Why One Man Just Gave Away a $4M, 24-Unit Apartment Complex

by | BiggerPockets.com

Rick Steves—you may not initially recognize the name, but you’ve likely stumbled upon his popular travel show, Rick Steves’ Europe, which debuted on PBS in 2000. With a slogan of “Europe through the back door,” this program features shots of Rick meandering through picturesque European locations, living out what many of us might consider to be the ideal job.

Ring any bells? This was the BEST show to watch if you were ever home from school sick. [Image by Marlene Tebbe via WikiCommons.]

A Passion for Affordable Housing

These days, though, Rick is becoming known for something a little different. After amassing a small fortune through his long-running television programs and a series of successful travel books, he began focusing on one of his long-time passions: affordable housing.

How does this concept have anything to do with a life of travel? Explains Rick:

“Before ‘Europe Through the Back Door,’ my travels were ‘Europe Through the Gutter.’ Slumming through Europe as a teenage backpacker, life for me was the daily challenge of finding an affordable (i.e., free) place to sleep. With my rail pass, I’d sleep on a train four hours out, cross the tracks, and sleep four hours back in. I’d sleep on a ferry (covered by the rail pass) between Stockholm and Helsinki on successive nights to afford spending entire days of sightseeing alternating between the two most expensive cities in Europe. I’d sneak into my friends’ hotel rooms and sleep on the floor (restlessly and stressed-out…but free). I’d sleep free on the pews of Greek churches, on the concrete floors of Dutch construction projects, and in barns at the edge of unaffordable Swiss alpine resorts. How else would a white, middle-class American kid gain a firsthand appreciation for the value of a safe and comfortable place to sleep?”

Related: 3 Ways Investors Can Give Back to Their Communities (& the Larger World)

The Decision to Give Away a $4M Apartment Complex

With this cause close to his heart for decades, Rick acted on his convictions by purchasing a 24-unit apartment complex, which he allowed the YWCA to use. Housing single moms who were often recovering drug addicts working to put their lives back together, this complex frequently gave women a stable environment in which to regain custody of their children.

Speaking from both a compassionate and business-minded perspective, Rick comments:

“Twenty years ago, I devised a scheme where I could put my retirement savings not into a bank to get interest, but into cheap apartments to house struggling neighbors. I would retain my capital, my equity would grow as the apartment complex appreciated, and I would suffer none of the headaches that I would have if I had rented out the units as a landlord. Rather than collecting rent, my ‘income’ would be the joy of housing otherwise desperate people. I found this a creative, compassionate and more enlightened way to ‘invest’ while retaining my long-term security.”

Rick’s deal with the YWCA was set up such that Rick could take back control of the land and use it to retire by selling it or renting out the apartments for income. Comforted by the security of knowing he could regain the asset if push came to shove, Rick ultimately planned on willing the apartment to the YWCA if his situation allowed it. As time passed, though, he began to realize that he had more than he could ever use in his lifetime, and he made the decision to donate the building so that the YWCA could plan into the future, knowing the building was theirs.

Related: The Top 10 Coolest Gifts Financial Freedom Has Given Me

Can every investor (or person in general) afford this kind of generosity? Of course not. Rick has undoubtedly been fortunate, skilled, and hard-working enough in his life to uniquely allow him to directly impact lives on the scale that he has. Still, it’s hard not to be inspired by the lesson his story presents: Do what you can, where you are, with what you have—and you may find you reap an entirely different kind of return on investment.

[Featured image by Rick Steves via WikiCommons. For pictures of Rick’s apartment complex, Trinity Place, and more details of his story, please visit his site here.]

What kind of purposeful giving has real estate allowed you to do? How do you plan on giving back using the success real estate has given you?

Let us know your opinions with a comment!

About Author

Allison Leung

A career writer, editor and blogger, Allison serves as the Director of Content for BiggerPockets.com. In the past, she has channeled her passion and curiosity for all things real estate into her jobs by working in real estate law and heading a blog about real estate market trends. Don’t ask about her dog, Ace, unless you want to see approximately 500 photos of his (adorable) face.


  1. Giovanni Isaksen

    Allison, it’s great to see your piece about one of our local heroes doing more good things in the community. As someone who’s firsts trips to Europe were done with a rail pass and a copy of Europe Through The Backdoor in my backpack I’ve gotten to see Rick’s dedication to good causes in action. If you meet him you will see the same great personality as you see on his travel shows. Thanks again for the great piece.

  2. Alex Craig

    Real Estate has certainly been good to me and it does feel good to give back. I see so many people, whether it is real estate or whatever profession they are engaged in, they get arrogant and seem more interested in showing off every penny they make rather than show humility. While I am not going to go as far as they it is the responsibility of those who have become successful to help others, but any decent human being will see that people need help and if one has the means to help the those individuals, than they should. To spend every dollar one makes is simply greed and there is no other way to put it. While we contribute to certain charities and this may sound trivial, but giving money to the actual individual that needs it is the most rewarding. I am not talking about obvious scam, but seeing a homeless person or any other down on their luck individual and giving them cash in hand. Just last week I walked into a motivated sellers homes who obviously was down on her luck and before I left she asked me for a $1 to catch the bus. I gave her $10 as that is all I had; she was very gracious and $10 is not going to make or break me. We do this in front of our kids all the time hoping that as they get older, they will find the same compassion. Certainly a quality that I see from Social Media post that our society lacks today. To often people look at themselves as the benchmark of what others should be, but the reality is, not everyone has the skill set to be something they are not. Some people try to politicize everything, but helping others is not a Democrat or Republican idea, it is simply a concept of being a decent human being and helping those if one has the ability and not falling into the greedy pattern of “I earned it, it is all mine and I am going to spend every penny.”

  3. M.C. Nachtigal on

    This story solidifies how my I admire and respect Rick Steves. His fortune was made not for the purpose of making money, but by bringing experiences to the widest possible audiences. I attended one of his all day free Europe prep sessions in Edmonds, WA last fall and was especially moved by his passion for bringing people together. He talked at length about fears relating to travel abroad in a time of terror attacks. He emphasized that the real danger is really not to tourists, and we are in much more danger here in the U.S., and now of all times it is critical for Americans to get out in the world both to represent our country and to get to know people from other countries so they are no the “other” (paraphrasing from what I recall the message was). As someone who travelled with the help of his books in my early 20’s, and later lived abroad and visited many countries in the Middle East (Syria was my longtime highest travel recommendation for Americans), I completely agree. I am so glad he is applying the same sentiment at home in reaching out to people that he might not have as much in common with on the surface, but recognizes that we are all humans and deserve respect and understanding.

  4. Chad Carson

    I love this story! Very creative way to mix investing and doing good. And I already enjoyed Rick Steve’s books, but now I admire him and his approach to investing and life.

    If you plan to donate, donating appreciated real estate is a good way to do it. I’d love to hear from some of our resident CPAs like Amanda or Brandon Hall on what that would look like tax-wise? Would you get to write off all gains – like depreciation recapture, capital gains, etc?

  5. Viola Enfield

    Thanks Allison! I think we should all strive to follow this example as much as we are able. This world could be an amazing place with more people who have this attitude. I love hearing inspirational stories about the variety of benefits that go beyond the obvious.

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