Episode 20: The “S” in ESG
If developers can figure out what the “S” of ESG means for real estate, it’s not just they who will benefit — our cities will, too.
City of the Future is a podcast that explores ideas and innovations that could transform cities, and this season is all about the ideas and innovations that could lead to more equitable, inclusive development. In this episode, hosts Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk interview the founder and CEO of Green Generation, Brad Dockser, associate director of inclusive development at Sidewalk Labs, Chrystal Dean, the principal and CEO of Direct Invest Development, Carlton Brown, and director of development and external affairs for Farpoint Development, Morgan Malone.
Brad Dockser: Historically, third-party capital didn’t ask a lot of questions. They really wanted to know what the return was. What’s it going to cost? What kind of rent are you going to get? And when will I get my money back? Today, you know, we’re in a world where capital wants to align with values.
Eric Jaffe: Brad has built a whole business around advising investors on how to go green. But when he started out his career as a real estate investor, the climate wasn’t on anyone’s mind.
Brad Dockser: We thought about the weather. We woke up every morning and said, “What’s the temperature?” But we didn’t think about the climate. It’s only really been in the last couple of years have we seen this really acceleration and proliferation of discussion around climate, and resiliency sustainability. And I think the two big drivers there are regulations. And then I think the second place is the capital markets. You know, equity has basically said, “If you don’t have an ESG strategy and story, you’re not getting our money.”
Vanessa Quirk: E-S-G. If you haven’t heard that term before, it stands for “Environmental, Social, and Governance.” It’s a set of standards that investors use to evaluate how socially conscious companies truly are. It’s a framework to help them decide whether to put capital into a company or not.
Brad Dockser: It’s a way to think about what kinds of outcomes or impacts are you having on different groups?
Eric Jaffe: So the “E” sets a standard for the outcomes and impacts a company has on the planet.
Vanessa Quirk: The “S” is for the outcomes and impacts on the people who work for the company or who live in the communities where the company operates.
Eric Jaffe: And the “G” refers to how transparent and ethical the company’s structure is.
Vanessa Quirk: While these standards were introduced in the early 2000s in Europe, Brad explained that American firms didn’t jump on the bandwagon immediately. Because investors thought sustainability would come at too high a cost.
Brad Dockser: For a long time, sustainability was sold wrong. People said, “Invest in the climate,” but there was no explicit business case.
Eric Jaffe: But, over the last 20 years, the business case for sustainability has solidified. The value prop for the bottom line is clear when it comes to things like energy-efficient upgrades or using less carbon-intensive materials.
Brad Dockser: It is a false choice to say that we’re either investing for the climate or investing for return. You can do both at the same time. And so now there’s really no private equity firm, there is no real estate firm, who is not thinking about this at the very highest level.
Vanessa Quirk: And in fact, 2020 was the biggest year for ESG-investing yet.
Clips from News Shows: “Demand for ESG investments has surged over the past year./ “2020 will go down as the year ESG investing went mainstream.” / The events of 2020 have shown that social factors are as much on investors’ minds as are environmental or governance factors.
Eric Jaffe: But while the “E” is now a given for all the big investment firms, including real estate investment firms, the “S” and “G” — they’re still hazy.
Brad Dockser: E is probably the most popular and ubiquitous, largely because it’s the easiest one to codify. It’s the easiest one to say, “I invested X. I got Y. So E is really explicit. S and G are often a little bit more implicit.
Vanessa Quirk: But while they may be more implicit, S and G are critical, and S, in particular, is having a moment. It includes some of society’s toughest problems, like economic opportunity and inequity. These are Issues that, historically, investors exacerbated by not always considering the negative externalities or long-term impacts of their investments on society at large.
Eric Jaffe: And it’s a problem that became all too clear in light of the social and racial upheaval of 2020. But investors are, more and more, changing course and pursuing socially-minded ESG investments.
Vanessa Quirk: Leaders like BlackRock — the world’s largest asset manager — have decided to focus on ESG because they recognize that rising income inequality poses long-term business risks. In fact, last year, the World Economic Forum estimated that the U.S. could gain nearly $900 billion from solving social inequality by 2030.
Eric Jaffe: And this pivot has huge implications for real estate. Almost every major development project requires significant loans from banks or equity from third-party investors. And investors are now ready and willing to lend capital to real estate companies that are pursuing projects with real social and racial impact.
Vanessa Quirk: This investor-readiness is coming to real estate at a crucial moment. As we’ve talked about throughout this season, developers are recognizing that the traditional development process — which sets up community members and developers as opponents — it can’t go on.
Eric Jaffe: And developers are also realizing that real estate, which historically played a significant role in perpetuating racial and class inequities, could play a significant role in offsetting them, too.
Vanessa Quirk: In other words, now is the time to transform the development process. And the developers who do decide to pursue more inclusive and equitable projects will likely be at the front of the line to receive capital from investors.
Brad Dockser: The amount of capital that’s looking to invest in opportunities like this is unfathomable at this point. The issue is people don’t know how to do it.
Eric Jaffe: But if we can figure out what this “S” piece of ESG means for real estate, it’s not just developers that will benefit — our cities will, too. That’s something we’ve been thinking a lot about at Sidewalk — especially our colleague Chrystal Dean, who works on our development team.
Vanessa Quirk: Chrystal’s path to Sidewalk wasn’t typical. She started out her career as an activist pushing for change, especially for LGBTQ+ folks. And in that work, she learned a really important lesson early on.
Chrystal Dean: One of the pieces of advice that I got really kind of early in my push for change was to follow the money. And it made a lot of sense to me because people who hold money have influence. And something that we’re seeing today is the people who, who hold that money, they’re really starting to focus on social impact.
Vanessa Quirk: So you’re one of the folks who brought this topic to our attention. It’s near and dear to your heart. Why is ESG such an important lever?
Chrystal Dean: Well, part of my job is to think about how to affect change in really broad and complex systems like real estate development. And, you know, when I’m thinking about change, I don’t try and change everything at once. I just think that’s impossible. You can’t do that. So instead, what I try and do is find the lever that will have the most impact but offer the least resistance. And to me, that’s ESG.
Chrystal Dean: This is a framework that a lot of developers are using, and they understand it. They’re reporting on it. We’re in a moment in time, maybe where we were 10, 15 years ago with environmental sustainability where we’re really honing in on that S, and there’s no better time than now to try and figure that out.
Eric Jaffe: Welcome to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs. Each episode explores the ideas and innovations that could transform cities. We’re your hosts, and I’m Eric Jaffe.
Vanessa Quirk: And I’m Vanessa Quirk. Throughout this season, we’ve looked at a number of ideas that would make real estate development in cities more inclusive and equitable. We’ve explored new ownership, wealth creation, and economic opportunity approaches. But it all comes back to the same thing: how can real estate deliver better social outcomes for communities.
Eric Jaffe: In this episode, we’re exploring the “S” in ESG, an idea that could incentivize real estate developers to pursue projects that still generate returns but that have real, positive impacts on the communities where they’re located.
Vanessa Quirk: And even transform development into a powerful tool for creating more equitable, inclusive cities.
Carlton Brown: I think people are going to think about the world before 2020 and after 2020, right?
Vanessa Quirk: Carlton came of age in the early 1960s in Mississippi, where his parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement. So The fight for social change was in his DNA.
Eric Jaffe: When he got into the development business in the 1980s, he pursued socially-oriented projects that most of his colleagues at the time ignored.
Carlton Brown: A lot of people have always said, “Well, if you want to do real estate, you should go to the intersection of Main and Main.” From my standpoint, those places are going to be okay. But the intersection of Nowhere and Nowhere, where you don’t have the social infrastructure, you don’t have the economic infrastructure, you don’t have the housing and other physical infrastructure, that’s where we work.
Vanessa Quirk: But, since 2020, he’s seen the rest of his industry start to think differently about what development does and who it serves.
Eric Jaffe: Like Chrystal, Carlton thinks leveraging ESG is an important way to catalyze change in the development industry.
Carlton Brown: Financial institutions are drivers, right? And so what developers are going to do, always, they’re going to respond to what financial institutions want.
Vanessa Quirk: And Carlton thinks that developing socially-minded metrics is a key step towards helping developers and investors get on the same page.
Carlton Brown: Metrics is one of the things this industry has to figure out, and that’s both the real estate side of it and the institutional investor side.
Eric Jaffe: With environmental metrics, developers generally know what to do. They measure monthly building emissions, the carbon intensity of their materials, or how much renewable energy solar panels create. And then report those metrics to investors, who can then evaluate how sustainable the project really is.
Carlton Brown: If you’re talking about energy, you can measure that every week or every month, right? Social, because it’s sort of long-term, endemic problems, have to be measured over time, right? It’s a longer walk down the road. It’s a marathon as opposed to a sprint, right? And so then you got to pick: What is the time, and how do you measure it?
Vanessa Quirk: Most development projects do track a handful of socially-minded outcomes, things like the number of affordable housing units created, the number of construction jobs generated, or the number of community engagement hours undertaken. But none of these are particularly long-term in nature.
Eric Jaffe: So we asked Carlton to tell us about a project he worked on that included some of these longer-term metrics to understand better what he meant. And he told us about a project he completed in 2008 in Harlem.
Carlton Brown: It was called the Kalahari. It was right across the street from public housing. And one of my partners called me and said, “You know that people in public housing have sheets hanging out the windows saying ‘Greedy developers have taken our playgrounds from our kids. They’re ruining our future.”
Vanessa Quirk: Ouch.
Carlton Brown: And they said, “What are we going to do?” I’m like, “I’m going to go over to the public housing and find out who’s hanging out the sheets and find out what’s going on.” They said, “Really?” I’m like, “Yeah.”
Vanessa Quirk: When Carlton went to investigate, he discovered that much of the resistance was coming from the head of a little league baseball team that practiced on the vacant land that Carlton was about to develop for the Kalahari.
Carlton Brown: And he was just heartbroken, right? Because we were taking his baseball field.
Eric Jaffe: Carlton told him that the city was planning on replacing the baseball field in a new location. It didn’t do much to ease his mind.
Vanessa Quirk: But then Carlton asked him some questions.
Carlton Brown: “How many of your little league baseball players go on to college?” He stops and says, “Well, I think we’ve had two that have gone to college, right? They got baseball scholarships.” I’m like, “Okay.” I’m like, “How many of your girls that play little league baseball have gone on to college.” He was like, “Girls? Girls don’t play baseball on this team.”
Eric Jaffe: That’s when Carlton told him that they were providing space on the ground floor of the new building at below-market rates for an organization that could have real positive impacts not just for his players — but for all the kids in the neighborhood. It was a youth enrichment program called StreetSquash. And StreetSquash, he explained, had a partnership with Columbia University.
Carlton Brown: So Columbia University squash team will practice there on the condition that they mentor and tutor these kids, right? And these are kids all from underperforming schools in Harlem. They are from those public houses where his baseball team comes from. And since that place opened, 95% of the kids had graduated from high school and gone on to college and graduated from college, right? That’s unheard of, That’s unheard of. And so we’ve been able to measure that. And so that has changed people’s lives forever.
Vanessa Quirk: For Carlton, this kind of initiative shows what developers can do when it comes to social impact. It goes beyond providing jobs — like construction, maintenance, or retail jobs to community members. In this case, by helping people graduate high school and attend college, this development project fundamentally improved the likelihood of social and economic mobility for these local kids.
Eric Jaffe: And, importantly, that social benefit still fits within the financial goals of the project’s developers and investors, who still made money from the sale of market-rate and below-market-rate condos in the building.
Carlton Brown: That space that we took and sold to them below cost could have been retail space that, at this point in Harlem, we’d be getting $125 a square foot for it, right? But we didn’t do that, but we still made money. The lender. Everybody made money. We all went away happy. It was a good project, and the community got something that was transformative. You know, if there was a point system on the S, that would’ve been like a 10.5 on a 10-point scale.
Vanessa Quirk: Because that project has been around for over a decade, Carlton has that long-term data point he was talking about to prove that investing in the S of ESG can have a real impact on the community.
Eric Jaffe: That’s a metric he can take back to his investors — or take to future investors — as a way to quantify the social good this project is having on the community. That’s why metrics are such an important lever for aligning investors and developers.
Vanessa Quirk: But creating long-term social metrics — that’s not enough to instigate more equitable and inclusive development. Unlike environmental metrics, where a sustainability expert can come in and tell you what to measure when, when it comes to social metrics, community members are often the ones who know what’s needed, what needs to change in their neighborhood, and what should remain.
Eric Jaffe: In other words, creating “S” metrics in collaboration with community members has the potential to align not just investors and developers — but communities, too. And there’s a project on the South Side of Chicago that’s trying to do just that.
Vanessa Quirk: Morgan Malone has spent her whole life working in the service of communities — a career she started very early — at 12 years old.
Eric Jaffe: Having spent her life in organizing, Morgan never intended to work for a developer. But when she was offered a job at Farpoint and the opportunity to work on a huge revitalization project on the Bronzeville Lakefront, she knew it would be a tremendous opportunity to make a positive impact.
Morgan Malone: It is a 100-acre, $8.5-billion, 20-year project in the historic Bronzeville community, which is the most historic Black community in the City of Chicago. So when they asked if I wanted to come here, I said, “Yeah, if you all are doing equitable development, I will come here.”
Vanessa Quirk: As she’s gotten into the day-to-day of real estate, Morgan’s understanding of the work of equitable development has broadened.
Morgan Malone: In the work now, I understand equitable development to be an ecosystem-based initiative. The developer alone cannot do equitable development. You have to commit an ecosystem of private, public, and community-based partners to enact solutions together.
Eric Jaffe: And so, as Morgan sees it, the real challenge is a cultural one.
Morgan Malone: How do you shift culture so that we’re all pulling from the same side of the rope from where we can, doing what we can do for those joint outcomes?
Vanessa Quirk: While there’s no easy solution, metrics are a powerful tool in the toolbox to get everyone pulling on that same rope.
Eric Jaffe: But Morgan feels strongly that you can’t know the right metrics to track unless you listen to the community first.
Morgan Malone: So, that’s step one. Step two is based on what you have heard, outline a set of outcomes or deliverables in a way that is accessible for your business model.
Eric Jaffe: For the Bronzeville project, that’s what Morgan has tried to do with the community. Building off of engagement sessions and outreach, they’ve listened to community needs, analyzed what’s financially viable for the project, and created a list of public metrics her company is aiming to achieve.
Vanessa Quirk: Things like reserving 10% of new retail space for local businesses at a 20% below market rate.
Eric Jaffe: While this type of commitment is really important, Morgan knows the real proof will be in the execution and the partnerships that make these commitments successful.
Morgan Malone: The actual equity is in the iterative practice of implementation. And so, we can commit 10% of all retail reduced by 20% for local businesses — that’s a start. But in order to ensure that local and small businesses take advantage of that opportunity, there’s a whole amount of lead time that needs supportive wraparound partners, nonprofits to help scale people to be prepared to lease, to get local and small businesses into the site. So all of that work still has to happen — even though that’s not traditionally the developer’s expertise — in order to ensure that the outcome of small business support, especially local small businesses, is actualized.
Vanessa Quirk: As Morgan notes, a metric isn’t just about making a commitment. It’s also about putting into place the partnerships — and the time and the resources — to ensure that a community’s desired outcomes are being achieved.
Eric Jaffe: Ok. So socially-minded metrics can align community members, developers, and investors, so they’re all working towards the same outcome: a more equitable development. That has the potential to be transformative — but as we’ve talked about again and again this season, you can’t do it without getting developers on board.
Vanessa Quirk: Right, And as Morgan pointed out, a lot of this work is outside the traditional developer’s wheelhouse, and so it can seem like it might come at a financial hit for them.
Eric Jaffe: So developers might be hesitant to try this approach, right? If they can’t see the business case.
Vanessa Quirk: Exactly, and Chrystal — our colleague who we introduced at the top of the show — she’s having these conversations with developers every day, and she’s told us it’s a real concern.
Chrystal Dean: When we have that conversation, I point out a few things. Something developers think about really early is how to raise money, raise capital. So, we talk about what investors are looking at now, like how they’re investing their money, and they’re really making a bet on ESG.
Vanessa Quirk: And it makes sense. Especially since ESG-investments are driving returns, in fact, I was reading the other day that nine of the top ESG funds outperformed the market last year.
Chrystal Dean: Exactly. And if you’re a developer and you want capital for your real estate project, you’ve just got to make ESG a priority. And not just the E. It has to be the S and the G as well.
Eric Jaffe: What are some of the other things you’re hearing in these conversations with developers about the business case?
Chrystal Dean: I think people are starting to understand they need to innovate to get that community buy-in to get approvals. It’s really an exercise in de-risking further future possible derailment of your project because of a misalignment, some misalignment with the community that could have been sorted out earlier in the project.
Vanessa Quirk: Mmm, yeah, that’s something that a lot of the developers we’ve talked to this season have mentioned. They’ve pointed out that it can be quicker and cheaper to do community outreach early rather than potentially face some sort of backlash after the project’s farther along.
Chrystal Dean: Yeah, exactly. And it’s so interesting because a lot of these initiatives are cost-neutral. This is money you would already spend. I love talking to developers about this because it’s like an aha moment. It really makes sense. They already have in their budgets, in their proformas, money they’re going to spend on programming or contract hire. And so what I talk to them about is, you can choose to spend that money with intention. You can choose to target and set yourself goals around making sure that money goes to black developers or first-generation service companies. There are lots of ways to do that that actually don’t cost you any more money.
Chrystal Dean: The last thing we talk about is trends. In 10 years’ time, what will investors and consumers value the most? And so when you put investors and consumers together, and you think about what they’re going to value in 10 years’ time, this is the smart choice today is to really figure out how to build this into your development model.
Vanessa Quirk: Crystal’s especially gung-ho about creating and adopting new social metrics that can incentivize developers to go beyond the status quo — and really differentiate themselves from investors.
Chrystal Dean: Do affordable housing? Yes. Talk to the community? Absolutely. But it’s really not enough anymore. We need new metrics to incentivize new models that have equity at the core. That is what’s going to get results for the communities who need it.
Eric Jaffe: All right, so what are some examples of these new “S” metrics that Chrystal’s talking about?
Vanessa Quirk: I actually think this is where we can turn to the projects we’ve explored this season for inspiration. Like, let’s take the Community Investment Trust, which we explored in Episode 16. That model allows members in a predominantly immigrant and refugee community to share ownership of a commercial building. And they’re already tracking things like the number of women investors and first-time investors and the dividends earned as a way of keeping track of how well the project is giving people new access to wealth-building opportunities.
Eric Jaffe: Ah right — and I remember they’re even polling community members on things that may seem outside the scope of the project: things like pride and activity in their own community. Here’s John W. Haines from that CIT project.
John W. Haines: So, 68 percent of the investors — when we query them at the end of every year — 68 percent are reporting that they’re more active in the neighborhood, even during COVID, than they were before. And we ask, “Why is that?” They say, “It’s because I’m an owner. I have a bigger say that’s beyond my front door.”
Eric Jaffe: And let’s take the Albina Vision Trust that we talked about in Episode 17. That’s a project to create a neighborhood REIT in a historically Black neighborhood that has suffered from urban renewal and displacement. The folks working on that project want to measure their impact on a long-term scale. Here’s Rukaiyah Adams from the Albina Vision Trust.
Rukaiyah Adams: I think of myself as a thousand-year investor. And that in me, again, is the DNA of my ancestors from 500 years ago. And, I imagine that 500 years from now, there’ll be some girl thinking about these ideas and I don’t want to betray her, I don’t want to disappoint her.
Vanessa Quirk: They’re looking to measure how much people who have been denied wealth-building opportunities can grow multi-generational wealth over time. That will be a key metric of success for them.
Eric Jaffe: Which is similar to the Freedom West 2.0 project we explored in Episode 18. The developer structured that deal so that community members will participate in the development’s wealth and have a say in its future. Here’s Landon Taylor from Freedom West.
Landon Taylor: So usually, it’s this big fight about, “Oh, I don’t want the developer. No, no, no. We want the developer to make as much money as possible.” Because they get to participate, I would like to be so bold to say what we are doing for this community is to put them in the driver’s seat to participate in real estate development, in the way that usually only wealthy white developers usually do or landowners have.
Eric Jaffe: If every project was measured on how much decision-making power a community has in a project or how much wealth they will generate from a project’s success, imagine how many more Freedom West 2.0’s we could have worldwide.
Vanessa Quirk: Or what if developers measured how well their project responded to community needs? That’s something you can measure, year over year, in order to determine how successful a project truly is.
Vanessa Quirk: As we’ve talked about again and again this season, real estate has a role to play in creating the more inclusive, equitable cities of the future. All the ideas and innovations in the world won’t go far unless every stakeholder — community members, developers, and investors — are all working together towards the same goals and aspirations.
Eric Jaffe: ESG could be a way to get us all working together on unraveling these hard, historic social inequities. And though it may seem daunting, Chrystal is optimistic.
Vanessa Quirk: She believes we can do it. We can develop financially-viable projects that help historically disinvested communities generate wealth, that give regular people a seat at the table, that bring equitable growth and prosperity to neighborhoods that have been left behind.
Eric Jaffe: And, for the future of our cities, we must.
Chrystal Dean: And I think we have a blueprint. We’ve seen how this works with environmental sustainability. And my hope is that we don’t take 10 or 15 years to do this with social impact. We have to do it for the generations that follow. I want to be able to look my kids in the eyes and say that, “I fought for you.”
Eric Jaffe: Thank you for listening to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs. Your hosts are Vanessa Quirk and me, Eric Jaffe.
Vanessa Quirk: Thanks to all the guests who made this episode possible: Brad Dockser, Carlton Brown, Chrystal Dean, and Morgan Malone.
Eric Jaffe: And a big thanks as always to Alison Novak and Jesse Shapins of our Sidewalk Urban Development team.
Vanessa Quirk: We are produced by Guglielmo Mattioli. Our advisor is Benjamen Walker, and our mixer is Andrew Callaway.
Eric Jaffe: Story editing is by Rough Cut Collective. Our music is by Adaam James Levin Areddy of Lost Amsterdam. Our art is by the great Tim Kau.
Vanessa Quirk: Our social media and transcripts are by JamiLee Hoglind. And — speaking of social media — did you know that you can follow City of the Future on Instagram? Check out @CityOfTheFuturePod for great clips and behind-the-scenes content.
Eric Jaffe: And you should also check out Sidewalk Labs’ weekly newsletter, where Vanessa and I offer insights into the week’s top urban-tech stories. That’s also where we provide sneak peeks of podcasts to come. You can subscribe by visiting www.sidewalklabs.com and scrolling to the bottom of the page.
Vanessa Quirk: This episode concludes our season about inclusive development. If you liked what you heard this season, or any season really, please rate us on Apple or wherever you listen to podcasts! It really helps us reach new audiences.
Eric Jaffe: And if you ever want to send us a note — maybe with praise for Vanessa or feedback for me — you can reach us at email@example.com. Ok, that’s it for Season 4. Happy holidays all. We’ll see you in the future.
Vanessa Quirk: Bye!