Increase our Impact. Leave a review on iTunes. Here’s a how-to guide.
Ommeed Sathe is a Vice President and head of the Impact Investment unit in the Office of Corporate Social Responsibility at Prudential. He grew up in a family who felt public service, through work or volunteerism, “was fundamental.” And that rubbed off.
Just out of Harvard Law School, Ommeed was in New Orleans after Katrina and decided to put his background in urban planning to use to help the city recover. For four years he worked with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), working on properties around the city. It was with NORA that he began working with Prudential, and became impressed with their willingness to stay working in the community for more than twice as long as other corporations.
Ommeed joined Prudential’s Office of Corporate Social Responsibility in 2011. His unit manages a portfolio of over $1 billion in impact investments.
The investment work he oversees at Prudential is about 80 percent stable, predictable credits with established sponsors, while 20 percent “are far more risky and untested but have the potential to create significant social impact and to pioneer new markets.” Much of their recent work has been in Newark, such as with the 1901 Hahne & Company department store, and as of 2016, his portfolio had supported the creation of over 1,000 housing units, 250 hotel rooms and 300,000 s.f of retail space in the city, where Prudential is based.
Previously Ommeed was director of real estate development for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, and a real estate and land use attorney with Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in NYC.
Insights and Inspirations
- For Ommeed, investing is more than a way to make money.
- For Ommeed, three key things define impact – the physical characteristics of a project, community engagement and whether or not the project is catalytic in nature.
- Is bigger better? While other funds aspire to reach 10 billion dollars when the 1 billion dollar hurdle has passed, Ommeed’s aspirations differ. Rather than go bigger he’d like go riskier – with untested developers and untested ideas in untested neighborhoods.
Information and Links
- Read about Ommeed and the business of doing good at Prudential.
- Prudential has focused some of their impact investing in Newark, a city that has suffered through 140 years of disinvestment. They helped to restore the iconic Hahne’s Department Store in Newark. Now it’s a vibrant mixed-use center.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve: [00:00:14] Hi there, thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing.
My guest today is Ommeed Sathe. Ommeed is Vice President of Impact Investments in Prudential Financial’s Office of Corporate Social Responsibility. His unit manages a portfolio of $1 billion in impact investments.
That’s a big number and it doesn’t seem like Ommeed is slowing down.
Ommeed grew up in a family who felt public service, through work or volunteerism, “was fundamental.” And that has clearly rubbed off.
Be sure to go to evepicker.com to find out more about Ommeed on the show notes page for this episode. And be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, SmallChange.
Eve: [00:01:42] Well hello Ommeed, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.
Ommeed Sathe: Absolutely, Eve, it’s a real pleasure to be with you.
Eve: Well, that’s great. So I wanted to start with your title, Vice President of Impact Investments at Prudential. What does that mean?
Ommeed: [00:01:59] Yeah, so I head up the company’s impact investing activities, and that’s obviously one of those terms that kind of sounds OK, but it doesn’t really necessarily clearly translate. But what it is, for us, is it’s a portfolio of investments we’ve made that are trying to have both a financial and a social impact. And so they are genuine investments that try to make money, but we invest them exclusively in projects that we think have outsize social investments and in particular in the types of projects that our company and traditional capital markets wouldn’t do otherwise.
So, they’re really meant not to be sort of a subset of what the company was doing already, but to be a portfolio, to be used to be catalytic and differentiated and to invest in places we wouldn’t be investing otherwise and in projects we wouldn’t be looking at otherwise.
Eve: [00:02:51] So how big is the portfolio?
Ommeed: [00:02:53] At the moment, it’s, it’s about a billion dollars.
Eve: [00:02:57] Wow, that’s pretty big. Can you give us some examples of the things you’ve invested in?
Ommeed: [00:03:02] We have sort of two halves of the portfolio. One is around very physical types of projects, affordable housing. We’ve made a lot of investments in our hometown of Newark in big transformative developments and redevelopments. And then we also do some interesting work around new ways of doing agriculture, new ways of sort of growing and feeding the planet. And that’s sort of on the physical side of the work. And on the other side of the portfolio is investments in really interesting social purpose businesses. And those have been largely focused on financial inclusion. And then on education and how do we re-skill and retrain the labor force?
Eve: [00:03:42] That’s pretty great. How would you define impact in real estate? How does Prudential define it? Like, both of you?
Ommeed: [00:03:50] Yes. So, this is actually a really fascinating question. So, I think there’s probably three ways to think about it. You can think about it just sort of on the the most, I’d say, straightforward which is, you know, units of affordable housing, square feet of redevelopment, square feet of the building, and if it’s a LEED platinum. Your, sort of, the physical characteristics of the development very much sort of very clear outputs of sort of what the real estate is. I think the second way to think about it is what’s sort of the community level and at the residents’ level. And so how are residents’ lives being impacted and living in certain places? How are services? What’s the quality and satisfaction of tenants? So very sort of a consumer impact as well as in looking at sort of the communities in which this real estate is. So, are these places where investment wasn’t being made and after you make these investments, does more investment come in? Are those investments leading to good outcomes or is it just catalyzing sort of unhealthy gentrification? Those are a couple of dimensions. And then I think the third and both, sort of, most qualitative and trickiest maybe to sort of measure, but something that really drives us is, is this work in any way catalytic? Does it change the trajectory of what a market is going towards? Does it prove that a new way or a new type of housing or new type of sort of investment strategy that could work thing be replicated in other places?
Eve: [00:05:18] That last one must be more of a hope than a metric that you can measure.
Ommeed: [00:05:23] That’s right, it’s true that it’s nothing than more of a hope. But I’ll give you some examples, maybe that last one, because I think it kind of brings it to life.
So, you know, one of the things that we’ve been looking at and I think we’ve done with the great sort of sort of architectural firms is how do you say we take lots that have been deemed substandard, often sort of ineligible even for development and develop really creative structures and housing and building models that can sort of create value on land that is otherwise essentially worthless. And are there ways to sort of replicate that and make that go to other places? Because it’s interesting, right? Like, you know, with land getting so expensive and all the prime development sites gone. If you’re trying to get more affordable housing into sort of affluent markets, sometimes figuring out really creative design solutions for substandard or non-standard lots is one way to do that. Another thing that we’ve done sort of I think has been really catalytic. We worked with some colleagues down in Washington, D.C. They had recently passed a new ordinance that required much higher levels of stormwater retention. And a lot of our city’s stormwater is actually a sort of surprisingly under-appreciated problem. Enormous source of pollution, flooding. And so, cities are starting to try to grapple with how they do this better.
[00:06:37] And so D.C. passed this ordinance requiring much higher levels of stormwater capture. You know, one of the few ways you can do that on a development is you can either sort of build in essentially bladders in the basement to capture water or green roofs on the roof. But what DC did that was really interesting was they permitted people to fill some of their obligation by making improvements to green infrastructure in other parts of the city. And so we helped fund a bunch of improvements to green infrastructure and you got essentially tradeable stormwater credits. And so this was a version of sort of what people talk about wanting to try to do with carbon by creating tax and trade mechanisms and, but done at the local level around a whole novel problem with stormwater. And so that’s sort of an example of something that I think we helped build the first green infrastructure products and create the first tradable stormwater credits. And we think that solution is really interesting. And we also think other cities will see that, and potentially try re-create a similar solution.
Eve: [00:07:35] That is catalytic. So, you know, when you were talking about unusable lots, I was thinking about an article I read recently about the downsizing of some freeways and the land that that might free up. For, you know, development use. I think that’s a really interesting thesis in this time when we’re starting to see autonomous vehicles and a lot of people who don’t want to own cars. It’s really interesting to think about where land is available, right?
Ommeed: [00:08:04] I think it is. And it’s still strange to me, actually, because there’s a sort of funny meme, right, that what will happen in Silicon Valley finally invents a technology that allows us to build the second story. And, you know, I think that spirit is kind of true even in New York City. You go around and see so many easy and obvious potential sites that you could build on. Sites that are being used for car dealerships, parking lots, abandoned, your public assets, you know, right of ways. And it’s amazing just how much of that land is there when you start to look. And it does feel like some of the lowest hanging fruit, in terms of how do we find opportunities to create more affordable products. Again, it may not be the best location in the city, but it’s certainly habitable and buildable and safe. And I think it’s been really interesting. We worked with this great architecture firm down in New Orleans the Office of John Tate, and they’ve done really interesting stuff thinking about how to do that.
Eve: [00:09:02] Yes. Yeah, I know Jonathan really well. He was, he actually did the first crowdfunding offering with us.
Ommeed: Oh, there you go, it’s a small world.
Eve: It was one of his Starter Homes on an odd lot. Pretty fascinating times. Do you have metrics that you’ve developed to test against projects that come to you?
Ommeed: [00:09:23] We do. There’s a couple of ways, and I think goes back to sort of thinking about the different impacts, you’re capturing metrics for things like the number of affordable housing units, the square feet of, extra, square feet of Y that’s fairly straightforward to capture. You know, I heard this quote the other day. I thought it sort of kind of interesting. We can grind to a fine dust that we can easily ascertain. And yet sometimes in doing that, we don’t really measure what’s most important. And I think the things that are most important are somewhat, by their nature, more ambiguous. And so some of this is actually the process of asking those questions. So, I’ll give you an example with affordable housing. You know, we know it’s desperately needed and in many affluent communities. And yet a lot of times where affordable housing gets built isn’t necessarily the, you know, the most affluent areas. Is that a good or a bad thing? Right. You know, it’s not a question that can be answered with a single metric, because it matters in terms of looking at the public education system and saying, OK, you know, are there good education resources or are there community resources? You know, there’s research by Raj Chetty that sort of speaks to just how relevant place really is the social and economic mobility.
[00:10:27] And that data is not. It’s really interesting and compelling, but it’s certainly not black or white, in terms of its implications. And so one of the things I do think we’re trying to do a better job and actually think is something that’s so under-appreciated in real estate is really to survey tenant residents and try to get data from the people who live in buildings, about their lives getting better, what’s happening actually as a result of being in this complex here, because I think some of these questions are important questions, but they’re not solvable with the data we have. And yet, you know, every other sector of our economy, it’s you know, if you could buy shoes from Zappos, every one of those companies is has a net promoter score and wonders what it is and as careful about it and uses that as a leading indicator of telling you whether something’s working. And yet in real estate and I don’t know about you, but no landlord has ever, no only one I should say, has ever asked me, like, was I happy.
Eve: Yeah, yeah, interesting.
Ommeed: And it’s striking, the one landlord that did ask me that question was absolutely, no surprise, the single best landlord I ever had.
Eve: Often landlords are pretty scared of the tenants.
Ommeed: [00:11:32] And it’s funny, I do think one of the trends we’re seeing that I think is a really interesting trend, is that as far as people I see and real estate are really moving in this direction, that so much of real estate development used to be about the physical development of the assets, actually getting the things built and getting it through entitlements and through reviews and all of that. And so, the field really focused on the physical construction and not the management and hospitality.
But you just look at sort of food halls or even kind of we-work and co-working spaces. All of those models are fundamental, about taking spaces that exist and thinking about how do we manage them better, how do we program them better? How do we get more stuff out of the same space? More and more, I think real estate is actually moving to hospitality. That if you think about hotels, right, with hotels, you think about brands and you think about your experience. You don’t really think about hotels and associate them with the physical structure. To some extent, everything you see and experience is on the inside.
Eve: [00:12:31] Yes. So, you know, I interviewed someone a couple of weeks ago you might be interested in them in Amsterdam. He has a spin-off, an architect who spun off a company called Superlofts. You can find it on my website.
And it’s very interesting because he creates a community before he, before they even start designing the building. They start meeting with groups of people who want to buy these little condominiums and talk to them about the needs, the dreams. Almost, he said like a video – what would you like a day in your life to look like? And when they have a group of like-minded people together they will start to kind of design the physical space around them. It was fascinating.
Ommeed: That sounds amazing.
Eve: Really fascinating, beautiful architecture as well. So I think there’s a lot of really interesting innovation going on. So, why Prudential? That might be surprising to some people.
Ommeed: [00:13:25] Yeah, it is, I mean, it’s sometimes surprising to me as well. My connection to Prudential’s at a couple of levels. One, before I joined the company, I was in New Orleans working after Hurricane Katrina. And in that role, I led redevelopment for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. And we were tasked with trying to really catalyze neighborhood-based redevelopment in the wake of the storm. And in doing that, in that role, got to work with just about every kind of capital source around the country, philanthropic, government, private sector. And we were trying to coalesce all of that capital around really important, really transformative projects. And Pru is just one of the best people we worked with. And in that experience, and it really shaped for me how different the access to capital is by place. So I’d come from working in New York largely in the boom times ahead of the financial crisis, working on often quite foolish projects with unimaginably easy access to capital. And even if they’d worked, relatively low returns and then going to New Orleans and having really vital projects with great returns, but just in a place where there was almost no capital available. And seeing how important it was to have sort of, you know, investments and capital to try to move away from a very limited set of places which have kind of capital they need for reinvestment.
[00:14:45] You know, I think a lot of people who are urbanists, I’m sure this will sort of resonate, you know they’ve grown up in New York, San Francisco, D.C., Boston, you know real estate we call the sexy 7, right, The 7 kind of big, urban markets where capital is unbelievably plentiful. And that’s not really reflective of what it’s like to work in most urban communities around this country. You know, in most urban communities, even good projects have a hard time finding financing. And it’s even harder for projects that are really sort of aspirational at a social level because a lot of those projects are often coming from entrepreneurs or untested, who have limited ability to manage pre-development. The work that you described in terms of sort of crowdfunding and some of that I think is a really interesting angle to bringing capital into those markets. But another is sort of getting institutional money like Prudential to have dedicated programs that really start to look in these non-traditional markets and opportunities.
Eve: [00:15:41] Right. So I’ve done a lot of real estate development like that in Pittsburgh, which is a city that was in pretty bad shape when I started doing the work I did and I relied heavily on public funds and the mayor’s office and the Urban Redevelopment Authority to fill that role. But I imagine that many cities don’t have those sorts of resources for developers. And I also think those funds have dried up a little. So that makes Prudential’s role perhaps even more important.
[00:16:07] Yeah. No, it does. And I think we’re trying to push ourselves to get even more early stage with our investments. You know, I think some of the stuff we’ve done in Newark has actually been very large projects and in some other markets we’ve been able to do projects which are 50 to 100 million dollar kind of projects where we’ll be investing 10 or 20 million at a time. But where I think the real need is to have, you know, institutions like us really push to do more in pre-development to do more with sort of, you know, young and minority development firms and to really try to continue to push earlier, because the earlier you get, the more you see that acute lack of capital. You know, when you really get into the machinery of real estate, you see why and how access to capital is such a profound differentiator. It’s not really the project economics that blow things up. You know, what we see is people get stuck in pre-development.
Ommeed: [00:16:57] You know, they get stuck having, you know, bought land and thinking it would take them a year to get permits. And now it’s two years and they don’t have money to make the payment on an acquisition loan or they’ve got to pay for another X, Y, Z of permitting or entitlement costs. And they just can’t get the project to the finish line. Typically, you know, the most underserved markets are often also the ones that are actually most difficult to operate in because they don’t have some of the robust public sectors like you saw, even saw in Pittsburgh, right, and so you couple those challenges and we really do see it as being a pretty acute need to solve.
Eve: [00:17:32] Prudential would actually go in at such an early stage of pre-development stage? That’s pretty unusual.
Ommeed: [00:17:38] I want to be clear we haven’t done it yet, and I think it’s sort of where we want to get to. You know, as we see it, adding a part of this is just the evolution of the real estate market. When we started this program seven or eight years ago, I’d say, it was really just not a lot of capital flowing in. Like, take a town like Newark, there was almost no equity capital to support redevelopment. And it really felt like even our financing at the project level was pretty transformative. Fast forward to where we are today, I’d say, if you can get a project to being at a closing even in Newark, there’s a lot of sources that’ll provide equity capital now, but it’s the money to support the pre-development and planning, entitlement, that stage of the work that’s really very, very scarce. Because that money’s so scarce, it means that the people who do big projects are going to look can be and have a certain set of values and approaches and people with new ideas and real creativity won’t be able to be even having a seat at the table.
Eve: [00:18:36] So a billion dollars now. What’s what’s the goal for this portfolio?
Ommeed: [00:18:40] There’s a couple of ways you can go, right? Like most people in financial services, you get to a billion and then you want to get to 10 billion. And bigger is just better. Actually, I think given sort of our mandate to be catalytic and creative, we’re trying to actually push to some extent to the opposite. So, not to necessarily get the portfolio bigger, but actually try to push earlier down the risk spectrum and really push ourselves to be more catalytic and more transformative and more creative rather than build to be bigger. Because I actually think this is sort of in my experience, once something gets bigger, it actually gets more vanilla, more predictable and usually if it makes sense, there will be lots of people who’d be willing to invest.
Eve: [00:19:23] Got it. That’s really fascinating. What percentage of the total Prudential portfolio is the impact portfolio?
Ommeed: [00:19:32] Good question. I’d say there’s two ways to think about that. Right, so when you’re an insurance company, you have a tremendous amount of assets. But somewhere in the neighborhood for Prudential, you know, five hundred billion dollars of assets, let’s say. But that’s not really a very accurate measure because the way insurance companies are regulated, ninety five percent of what they do has to be in very safe, predictable bonds and rated kind of loans. And so, the portfolio we manage is essentially 5 percent of the company’s risk appetite.
Eve: [00:20:06] OK. Well, I know a little bit about the work in Newark through Jonathan Tate. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. I think what you’re doing there is tackling quite a big problem and quite a big project by the sounds of it.
Ommeed: [00:20:19] Yes. You know, so Prudential’s been headquartered here in Newark for the better part of a hundred and forty years, and obviously, the city of Newark has gone through many, sort of evolutions during that time. I think what’s interesting, right, is that you can sort of contrast what we’re doing now with maybe what people did 30 or 40 years ago. There was obviously a fairly disruptive and difficult period of urban unrest, and the riots and a lot of people fled the city, a lot of companies left the city and there was sort of a cycle of disinvestment for many, many years. And we’ve done this really interesting research, actually, you know, Newark, pre the civil unrest had more urban renewal than anywhere in the country.
[00:20:58] And you can watch these videos and they are just heart wrenching because the helicopter shots of the city. And it looks like Berlin after World War Two. And yet the voice-over on the video is so proud of what they’ve done.
[00:21:14] They state literally there’s been more, you know, more of urban renewal per person in New York than anywhere else in the country. And this was Newark 1950, and you see actually sort of the devastating impact of that cycle in the community. But you can really see some of that and that’s sort of just a random aside. But in the sort of reaction after the civil unrest, a lot of the investment that was made, was made and things like if you’ve ever been to Newark there’s something called the Gateway Center, which is like the Renaissance Center in Detroit. Towers, skybridges connected to transit, you know, kind of fortress style orientation to the urban environment. Instead of doing that, what we decided to try to do sort in this most recent cycle and look, you know, Pru had a role in building those gateway complexes in the 70s and so this is by no means, you know, a story that doesn’t sort of involve us.
[00:23:02] But in the most recent sort of time when a company had a choice around building a new tower, rather than build it near any of the train stations or in any of the sort of locations that would have been most accessible to commuters, we built that tower literally in sort of the heart of the city. Now it’s on Broad Street, which was aptly named, it’s the broadest street in downtown. It’s on the side of what used to be a sort of a former shopping strip. So, it’s a center where all the department stores and movie theaters used to be in downtown. In building that tower, we also made, I think, a really critical decision with the team I run, to not only just build something for ourselves but to start to invest in all of the sort of transformative developments in and around that location. And the most important of those was an old department store called the Hanes Department Store, which during its heyday was a department store that would have competed with Saks. It had a four-story grand atrium like the Grand Magasin in Paris. People would come up and have these amazing memories of putting on white gloves and dressing up and going to this department store.
[00:23:08] There was the Maple Room and the Pine Room and, you know, we just, it was this incredible legacy experience and actually even had a really interesting role as one of the first places where integration happened in the city. Shopping was actually one of those areas where integration was sort of, one of the first places to happen. So, really a pretty legendary history, but had been closed for 25 years and the building itself had completely fallen apart and we made it sort of our passion project to redevelop that building. And we were able to do it in this incredibly complicated, mixed use way. So, the first floor is retail, which is both big box retail and neighborhood retail. The second floor is offices. Third and fourth floors are housing. 40 percent of the housing was set aside for affordable housing. The retail mix is everything from fintech companies and co-working to really cutting-edge nonprofits. And then, maybe the sort of cherry that made it both the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on but also the best, was Rutgers University brought in all of their arts and design program into that building and did it in this way that I think is really unprecedented where, first of all there’s no separate entrance for the university, the public can go into those spaces. But even intermixed in the Rutgers space are private galleries and a rotating space, right in the front of their space for, you know, kind of community serviing arts nonprofits. They essentially have like six month displays where they can come in and sort of gain visibility and access to resources. And so it’s been a real labor of love. And it’s physically, that building, plus the Prudential Tower plus Military Park, plus some other things we were doing, started to re-knit together parts of the downtown. So we followed that up with another half a dozen investments that I think are sort of all, again trying to sort of replicate that playbook of mixed income, mixed use development with a mix of both sort of national needed amenities and community serving retail and office tenants that both sort of try to draw exciting new things, but also, you know, cater to some of our legacy businesses.
Eve: [00:25:13] Yeah, so common theme I’m hearing from a lot of people now is that part of the process of keeping a community whole is to provide space, a community hub, space in some way or another for a community to feel that it belongs while improvements are going on around them. Does that make sense?
Ommeed: [00:25:32] Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that we had in that building is we, we sort of restored this grand atrium and the grand atrium is actually sort of open to the public year around. And so it becomes this place where you see people, especially in winter here right like, it serves almost like, you know, the function of a town town commons and we sort of made it kind of connect both sides of the building so this is a really kind of interesting passageway.
Eve: [00:25:56] That sounds lovely, I’d love to see it. Perhaps this question is redundant, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Do you think socially responsible real estate is necessary in today’s development landscape?
Ommeed: [00:26:07] I do. And it’s got a place to play at a lot of different levels. So I think if you look at sort of the institutional level, I think given some interesting things where people are starting to sort of demand that portfolios be LEED certified and have certain environmental obligations, and I think that’s something that sort of very both important and do-able at the very sort of macro level for real estate. But then I also think, with what we’re facing as a country between the challenges around affordable housing, just radical inequity, and then honestly, we haven’t built a lot of housing in this current boom. It’s one of the most sort of striking things that’s happened is that we haven’t built enough housing, we haven’t created enough units, and that’s driving up the price for everyone. And I do think we, we need capital to be creative and thoughtful about how do you get more going on in places where it’s not and get it to a density in a scale that actually starts to bend the cost curve?
Ommeed: [00:26:59] You know, one of the things that, you know, we get asked a lot is sort of, you know, this gentrification question.
Eve: That’s a big one.
Ommeed: [00:27:06] And again, I think that that question, it’s so much shaped by people’s experience in cities like D.C., Boston, New York, cities that are going through these incredible economic booms but have also hardly permitted any housing. If you look at New York, New York City I think last year permitted as much housing as Jersey City. That’s one city of eight million people, another three hundred thousand during, you know, year 10 of an economic boom. And so, you know, historically, when we’ve had economic booms, we’ve been able to produce a lot of housing. And the thing that’s really striking right now, we’re just not doing that as a country. And so what’s happening is because there’s no real housing production and because we’ve really reduced, for reasons that no one really quite fully understands, geographic mobility, so people aren’t moving like they used to, the jobs that are being created and the wealth that’s being created in certain places in many cases is all being swallowed back up by people’s rent.
Eve: [00:27:59] Interesting.
Ommeed: [00:28:00] The cost of living. And so, you know, I think we are really as a society, not doing what we need to do in terms of connecting people to economic growth.
Eve: [00:28:09] Do you have any ideas about that? I talked to an architect in Australia who’s kind of plugging away building affordable, sustainable buildings and making sure that the first buyers are city-serving civil servants who need to be close in. People are taking it from every angle.
Ommeed: [00:28:29] There’s no silver bullet. Sure, I do think one of the things that we have to rethink from a design perspective is density.
You go to a city like Vancouver, I mean, I think there’s really different ways in which density can be expressed at the street level. And people’s experience, you know, people are very poor at actually gauging how dense something is. So, one of those things is I think actually becoming comfortable saying like, you know, we do want to sort of start to think about infill and densification and how do we do that? I do think some of the stuff that’s happening on the West Coast about accessory dwelling units and trying to come up not with sort of solutions that, you know, are project solutions, but are actually these kind of decentralized solutions, making it much more easy for people to add a unit, or what Minneapolis did with eliminating single family zoning.
[00:29:19] I think it’s really, really interesting. A few other things we’ve seen that we’re really excited by – in Texas and Colorado and a few other places, we’ve seen this interesting move to take assets that were built in say the 1970s and 80s as large market-rate rental and kind of reverse convert those to affordable housing. And the way that works is that basically in exchange for really substantial tax abatements, buyers go ahead and dedicate a portion of those units to being affordable and they end up working out roughly the same to what it would be if they bought those buildings and invested lots into to aesthetic renovations and tried to remarket them as luxury. So, these are essentially perfectly lovely units built except with carpet and cherry wood that rather than ripping all that out and trying to convert them into luxury housing, you leave them like they are and convert them into good quality, you know, mixed income developments.
Eve: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ommeed: [00:30:16] I think some of the reverse conversions are really interesting too, as another theme as to how we can get affordability on scale.
Eve: [00:30:22] You know, in Melbourne, Australia, years ago, I was really fascinated, there was, the zoning department implemented densification along major roads where there was infrastructure. It’s actually a really sprawly city. And so, what they permitted was much higher density buildings, housing, along roads that had bus and train tram. It’s been really interesting watching it unfold, you know you can really see the physical spaces changing. But it’s a really smart move to take existing infrastructure in a very big city, which is going to be very expensive to increase, and find a way to create density around it. I thought that was pretty smart.
Ommeed: [00:31:06] Yeah, it does sound like a really elegant solution.
Eve: [00:31:09] There’s another neighborhood there that I know has now put an overlay district in place where they are not permitting anymore parking spaces moving forward. They’re really trying to eliminate them completely. It’s a very dense, mixed-use neighborhood, very close to the central business district. So, they’re making some pretty bold moves with zoning to try and handle what is sort of a rapid sprawl.
And of course, that means if you can live close in and you can have a smaller unit and you don’t need a car because you’ve got access to infrastructure and it’s more affordable. Right.
Ommeed: [00:31:42] Right. You know, it’s interesting, I question required parking. Most of the development we’ve done has has either had minimal or no parking associated with it because the zoning codes here were permissive and it’s a real driver of, as you said, you know, you can create more units, you can reduce the cost. Parking minimums are, I think, a hidden and really destructive part of many zoning codes.
Eve: [00:32:05] They’ve been very destructive, not just for housing, but even when you think about retail strip malls with seas of parking in front of them which are really all about parking minimums.
So are there any other current trends in real estate development that you think are important?
Ommeed: [00:32:19] We’ve talked about a lot and it’s not so much a real estate trend, but this decline in human mobility and our declining mobility rates, I think is just one of those fascinating social trends that I think has implications for place and how we do things that I don’t think we fully quite grapple with. I do also think that, you know, we’re entering an increasingly dark age for retail.
Eve: Yes, we are.
Ommeed: [00:32:44] You know, there’s aesthetic implications to that but it’s hard to imagine true vibrant urban places without vibrant retail corridors. And so trying to figure out sort of what else can we do on ground floors? We see this problem in Newark, almost every square foot of retail we’ve had has had to be filled by a food and beverages. And even then, after a while, you reach saturation. So, what can you do with spaces that actually are interesting and inviting, and, you know, if you are pessimistic on the future retail?
Eve: [00:33:14] This is a dilemma, because other countries we’re not really, not really seeing the demise of retail in the same way. It’s really a shame for us. Right. It’s very difficult.
Ommeed: Very difficult.
Eve: You also engage the community, right, in your work in Newark?
Ommeed: [00:33:30] We do. One of the things that’s been interesting in Newark is that I think there’s this big cadre of, you know, of what people would call sort of anchor institutions, and that have been a nice kind of vehicle to sort of get all of those different institutions to really try to, sort of, really think differently about this community engagement and not sort of recreate what happened in the 1950s and 60s in terms of just sort of having this kind of urban renewal from the top down.I think part of what we’ve tried to do in insurance in the beginning is, in finding a way to sort of help smaller infill neighborhood based projects, you actually get to interact with people in community and get just an insight, at a much more human level, into what’s sort of driving people and what needs there are felt. I think wherever you can, trying to sort of really, I think encourage transparency.
[00:34:21] We’ve, you know, we’ve been really fortunate, I think, to have good leadership at the Mayoral level in Newark and I think they have really forced and encouraged that same kind of community convening, but also done it in a way that, I think, you know, too often those meetings are either sort of lip service or not willing to sort of push back on these issues, let’s say, around gentrification. And what I think the Mayor has done a really good job of here is both coming up with good policies around inclusion and local hiring, but also signing up for the fact that, look, inclusive growth also means we have to be able to grow and do things the right way and that if you look at a city like Newark, almost everything we’ve built has been vacant buildings are vacant lots.
[00:35:04] You know, there’s still a long arch before you get into displacement. And actually, if you’re adding units of affordability and doing that, you can be constructive in taking the edge off of those pressures.And so I think there’s been a really good set of conversations that aren’t trying to sort of demonize either side, but trying to get to a pretty reasonable resolution. So, we’ve been fortunate here.
Eve: [00:35:28] So I’m going to just ask a wrap-up question. Where do you think the future of real estate impact investing lies for the country? It’s really just a little blip right now. Right?
Ommeed: [00:35:39] Hmm. I think it can be two things at the same time. I do think there’s a real role for institutional capital in pushing more investment into things like affordable housing preservation and sustainable large scale development and I think that’s largely about sort of preserving existing assets and upgrading existing assets and I think that’s one scenario that impact real estate can do. And then I think there’s a need for the kind of catalytic capital that we have to really push money into the places where there’s just very little capital availability. I think you could see two, sort of very different approaches, depending on sort of the type of capital of the scale and the places they go, but both are needed.
Eve: [00:36:23] Well, it sounds like a fascinating job you have and probably most people listening to this, are very surprised that Prudential is kind of taking a lead in this and I’m looking forward to seeing what else you invest in. It sounds pretty fabulous.
Ommeed: [00:37:37] Well, thank you. I’m so excited to go look at sort of some of the examples you mentioned.
Eve: Ok, we’ll talk again soon, OK?
Eve: That was Ommeed Sathe. For Ommeed, investing is more than a way to make money. It’s a way to make a difference. His portfolio at Prudential has already supported the creation of well over 1,000 housing, 250 hotel rooms and plenty of retail space in Newark. But most importantly while other funds aspire to reach 10 billion dollars once the 1 billion hurdle has passed, Ommeed’s aspirations differ. Rather than go bigger he’d like go riskier – with untested developers and untested ideas in untested neighborhoods.
You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access the show notes for today’s episode at my website, evepicker.com. While you’re there sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate and while building better cities.
Thank you so much for spending your time with me today, and thank you Ommeed, for sharing your thoughts with me.
We’ll talk again soon, but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Hahne and Company, 609 Broad St. Newark, by Rajkiran Pericherla, CC by-SA 3.0, formatted to fit. Twitter image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.