What Happens When Real Estate Meets Social Impact?

Using property for good

Why It Matters

Canada is facing rocketing property prices, shortages of community housing, and displaced communities in gentrified neighbourhoods. A centuries-old solution is to merge real estate with social impact — but what does that look like in today’s world? This series on social impact real estate is crafted in partnership with Windmill Developments and Urban Equation.

Of the social impact organizations in your network, how many would describe themselves as being in the real estate business? How many operate with a level of real-estate competency on par with traditional fundraising or volunteer management? 

Chances are, it’s a pretty short list. The social impact sector often views the real estate industry (or perhaps just real estate developers) with hesitancy. Like any industry, its inner workings are not well understood by outsiders. It’s full of incomprehensible jargon, which sadly is not as exciting as the equally baffling jargon of other domains. While zoning by-laws and density calculations tend to make people’s eyes glaze over, design thinking and collective impact just feels more interesting. 

Arguably, one of the biggest disconnects between social impact and real estate stems from non-profits’ discomfort with profit, and society’s perception of real estate being one of the most powerful and ubiquitous expressions of capitalism. It’s easy to see how the two tend to stay siloed.

But here’s the thing: we are all in the real estate business. It affects all of us: individuals and families, companies and organizations, towns, and cities. It represents one of the largest expenditures or investments of any household or business, shapes how our communities are designed and built, and plays a large role in our local and national economy. More importantly, it can be responsible for significant social impact — both good and bad.

The relationship between real estate and social impact is worth a closer look, and an obvious place to start is the category of land and buildings referred to as ‘social purpose real estate’ (SPRE). Although the concept of property being used for the public good is centuries old, SPRE is a bit like ‘social enterprise’ — a relatively new term without a widely accepted definition. SPRE could conceivably apply to all kinds of things; schools and daycares, soup kitchens and community centres, social housing, and shelters all seem like shoo-ins. 

But does ‘social purpose’ also include nursing homes, supervised consumption sites, art galleries, libraries, temples, and mosques? Does it have to be run by non-profits and charities — and if so, do the local offices of the United Way count as much as the Goodwill thrift store? What about for-profit businesses, like Starbucks

British Columbia’s Social Purpose Real Estate Collaborative defines SPRE as “property and facilities owned and operated by mission-based organizations and investors for the purpose of community benefit.” Others, such as the McConnell Foundation, view SPRE through the wider lens of civic assets (“vital pieces of infrastructure that typically were built with public funds”). Others have called this “social infrastructure”, arguing that real estate that facilitates social interactions is critical to our sense of belonging and just as important as our sewers, roads, and other traditional infrastructure. 

With such diverse perspectives, it’s clear why there is less knowledge sharing and mobilization for social purpose real estate when compared to other domains in the social impact sector. There is a need for different networks of SPRE stakeholders to advance the movement towards greater understanding, collaboration, and policy influence. 

Over the next few weeks, Future of Good will take a deeper dive into the world of social purpose real estate from a variety of viewpoints: the social impact sector, of course, but also real estate developers, designers, investors, activists, and policymakers.

We believe this bigger picture is missing from the conversation, especially with real estate matters affecting community outcomes across Canada through ever-increasing property prices, long wait lists for community housing, and the gentrification of marginalized neighbourhoods. 

Our five-part series dives into and profiles the people, innovative projects, and places advancing the field of SPRE in Canada, including:

  1. Social purpose organizations maximizing their impact through real estate;
  2. Real estate companies building more than just ‘green’ buildings;
  3. Impact investors looking to include SPRE in their social finance portfolios;
  4. Innovators using advanced data and technology to create the neighbourhoods of the future;
  5. Activists, policymakers, and social impact and real estate leaders working across sectors and silos for more equitable, healthy, and complete communities.

This series is crafted in partnership with Windmill Development Group, a visionary real estate company with a triple bottom line approach that aims for zero ecological footprint, and its sister company, Urban Equation, a consulting company that advises those in the real estate industry on innovative practices for sustainable development. Future of Good retains full editorial and creative control, just like every other story it publishes.