Sonia Booker is a capitalist with a heart. That may seem like a contradiction because capitalism only has one goal: to create a profit. There is little room for sentiment and compassion. Yet, Booker has made herself a very successful Atlanta real estate investor over the past two decades by melding capitalism with social consciousness.
“I thought, what if you could make money and make a difference in the world? As investors, we don’t see the property with a face behind it. We don’t see the damage we’re doing to neighborhoods or areas. We’re just making money,” she said. “If we are a little bit more conscious about the decision making, we can still make 30 percent profit, even more in some cases, without having to raise the prices all the way up to make 100 percent profit.”
Booker’s inspiration for her investing tactic came from her grandfather, Julius Martin Sr., and famed Atlanta developer Herman Russell, who after retirement started a company specializing in affordable housing projects.
Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Booker often accompanied her grandfather as he collected rents and talked with his tenants. After she moved to Atlanta, her grandfather kept pushing her to start buying real estate. At 24, she came upon a house that was on a pre-foreclosure listing. She went inside the home to meet the lady about to be evicted. She found out the woman had been living there most of her life. She was so overcome with emotions that she could not make an offer. Outside, she called her grandfather to tell him how terrible it was that this woman was losing her home. She didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
“So, he tells me that she was losing the house before I got there so I might as well go back in there and buy it or someone else will,” Booker said.
Booker sat down at the table to talk with the woman. She said the neighborhood was changing and property prices, and taxes, were going up. The woman was on a fixed income. Eventually, the woman said she would really like to move to South Carolina to be closer to her sister. Booker ended up helping the woman move.
“That became my model,” she said. “Pretty soon, elderly people would call me for help with their properties. I approached it like this could be my mom or grandmother.”
She spent nearly 12 years working with H.J. Russell after he semi-retired from the real estate development company he had run for more than half a century.
“He didn’t teach me just how to develop real estate; he taught me how the people business was the most important business,” she said.
Booker used her experience to grow her real estate holdings over the years. She played a big part in the gentrification of Atlanta neighborhoods, doing it in such a way that progress was made without sending property values sky rocketing. She started a small investing seminar in her living room that has grown from the original 12 participants to more than 700 around the globe, not just in Atlanta, called The Inner Circle. To date, the group has generated more than $10 million of wealth creation in home ownership, business start-ups, and other investments.
She now hosts a regular Social Real Estate Investing meeting where she shares tips and information with dozens of people, most of whom happen to be women.
“I was speaking at a woman’s conference and I had some women come up to me and say that I was a pioneer for women from an investment standpoint. I told them I was too young to be a pioneer,” Booker said. “As a whole in general, yes, women are more likely to be open to social real estate investing. But I didn’t see any black females among the investors and developers. Maybe black men but no women who looked like me.”
In 2018, Booker identified East Point and the Southern Crescent as an area that was ripe for development because of its proximity to the airport and the city of Atlanta. She set up the Vault Real Estate Group, inside an old Wells Fargo bank building in East Point. Originally, planned to be a community center where things such as yoga classes and local events would be held, the pandemic put those plans on hold.
Booker switched gears by creating The Vault Foundation, an organization that oversees two repurposed bank buildings, one of which is on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. The East Point building was transformed into the Vault S.E.E.D. (Student Education + Event Development) Learning Center. Booker sends her 11-year-old son to the school with 20 other area kids.
I think the Southside of Atlanta is really poised for growth,” she said. “A lot of times opportunity is really in our back yards, literally next door.
“They all learn about the Arts, financial literacy, wellness and entrepreneurship,” she said. “They have a garden out back. They grow their products and then have to do marketing to sell them. Their little businesses help them learn about entrepreneurship.”
East Point Mayor Deana Ingraham said about the Vault, “I like the concept of the Vault, where inside this vision everything that the community needs to grow and thrive can be found. It is a huge asset for our community.”
The mayor has attended several of Booker’s social real estate investing meetings. “I thought it was a really good opportunity for people who want to learn about real estate investing and the way to generate wealth but from a socially-conscious perspective. I think it is definitely for communities of color,” she said.
The mayor calls this kind of social investing “going from black to bright.”
Booker, through her Sonia Booker Enterprises (SBE), runs a variety of programs geared towards wealth development such as a series of YouTube investing short videos on her own channel, Sunny Girl Books, publisher of her book Real Estate and Wealth: Investing in the American Dream, and Studio House Atlanta, a production studio where socially-conscious content is developed. Booker herself just shot a pilot for a Real Estate Investing program based on the Shark Tank model.
For now, her focus remains on sharing that information with a new generation of real estate investors who care about their community as much as they care about making a profit. She is committed to the Southern Crescent.
“I’m a big believer that information and knowledge is the key to getting ahead or being successful,” Booker said. “I have important information and I need it on all kinds of platforms.”
“I think the Southside of Atlanta is really poised for growth,” she said. “A lot of times opportunity is really in our back yards, literally next door.”