Responsible Property Investing

The Messy Complexity of Life

I’ve found  that buildings and communities are deceptively complex.  In their simplest form, buildings provide us with shelter and enable us to work productively. Communities link us together and provide the necessities of a civilized society - roads and schools, safety and security, systems of communication and infrastructure - energy, water and waste disposal,. But, beyond that they are also an eco-system that reflects the culture and values of the people that live, work and play within them. A unique matrix of individual parts that when put together in a thoughtful and intentional way create harmony and enable each of us to bring our best selves to the mix. Buildings play an important role in how easily and effectively we can do that. And the recognition of how people interact with each other is key to creating a resilient and vibrant community.

The best projects are ones in which we make the conscious choice to be mindful and think holistically and systemically about the solutions. The trans-disciplinary nature of the team and partnering with the community brings forth solutions that may not be obvious or expected, but in the end are more meaningful and durable. By sharing roles and crossing disciplines we learn from and challenge each other, ultimately pooling and integrating a wealth of expertise. Today’s world requires a vastly different analysis - one that looks at the total value of resiliency, sustainability and high performance. It includes the full range of economic, social and environmental impacts. Decisions around sustainability need to quickly move beyond neat rows of check boxes (and simple payback) to the messy complexity of real life.

There exists a quantifiable and integrated suite of payoffs at the property level that accrue to the owner and occupants, as well as at enterprise and community levels. Successful adaptation and change happens when we are able to articulate the benefits in the context of this complexity and make this the primary source of inspiration and the lever for action versus falling into the trap of easy black and white answers."

"Wait, what?" Responsible Property Investing

(This is a re-post of something I shared on Linked-In in June 2016.)

As chair of the 'Responsible Property Investment Council' for the Urban Land Institute I often get eye rolls or quips such as  -  "wait, what did you say? 'responsible' property investing'?   - if you invest 'responsibly', does that mean I'm investing 'irresponsibly'?!".   (ummm....)  These comments make me smile - because I know we are simply being thoughtful and strategic in the way we invest.  We invest with an eye toward creating competitive and durable market rate returns.  Call it what you will - my experience is that incorporating a holistic lens drives alpha returns.

I believe that the Responsible Property Investing is the leading edge. Call it "triple bottom line" or "people, planet, profit"  - it is about being really smart and intentional about our investments. The first hurdle to overcome is the notion that investing with an environmental or social sense will naturally result in lower returns or performance. I think it is just the opposite. We are investors first. Like anyone else, when we deploy capital, we want to get it back with a return - either in yield or appreciation. The TBL/PPP principles are about creating a strong and healthy foundation, be it in the context of a building, neighborhood or city. By consciously using our natural resources, reinvesting in our people and our communities and recognizing that diversity results in better decision making and stronger ties, we are creating a higher quality asset. If we raise the standard of living for all, we will create jobs and healthy and safe places to work and live.  In turn, raising the tax base,  supporting investment in infrastructure and community programs, driving art, music, better education and individual agency and commitment.  As you create vibrant, healthy, desirable neighborhoods you also raise asset values.

I’m currently tracking the overlay between climate change and populations which are disproportionately impacted. Frankly, if we don’t get our act together on this one, we will continue to see rising unrest as our resources are strained to capacity - water fights, food shortages, migration and dislocation; the typical sustainability issues - water, energy, waste, carbon; increasing income disparity. Let’s look at water (or lack thereof). If you invest in infrastructure that delivers clean and accessible water to communities in need you start to tackle gender inequality and economic returns. In many countries, women are the ones who collect water from far away places, often at great risk. By investing in water delivery, you reduce the amount of time and effort they must go to to provide for a basic need - thereby freeing up time for them to go to school, increasing the educated population, reducing health care costs and allowing them the opportunity to engage in commerce, providing a positive benefit into the local economy. 

With every investment we make (money, time or capacity) we are making a clear statement of what we choose to impact. We can be far more intentional in how we develop and redevelop. Doing mixed-income, cross-generational development. Use responsible contracting to ensure living wages. Reduced resource use. 

How can we motivate more investors, developers and lenders to take into account these topics?  Ultimately, I think it is a shift in focus. Change the questions that are being asked to make them more meaningful and so they are tracking a higher level of significance. Instead of focusing on whether or not returns have increased over the quarter (or some other short period of time), we need to be asking whether or not we are building adaptable and resilient buildings, cities and systems. Are we creating assets that can withstand and flourish given the future.

We are facing unprecedented change - we have narrowed our perspectives needlessly and frankly, to our own detriment. When we only look at investing as what shows up on the most recent P&L, we shrink our field of vision, limiting our opportunities, opening ourselves up to risk and excluding some of the most important factors and consequences. It provides an inadequate and incomplete view of investment returns. And it keeps us in a mode of extraction - which as we all know is unsustainable. (The healthiest plants and food grow in soil that has been tended and replenished.) By expanding our focus, it is easier to see the true cost and profit, which allows us to optimize our investment decisions. Ultimately the capital markets and our investments can be a positive force for change.