In March, I had the pleasure of supporting an event by Revo and Hammerson exploring the barriers to diversity in real estate, our struggle to be representative of the society we serve and the difficulties in being understood as a net contributor to society. I was left pondering the question: how do we turn around real estate’s reputation?
Real estate should be one of the world’s most visible sectors, defining everything from our homes and workplaces to leisure, travel and shopping. Our work touches generations of lives as we create and curate places that contribute to economic, physical and mental health and wellbeing at both individual and community levels. Yet the event was a stark reminder that with real estate, you have to be in it to ‘get it’. Ours is an industry that is rarely noticed and barely understood from the outside and when it does surface in the public consciousness, it tends to be for the wrong reasons. This leads to assumptions that taint its reputation in many people’s eyes – from politicians preparing economic policy to school-leavers considering their future. Although work has been done to dispel the myths, the erosion of trust seems to continue ad infinitum, evidenced by the government’s reaction to real estate during Covid and new proposals for compulsory rental auctions for vacant shops, as opposed to reforming business rates. Covid was a watershed and in our era of levelling up, real estate’s contribution towards a just transition is a reputational opportunity we cannot afford to miss. This could be the turning point for a broader appreciation of our sector’s contribution to society, its diversity of career opportunities and its long-term resilience.
ESG has taken centre stage with pressure from all quarters to contribute to social benefit outside a building’s walls – the objective being to mobilise mainstream commercial muscle power in support of local needs, anchor a scheme’s relevance in its community and enhance its amenity, so creating a virtuous circle. Social impact is a lens for assessing real estate investment, whether through designing for public amenity and wellbeing or job creation, health and education. The common denominator is an understanding of the local needs that an investor is able to meet. Across the board, real estate is recognising the direction of travel. Businesses are speaking up about their local social contribution, stepping up with schemes to transform places and allocating funds into impact models such as the one promoted by social impact adviser The Good Economy in its Place Based Impact Investment report. By fostering relationships between businesses and local communities, we bring alive real estate’s role in creating places that enhance physical and emotional wellbeing and gain a deeper access to society in our search for a more inclusive pipeline for the future. Today’s real estate leaders have a responsibility to share their stance on social impact in a loud, consistent voice, the actions they are taking to deliver it and the array of outcomes achieved. If the industry speaks collectively, real estate can become the government’s partner and advocate in levelling up, and finally be recognised as a force for good.
Vivienne King is head of real estate social impact at The Good Economy