating a training and support system for the managers of such properties, who are integral to this working well, and need to be able to do much more than fix toilets. Skills in community building, conflict resolution and juggling the perspectives of both the owners and residents in a way that empowers all sides are paramount.

A second priority is creating a legal structure so the communities continue long-term, especially past the time that tax credit investors in the affordable rental housing exit at the 15-year mark when their tax credits expire. How can the structure be put together so the next owners are sure to continue the renter equity arrangement, is Margery’s big question.

Margery spoke with Axiom News from California where she was babysitting her grandchildren, her voicing breaking a little as she tried to answer the question about her commitment to this innovation.

Yes, it’s about having been given something that she would be remiss not to share with the world to make it better.

It’s also seeing the desperate need for alternatives in the current economic system that is so upwardly magnetized, always drawing money to the top so fewer and fewer people control more and more of the wealth. The renter equity program is a proven, workable way to create wealth at the “bottom.”

There’s also the growing recognition that we need to strengthen our community’s connective tissues, but Margery is feeling somewhat like a lone prophet so far in making the case that the property system is also a critical piece in building community.

“We talk about people building assets and being more engaged, but the reality is our property system is a structure that we all live within, and it creates possibilities and it makes other things not possible and that structure needs to be adjusted,” she says.

Margery is now volunteering her time to expand renter equity to new projects and is keen to find some like-minded souls who see what’s possible and want to join in making this more widespread. You can e-mail her at mspinney(at)csequity.org to learn more.

If you like this story, check out these:

Our own:

Communities Restoring Themselves

A Small Group Builds New Cincinnati

On the web:

A brighter future: Equity program helps renters build wealth

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Michelle Strutzenberger

Generative Journalist


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