There Are Tangible Ways to Measure Social Impact Investing

Op-Ed: Neighborhood success stories reveal a powerful return on investment.

Graduation day for Rainbow Housing Assistance Corporation's Tie Me a Future, a resident services program that aims to stabilize multifamily housing communities by guiding young men through a four-step process of transforming self-image, guiding personal thought processes, impacting life choices and leveraging leadership skills. (Credit: Rainbow Housing Assistance Corporation)

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Social impact investing isn’t a brand-new concept — it’s an approach to investing in people with some bling in the title and creative financing added into the mix. The development and preservation of service-enriched affordable housing is “impact investing,” and outcomes are easy to measure. Further, the idea that many aspects of return on investment aren’t tangible is, frankly, bogus.

In the last decade, through my work with a nonprofit, I have been intimately involved in the data collection and analysis of impact investing as it relates to services such as career support and financial literacy programs in low-income and market-rate housing. Making investment decisions based on a desire to empower social and economic change is good for an investor’s bottom line. When you invest money in people, they in turn become catalysts for return on investment.

First, there are very tangible financial components that can be easily measured, qualified and quantified for real estate investors. More affordable rent means low-income families can more easily stay in their homes. The obvious ROI: reduced turnover costs, such as legal expenses, and marketing and re-letting, and reduced maintenance costs.

Let’s walk through a community where these investments are made. Let me introduce you to the coordinators promoting education, job readiness, character building, financial literacy and social development. Meet a first-generation graduate, or a single mother of three who received her GED and is gainfully employed after 10 years. Such success stories are additional examples of a powerful return on investment.

I can match that tour with hard numbers. To show how economic success is based on social evolution, I analyze data from different perspectives and summarize it into useful information that may be used to increase revenue or reduce costs, or both. I find the patterns, associations and relationships in that data. For example, take an analysis of the number of tenants in an affordable housing development who moved from unemployment to employment. Are evictions lower than typical for the market? Improving household income thus improves rent collections and subsequent cash flow.

Information can be converted into knowledge about historical patterns and future trends. For example, do residents want to stay in a community because of education and youth enrichment programs? With the right analysis of data, an investor can see the cost benefit truly lies in the engagement of tenants.

Borrowing from that famous John F. Kennedy quote, investors should not be asking what residents can do for them, but what they can do for our residents.

The real estate sector must become invested in the provision of community development that reaches the pulse of each tenant base uniquely. Rise to the occasion of opportunity at every turn. Meet people in their space of comfort and engagement. Be bold in your effort to build relationships, face-to-face communications, personal conversations, and true interest in the lives you impact and influence through affordable housing projects. Train the trainer, lead by example, hire with intentional efforts to find people and teams that are vested in creating community living environments where life does not just “happen” to people. Think about developing a place where people can live comfortably, confidently, securely and vibrantly in a community that is collectively yours and ours. If you build it, they will come. If you cultivate it, they will stay and flourish with social and economic success.

Organizations that provide support services connected to housing need to dig deeper. Tenant testimonials and anecdotal evidence of a resident’s economic transformation is measurable. The key is to look more closely at the solvency of the tenant base and the correlation back to the financial performance of the asset. By combining the human stories with a dive into the data, investors can see an “ROI” that’s far greater than the “typical” numbers. As William Bruce Cameron said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

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Flynann Janisse is executive director of Rainbow Housing Assistance Corporation, a nonprofit that provides service-enriched housing programs for residents of rental housing communities throughout the U.S.

Tags: affordable housingreal estatesocial services

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