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Gregory Heller believes social impact real estate is ‘critical to the future of our cities’

Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority executive director Gregory Heller. July 19, 2016 Category: FeaturedPeopleShort
Not all development in low-income neighborhoods has to contribute to gentrification. All it takes is a developer with deep pockets, an appetite for risk and a commitment to working with communities.

Philadelphia has a few developers who have made social impact real estate their MO, including Philly Office Retail founder Ken Weinstein and former American Communities Trust CEO Gregory Heller, now executive director at Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

“We have to figure out a better way to build projects that are important to our community,” Heller said last June during his TEDxPhiladelphia talk. “I’m thinking about projects like affordable housing or a neighborhood grocery store, a public health clinic, artist studios or job training.”

Those type of projects, Heller said, are “critical to the future of our cities, our communities and ultimately, our society.”

But they’re super hard to finance. Heller explains that typical private development is easier to finance because it’s low-risk, yet yields a high return. Social impact real estate, on the other hand, is much more difficult to finance because they are typically high-risk projects that, despite their high social return, may yield low financial returns.

It’s a lot like how many traditional venture capitalists see investing in for-profit social enterprises: You’re risking financial returns for social good. Heller believes that’s a mindset that needs to be revolutionized, starting with a change in how projects are funded in low-income neighborhoods.

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“That system doesn’t make a lot of sense to me for projects where the end goal is to improve our communities,” he said. “These projects have totally different requirements and goals. It’s apples and oranges.”

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