Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

REPORT | Social Purpose Real Estate

by Linda Carroli

As I skimmed my morning emails today, I noted a call for speakers for a Social Purpose Real Estate conference to be held in Canada in 2015. It was a doubletake moment: “did I just read that correctly?!” I am vaguely aware of questions and dynamics focused on non-profit property development, such as responsible property investment, equitable development, Community Benefits Agreements, community land trusts, housing cooperatives and community asset building. In a former Committee role, I advocated for research on these practices to identify how non-profit organisations with property holdings can develop and leverage property assets for social purpose and community benefit. The intention was to raise awareness among non-profits to consider how they can constructively partner with the private sector as well as engage with social infrastructure agendas.

My interest in this area was significantly raised during my work on the social inclusion planning for the River City Blueprint, as there appeared to be some need for non-profit property owners to address their property holdings as investments and as a portfolio. While this work was not embraced as a regional priority, it remains in my sights as an area warranting more detailed exploration in the Australia context – either at the regional and city planning level or at the organisational level – given social infrastructure deficits and poor land use planning for social infrastructure. There is a concommitent rise in ideas of social enterprise, impact investing and social innovation. The neatness of a descriptor like ‘social purpose real estate’ sums up the diverse methods and models.

This has prompted me to undertake some preliminary research and I offer this brief note about ‘social purpose real estate’ as a beginning. It’s an idea that is bigger than the social responsibility of property developers, which is examined in a research paper I wrote some time ago, and also bigger than community asset building and vacant space initiatives. I have long held that if funding bodies had funded social and cultural organisations over the long term to build an asset base, then they could be more self-reliant provided appropriate business models were in operation. As property owners, they can play a role in urban renewal and community cohesion while meeting the needs of clients. They can also provide services to other non-profits through co-location and clustering. The feedback loops from this kind of focus can generate more specialised architectural, engagement and design responses. Social purpose and community benefit can be met through many means and filters across the whole supply chain and through more flexible and responsive policy.

So I have started to delve more deeply into this as it is in keeping with Harbinger’s recent report about innovation, entrepreneurship and doing good. The conference, Building Opportunities, Connecting Possibilities, is co-presented by the Nonprofit Centres Network and the Social Purpose Real Estate Collaborative (SPREC). SPREC defines Social Purpose Real Estate as property and facilities owned and operated by mission-based organisations and investors for the purpose of community benefit, and to achieve blended value returns. There are resources and other reference materials on the website, including proceedings from previous conferences. The conference, itself, indicates an advanced and willing community of practice addressing these issues that addresses the complexity of property development and involves local authorities, developers, planners, investors and others involved in city and community making.

There are, of course, new models of non-profit, government and private sector collaboration, such as Common Ground, which was included in the G20 Innovation Hub marketplace. Other models of community housing are equally important and relevant in establishing a housing ecosystem. More recently, I have commenced involvement with Bric Community Housing in a strategy advisory capacity to explore some of these questions and issues.



  Michael Marriott wrote @

Great post Linda! I really like the Absoe complex in West End as an example of the capacity of land owners to support the ideas of urban renewal, local economy and social enterprise that you talk about. Time will tell if/how this gets integrated into the next development phase of that land…


  lcarroli wrote @

Thanks Michael. Glad you liked it. I am compiling some definitions for publication next week. The ABSOE complex in West End is an interesting example of a site and community in transition. Imagine if it could be redeveloped in a way that retained all that dynamic as well as provided affordable housing! If only we had more community land trusts with lots of money! I reckon that’s something some philanthropic trusts could target – either on a venture capital model or impact investing model. Almost like an alternative form of social purpose finance.

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