Renowned developer Jonathan Rose explains how he builds sustainable, affordable communities and how local policies and infrastructure can support that goal
Born into a prominent New York real estate family, Jonathan Rose joined the family business in 1976, shortly after college. Throughout his childhood in the socially conscious 1960s, he says, he’d developed a strong interest in advancing social justice and civil rights and combatting poverty. So, while he launched his career in real estate, he also served as a board member for a local nonprofit organization that built housing for homeless seniors, among other things.
Rose yearned to bring the real estate and social justice streams of his life together. In 1987, he joined the Social Venture Network, whose members included corporate social responsibility pioneers Ben & Jerry’s and Whole Foods. Inspired to apply their mission-oriented approach to construction, two years later he founded Jonathan Rose Companies. The goal: provide affordable, environmentally responsible housing that supports residents’ health, well-being and economic stability.
“Simply put, affordable housing is the platform on which everything else arises.”
Over the past 30 years, Rose and his team have completed $2 billion in green, resident-centric development projects — from his native New York to Albuquerque — and advised on affordable housing issues in the Czech Republic and Brazil. The company and the communities that have welcomed it are models of collaboration for a nation facing an affordable housing shortage. But as Rose explained in a conversation with WeAreApartments.org, local conditions — such as proximity to public transit, tax abatements, and buy-in from neighbors and public officials — play a major part in creating the right environment for projects to be successful and benefit residents.
You’re very committed to increasing the supply of housing that fits people’s budgets. Can you talk about that?
There are almost 20 million American families today who spend more than 50% of their income on housing. When families spend only 30% of their income on housing, which is the definition of affordable housing, they see dramatic improvements in health, education, social behaviors and all kinds of outcomes. Simply put, affordable housing is the platform on which everything else arises. Housing stability is really the fundamental basis of developing opportunity, and our mission at Jonathan Rose Companies is to equalize the landscape of opportunity through our projects.
We approach that in two different ways. The first is we make all our projects green. To the extent that we can, we follow the Enterprise Green Community guidelines. That not only reduces our energy and water use, but creates savings for residents that contribute to stability.
Secondly, every one of our projects has what we call our “Community of Opportunity” program, with offerings ranging from onsite health exam rooms to computer access, a community garden and a community kitchen for creating healthy food. Those services enhance the capacity of the property to be a platform of opportunity.
We also work with local nonprofits to meet residents’ needs. If community members say they want access to affordable healthy food, we partner with a local food bank and we arrange for residents to volunteer and help organize. When they see something that they invest in is working, they want to do more and come up with more ideas! The residents feel a real sense of ownership of the site, which has all kinds of benefits, including lower resident turnover.
What do you look for to make a project successful before getting started?
The first thing is we look for is transit-oriented locations. Residents who live near mass transit and in walkable communities have much lower costs than those who need a car.
The second thing is the work we do can only take place in communities that will offer real estate tax abatement in exchange for long-term affordability. Affordable housing won’t function in a high-tax real estate market.
The best places for us are also cities that have an affordable housing preservation program or a new construction program. Another nice plus is if they have a program to support the greening of our projects.
The last thing is we want to work in neighborhoods where they want to work with us, where they want us to build. Our approval process as a new development is complicated, but we very rarely are in a community fight where we’re forcing something they don’t want. We do it through partnerships with the community and by having nonprofits as part of our teams. Every community is complicated, but their support is essential for us to move forward. Without that, we can’t do our best work.
How are cities helping support affordable housing projects?
Almost every city is wrestling with this issue of affordable housing. They all have a desperate need for it, and it is so difficult and expensive to build. While cities are still supporting the development of new affordable housing, they’re also working on the preservation of existing affordable housing. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been able to achieve local real estate tax abatements because we’re preserving affordable housing in these communities.
I hope that the fervor we are feeling at the local level will be reflected in the upcoming presidential election and that both parties will respond with ambitious affordable housing platforms.