Investing in CRE: The ESG Framework
by: Brandon Fikhman
Implementation of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria within Real Estate investment plans is on the rise. According to CBRE’s 2021 Global Investor Intentions Survey, 60% of the survey respondents have implemented ESG metrics within their investment criteria, a significant increase compared to previous years(1). With the amplified focus on social responsibility, how can you be the next to implement ESG criteria within your investment platform and take advantage of this important trend in Real Estate investing? Socially conscious investors continue to adopt these standards, implementing them in their companies and overall investment philosophies allowing them to achieve attractive returns for investors while creating a positive impact on the environment and community.
Climate Change and its associated impact on our planet are one of the most pressing issues our society faces today. As we move towards a more sustainable future, real estate professionals can take the next step to reduce the negative environmental impacts of their properties. Some of these negative environmental impacts reveal themselves within the construction process and the yearly carbon footprint buildings produce with ongoing operations. To mitigate these negative environmental impacts, developers can incorporate water conservation methods, safe disposal of waste, and the use of renewable energy. One way this is measured in new builds is through the Leed Certification. Getting a property Leed Certified allows a landlord to implement a Green premium on rent while also reaping the benefits of numerous financing incentives. For example, HUD loans have a reduced mortgage insurance premium for green properties. Implementing these features would allow real estate operators to both increase profit and help reduce their burden on the environment.
As a society, recently we have been making major strides in equality, diversity, and other social measures to move towards a more just society. The “S” portion of ESG encourages business owners, managers, and real estate operators to consider the social impacts of their projects. Some examples are the impacts a business or investment has on the local community, a company’s employees, and the suppliers they partner with. Essentially, the goal of this metric is to ensure all of the stakeholders related to a business or project are treated ethically and fairly. To incorporate the social aspect of ESG into one’s investment strategy, investors should take into consideration the impact of a real estate project on the local community. Considering the local community, the lack of affordable housing is a major issue throughout our country. Local tenants are being priced out, and this is being exacerbated by the increase in new development projects and premium rents. Operators can also improve their social impact by focusing on the treatment of their employees by paying reasonable wages, offering various benefits, and encouraging the personal development of employees. One of the most important ways a real estate owner/developer can improve their social impact is by ensuring that the raw materials used in the construction or rehab process are being ethically sourced.
The final aspect of ESG is governance which focuses on how a company or real estate project is governed. Within a business, governance can be in the form of transparency, allowing shareholders voting rights on important issues, or ensuring board members do not have conflicts of interest. Particularly in real estate, firms have been working on improving the diversity of their board of directors and implementing corporate socially responsible policies. Real estate firms have also been adopting new technologies such as benchmarking and reporting platforms to ensure they are meeting their goals in terms of ESG metrics.
In recent years, firms have been working towards aligning their projects in accordance with ESG criteria. Operators have been focusing on incorporating environmentally friendly materials into real estate projects and improving social and governance aspects within their firms. Our society continues to further increase its focus on the implementation of ESG as sustainability and equality for all have become more important for employees and investors of companies. One reason why investors have been hesitant to invest in environmentally friendly building elements is due to the misconception that investing in ESG will reduce profits. As firms focus on environmental sustainability, this thesis is changing as they are finding that implementation of ESG criteria can help increase profitability.
As the industry continues to align itself with the ESG metrics, real estate firms will focus on implementing ESG criteria within their firm and investments. Investment teams are focusing on improving their green metrics within projects by working towards achieving certain certifications such as the Leed certification. The U.S Green Building council is responsible for reviewing projects and then certifying them with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Leed) Certification. Leed Certification is an internationally recognized green building rating system (2). There are different levels of LEED certification, depending on what sustainability and environmental aspects are implemented in a project will determine the level of LEED certification a project receives. As buildings achieve LEED certification, operators can both improve the lives of the people using the buildings and also charge a green rental premium to their tenants(3). As different elements are implemented to achieve the certification, projects will help reduce carbon emissions, improve environmental quality inside projects, create healthier spaces, and bring in happier tenants. Once owners implement ESG improvements to their projects, owners will be able to charge a green rental premium to their tenants. Green leases will incentivize owners and lessees to maintain certain usage metrics such as electricity per occupant (kilowatt hours per employee), water used by area, and the volume of waste disposed of in landfills as a percentage of total waste produced. With lease structures promoting change, we will start to see an increasing difference in prices between green rental premiums and brown rental discounts for projects.
For the social aspect of ESG, investors seek to implement socially beneficial measures. In the market, we are seeing an increase in affordable housing projects as we see sky-high rent prices. Building owners will also implement health and wellness amenities for their tenants to use. Especially with the recent coronavirus, we are seeing an increased emphasis on improved hygiene measures in buildings. In office space, owners are starting to redesign each of the spaces to promote the health of their tenants with improved air circulation systems and social distancing measures. Mixed-Use, multifamily, and retail owners are working to improve the tenant mix by including more healthy food options as part of their restaurant options. Governing bodies also will work to improve the diversity of their board of directors or executives and improve the tracking of their benchmarks with the increasing use of technology.
Previously the industry did not focus on ESG investing metrics. Lenders and investors did not place an immense emphasis on sustainability, social, or governance factors while looking at projects(4). As of late, investors and lenders have been working on implementing ESG criteria within their own companies, and have been placing more of an emphasis on this space within their investments. As capital continues the implementation of ESG metrics within their work, we will see capital providers creating invectives for ESG-friendly projects. For example, lenders will provide lower interest rates for projects that fulfill certain ESG criteria, leading to the incentivization of investment into a more socially responsible future.
Here at Lever, we have extensive knowledge and experience with a wide variety of lenders. Understanding how Debt and Equity partners are adjusting their criteria to incorporate ESG into their investing strategies, we see where the future is going with the incorporation of ESG into real estate. We can help advise you on the needs and wants of capital partners to help you strategically position your investment to achieve the most favorable capital terms to help support your project. As we see the prevalence of ESG investing in the Real Estate space, many capital providers are adjusting their parameters to incorporate ESG within their companies. Increasing the focus of a project to fit ESG goals, can not only help the investors but improve and grow the local community of investment projects.