Vancouver’s World Housing targets condo buyers with social incentives

Can condominium development and social enterprise really have anything in common?

One is all about profit, after all; the other not-so-much.

Yet, Peter Dupuis and Sid Landolt see a winning partnership in the two extremes.

The pair, long-time business partners in a highly successful Vancouver real-estate firm, recently launched World Housing, an ambitious new social business venture that aims to house impoverished families in the developing world through the sale of market condos in Canada.

Specifically, recipients of the housing project will be families living in garbage-dump communities around the globe.

“These people are the poorest of the poor,” Dupuis told Yahoo Canada Finance.

“(They) are literally surviving off of the garbage of others, spending hours a day trying to find clean water and food for their family.”

On second thought, maybe it’s not such an odd combination.

World Housing taps into a strong business and consumer interest in social enterprise in Canada, and elsewhere, evidenced by the dramatic growth in the number of entities and ventures springing up over the past decade, said Joyce Sou with the Toronto-based MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, a non-profit organization that works to mobilize private capital for public good.

Broadly defined, a social enterprise refers to the use of revenue-generating business-like activities to accomplish at least, in part, socially-beneficial goals. Canadian examples include everything from green-energy provider Bullfrog Power and outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia to Toronto human resources firm, Ian Martin Group, and real-estate company, Tas.

“Each company has a different reason for why they have created what they have created,” said Sou. But they share a belief that business can be used as a force for social change, “beyond just creating money.”

World Housing operates on a one-for-one business model, much like the company that inspired its creation, TOMS Shoes.

TOMS has soared to success on the promise of its founder, Blake Mycoskie, that for every pair of shoes sold another pair is donated to a child in need.

Dupuis and Landolt immediately saw an opportunity to introduce a similar concept to the condo market, where developers are always looking for an extra edge over the competition.

How it works

World Housing-certified developers commit to donating $2,900 to the non-profit for every market condo sold. Developers agree to take the money from a project’s marketing budget, and not burden the buyer with additional costs.

Likewise, World Housing is bound by its corporate charter to ensure profits are used to expand its projects around the world -- $2,500 is directed to a non-governmental organization within the project country to build needed housing, while the remaining $400 goes towards the organization’s general operations.

World Housing is not for everyone. Dupuis and Landolt said developers will only give certification to companies that have a proven record of social and environmental responsibility.

To date, Westbank Corp., one of the country’s most prolific development firms, has confirmed it will be the first company to certify as a World Housing partner when its controversial “twisting tower” luxury residential project in downtown Vancouver goes to market this spring.

Toronto’s Hunter Milborne is also reportedly onboard with an, as yet, undisclosed project.

Landolt and Dupuis don't deny there is a marketing element to the World Housing venture.

The pair has made millions in the real-estate industry from Whistler to Waikiki based largely on a keen understanding of exactly what a condo buyer wants.

But consumer demand is evolving, and, with it, the motivation of even the most money-oriented of businesses.

There are a host of studies out of the U.S. that show consumers are increasingly wary of brands, and demand proof of social good over a company's word.

At the same time, most consumers (75 per cent) say they base purchasing decisions on what they know of about a company, not just the product.

One survey, published this year by Deloitte, found 75 per cent of the global workforce by 2025 wants to work for organizations that foster innovative thinking, develop their skills and make a positive contribution to society.

Dupuis and Landolt have done their own research (part of a master's degree undertaken by Dupuis on social enterprise), reaching similar conclusions as the U.S. studies. Specific to the housing industry, they found most (75 per cent) buyers say they would choose a World Housing project over another condo unit of a similar size and price, and in the same neighbourhood.

The response was uniform regardless of age, ethnicity or income-level.

None of this is surprising to Sou, who believes even small efforts made towards social good – from ensuring fair-trade in a company’s supply chain to striving for wage equity among employees -- can effect consumer behaviour.

“I definitely believe that consumers care,” she said.

Currently, World Housing in involved in three landfill communities based outside of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Manila, Philippines, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The goal is to expand to India, South America and Africa with a benchmark of housing 30,000 people by 2020.

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