Homes, Sweet Homes: A Real Estate Innovator Shares Shelter in Nicaragua

Article excerpt

* BLAKE ANDREWS has gone skydiving nearly 400 times. As a gifted young tennis player, he competed alongside Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles. But no leap out of a B-52 at 14,000 feet, no smashing serve or killer volley ever matched the thrill he experienced when visiting Popoyo, Nicaragua, in June 2011, and sliding shoes onto the bare feet of local children as part of a giving trip with TOMS.

The 200 pairs of shoes were meant to change the kids' lives--when children have shoes they're more likely to attend school, for one thing--but they also changed Andrews' life.

"I decided right then that whatever I did for the rest of my life, I wanted it to be something that gives back," says Andrews, now 38, who was working for TOMS at the time of the trip. He was shocked to see people living in makeshift structures of tarp and wood, shanties that offered little protection against Nicaragua's long rainy seasons. "I remember the first time I walked into a family's home," he says. "It was probably 6 feet by 6 feet, with a dirt floor and a wood pallet that all six people in the family slept on. I saw what a pair of shoes could do for a kid and I thought, Imagine the difference you'd make if you could figure out a way to build homes for these families."

Now, less than three years after that trip, Andrews, with help from his wife, Tricia, has launched Giveback Homes, a national network of real estate agents and mortgage brokers who give away a portion of their commissions to help build homes for people in need.

Inspired by the TOMS model of sustainable giving through its "one for one" pledge to donate a pair of shoes for every pair purchased, Giveback Homes is a way of doing good and also good business, as Andrews puts it.

Giveback Homes agents and brokers have a branding platform that distinguishes them from their competitors, and the confidence that the money they donate will lead to tangible results. "Members can give whatever they want, whenever they want," Andrews says, "and know that 100 percent of their donation, which is entirely tax-deductible, will go to the field." (A $50 monthly fee for each Giveback member covers the cost of marketing, advertising and social media outreach.)

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"I think that buyers who are socially conscious will want to work with us," says Scott Tamkin, a Los Angeles real estate broker who recently joined Giveback Homes. "And those are the types of clients I most want to work with."

Working in collaboration with nonprofit groups Habitat for Humanity and Waves of Love, Giveback Homes has so far built five homes in remote areas of Nicaragua. The dwellings are modest, an average of 250 square feet, barely the size of a walk-in closet in the upscale homes that many Giveback brokers sell. But the simple structures are life-transforming.

Consider the impact of replacing dirt floors, ubiquitous in Nicaragua's poor communities, with concrete floors: "Mothers carry their children for the first years of their lives," Tricia says, "because if they allow them to play on the dirt floor, they're likely to contract parasites, anemia or chronic diarrhea." A concrete floor dramatically improves children's health.

The homes have a ripple effect on Nicaragua's impoverished communities, where 80 percent of people live on less than $2 a day. The bricks that go into the homes are made from indigenous red clay and produced locally, boosting employment. People in the communities receive training in construction and finance, and then go on to teach those skills to their neighbors. The new homes also bring healthy water and sanitary bathrooms to villages where contaminated water leads to dysentery, a common cause of death in children under 5.

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Andrews hopes to build about 300 homes in the next year and about 500 annually once Giveback Homes is up to scale. …