Boston developer Steve Samuels needed financing for his latest project, a 30-story condominium and retail tower on track to rise from the site of a Fenway sandwich shop. But instead of turning only to large banks and institutional investors, he jetted to Hangzhou, a Chinese city that is home to the e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba and a small army of overnight millionaires.
There, in November, Samuels pitched his development and a visa program that provides green cards to foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in US projects that create jobs. Samuels hopes to use the program to entice about 100 foreign investors to put up nearly $50 million for his $290 million development, the Point, at Boylston Street and Brookline Avenue.
His company, Samuels & Associates, is among the increasing number of American businesses turning to the visa, called EB-5, to help finance enterprises from hotels to sports arenas to condominiums. EB-5 applications — nearly 11,000 last year — have surged more than eightfold since 2008; over the past decade, the program has attracted about $6.5 billion to hundreds of projects across the country and supported more than 130,000 jobs, according to trade groups.
In Massachusetts, where the visa program has been little used, a red-hot real estate market is leading more developers to consider it, as competition for traditional financing rises and costs follow. So far, three local projects have attracted more than $6 million through the EB-5 program; Samuels’ Fenway project would be the largest in the state to raise money through the visas.
“EB-5 is one of many tools that developers like Samuels use to finance large, complex projects,” said Diana Pisciotta, a spokeswoman for the company. She declined to disclose how much Samuels has raised so far.
The investor visas were created 25 years ago to help generate jobs in the United States, especially in areas of high unemployment. The program, however, has become controversial as more visas are granted. Critics say the government is allowing wealthy families to buy their way into the country and jump to the front of the line for green cards, even as immigration officials leave so many others fleeing violence, persecution, and poverty in limbo.
“There are millions of people who have been contributing to the US economy and have maintained the economy,” said Alexandra Early, coordinator for the Chelsea Collaborative’s Workers Center, which advocates for immigrant rights. “What doors are available to them to stay here?”
Foreign nationals who put at least $500,000 into US projects can obtain two-year probationary visas for themselves and immediate family members, and then can obtain green cards, or permanent resident status, if the enterprises create enough jobs. The investors must demonstrate their money has led to at least 10 new jobs, but the requirement is broadly construed. It can include workers at a new building, construction workers who built it, or service workers at nearby restaurants benefiting from the increased activity.
The companies and investors are usually connected by so-called regional centers, primarily for-profit brokers authorized by US Citizenship and Immigration Services. They charge developers to find investors and foreigners for help navigating the EB-5 program and immigration bureaucracy.
To attract investors, regional centers promote their expertise in immigration law and experience working on successful projects. They also emphasize any kind of government support, which can be highly prized by foreign nationals, who typically seek low-risk projects that will pay back their investment and provide a safe path to a green card.