What the Notre Dame Fire Tells Us About the Social Purpose of Real Estate

Notre Dame Is Prompting Discussions About Social Impact Real Estate and New Models for Old Establishments

Why It Matters

Notre Dame will be rebuilt, much of it with philanthropic money, prompting healthy debates on wealth, inequality, and impact. Adjacent to these debates, is the social purpose role real estate plays in communities today and the changing nature of real estate within the world of impact.

Churches and other historic urban properties make up a great historical fabric of our communities—particularly our older communities. They are all under threat, however, due to aging structures, fewer parishioners, and not enough money to protect and modernize these buildings.

Most of the groups supporting these buildings do not have the capital or expertise needed to maintain them under ever-stricter regulations.

With no one clear funding model in sight, things can seem dire, though creative things are happening in different communities to maintain these buildings. In order for this to happen, it takes acknowledgement of the value these historic buildings provide to the community in modern times—and some degree of understanding as to how heritage buildings are kept and maintained.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. What does the fire mean for social purpose real estate and the world of impact. Photo: Robin Benzrihem.

As we saw with the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, fire is a key concern, especially with the amount of wood—pews, among other items—in these structures. Getting fire regulations to a strong level is key and could be supported with a fund, in the way that a portion of development funds are reserved for the construction of parks or public art. Such a funding model would take some of the onus off the owners of those buildings and establish a stronger base standard.


Churches were the basis of communities of yesteryear and today they are often used more as community spaces than for church services. They host after-school and music programs and daycares, but it’s hard to sustain the building just on those programs.

There’s a spectrum of how churches can be repurposed:

  1. Churches as community centres in urban areas: This is a framing issue as many churches function this way already, but are not funded as community centres.
  2. Churches as shared workplaces: These conversions can be used as shared desk spaces or communal music spaces, but often zoning and other regulations makes it hard to get life revived into these buildings in a way that is cost-effective. Zoning could be re-adapted to account for spaces that are converted for a broader community impact. This needs funding for ideation and exploration to get to this point, as most of these organizations simply get to a point where they have to put up a For Sale sign.
  3. Adaptive reuse: A lot of churches have large surface parking lots in downtown settings, basements, and cathedral halls that are underutilized and valuable. Due to declining attendance, many churches also have less space requirements for parishioners. New models mean the churches could re-purpose spaces for shared use during the week, while still being able to host Sunday Mass. Providing the knowledge and expertise for these churches to look at their assets through a social impact real estate value perspective and to also think about partnering to create for-profit value creation opportunities is critically needed for these organizations. There is surplus real estate with development and/or re-purposing potential related to these assets that can provide the opportunity to create revenue for the refurbishment and ongoing use of the community space.


One of the stumbling blocks is the fact that within existing charitable structures, such as with volunteer committees, there is not a lot of experience in real estate, planning, and forecasting, or the ability to assess how much maintenance is required. For a lot of these great historical structures, it’s been a matter of putting Band-Aids on and deferring serious maintenance costs.

Aside from fire, the other issue is often related to the historic stone and masonry of these structures and related maintenance. If the structure is not properly maintained, the stone and bricks can become a safety hazard if they dislodge, potentially injuring or killing people.

There needs to be social impact real estate support platforms that provide the knowledge and skills to help the volunteer and nonprofit groups understand their budgetary constraints, their critical maintenance requirements, and ways they can modernize and optimize the use of their historic structures both as for-profit entities, and marry up with local impact-oriented organizations that can broadly benefit the whole community.