Gino Borges:

Welcome everybody to The Journey to Impact. Today, I’d like to welcome Jonathan Rose. Jonathan graduated from Yale University with a background in psychology and philosophy. He is the Founder of Jonathan Rose Companies, a multidisciplinary real-estate development planning, consulting, and investment firm. Jonathan’s firm has completed $2.3 billion of transformational work in close collaboration with numerous cities and nonprofits. Jonathan also wrote a book on how to create resilient communities, The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilization and Human Nature Teach Us About The Future of Urban Life. Finally, Jonathan, along with his wife, co-founded the Garrison Institute. This Institute connects inner transformation with outer solutions to relieve suffering in the fields of trauma, education, and the environment. Welcome Jonathan.

Jonathan Rose:

Thank you. Glad to be here.

Gino Borges:

Glad to have you. Let’s start off with that “Aha” moment, or potentially a series of micro “Aha” moments that alluded to it’s time to start a socially transformational real estate company.

Jonathan Rose:

Going back very quickly, I’m very lucky that I was born with a calling. When I was a very small child, I was deeply interested in protecting nature. I saw the environmental impacts and wanting to do something about it. I also saw human social impact, particularly as the Civil Rights Movement grew. I loved real estate. I grew up in a family of developers, and I love the process of building. I wanted to put all these things together and struggled for a long time, trying to figure out how to do that. I found myself in my family business, building market-rate apartments, at the same time working as a board member of an inner city not-for-profit, building housing for homeless people, daycare centers, community learning centers and a whole series of things, yearning but with no model for how to these work together. The “Aha” was that I joined a group called the Social Venture Network in 1987. It was an amazing group of people that was just getting started. Back then, the group included Ben and Jerry, founders of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, and Anita Roddick and Gordon, founders of The Body Shop, John Mackey who founded Whole Foods, and Gary Hershfield who founded Stonyfield Yogurt. I saw these amazing entrepreneurs who were creating really exciting, interesting businesses that were closing a lot of loops and making positive impacts. They were visionary, and they were real businesses. Inspired by that in 1989, I left my family business with one other employee, my secretary, and started a two-person, mission-focused, for-profit company focusing on the intersection of affordable housing, a great passion of mine, and the environment. This was very early in the green building world and community redevelopment. Today, we are 450 people and we have over $3 billion worth of assets under management. So, the idea worked!

Gino Borges:

Where does the notion of integrating affordability come from? Is this something you personally experienced?

Jonathan Rose:

I feel like social justice is in my nature. It was also something my mother was very committed to. I grew up in comfortable circumstances. My family was comfortable when I was born, but my father was young and was making his way. As I grew older, we became more and more comfortable. My family, by the time I was in college, was prosperous. I was never of want. That first house I lived in was a 1000 square feet. It wasn’t as if I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I was born in comfort, never having want. As I said, I grew up in continually improving circumstances. I always had it innately and then exposure through my mother, particularly this desire not only to be of help, but my father was also very philanthropic and very involved in the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. His story involved a great deal of his time with the Children’s Aid Society and other things. The idea of the issues of inner-city poverty, and its alleviation were part of the dinner table conversation and modeled for me.

When I was very little, I used to go visit my father’s construction sites on vacations and weekends. I used to actually go with him and create punch lists and all. I grew up loving the building. When I was about 10, he started a program that lasted for a couple of years to build affordable housing as a social contribution to New York. This is now 1962. It was limited profit development. I followed that project with enormous interest and passion. I visited it often, and I watched it be constructed. When it was complete, I went to the rental office, which was just filled with a line of moderate income working class people who needed a place to live. You saw on their faces, they were clutching these application papers. You saw the intensity of their desire to have a better place to live. I wanted to do more, and I could see it was a pathway for families. There’s a whole lot of research.

Now, I know that housing is a platform for opportunity. I have a friend who says, for example, it’s very hard to do homework when you live under a bridge. We know that, how important housing is. Then, the ‘60s happened in full swing, and I was a hippie. Hippies were all into intentional communities and utopias. So then beyond just what is the housing box, you need to think of what does it take to recreate community and what are healthy communities? What are thriving communities? The last piece was my deep interest in the environment. As a small child, I grew up in the suburbs, I played outdoors in nature. I love nature. I could feel the crime against nature of pollution. I’m wanting to heal that, too. I began to really wrestle with it, think about it, and try to integrate. How do you merge this thing of social justice, affordability, housing and environment? It’s been my life’s work from, certainly, my teens to try and figure out how I put those together. You mentioned my book which took several years to write, but the reality is I’ve been writing it all my life. It was the bringing together of this thinking, research, knowledge, experience, and questioning. It became a search for how do you create healthier communities, particularly for lower income people.

Gino Borges:

As you fast forward to today or the last decade, how have those three legs of the stool: affordability, environment, and community redevelopment taken shape?

Jonathan Rose:

The easiest one to talk about is probably the environment. Even when I was in the family business, I stepped out and did a really interesting project on my own. I took a leave of absence and in 1979, did a really innovative development in Tribeca. I’ve always wanted everything I do to be everything. I wanted to be as green as possible, and it was impossible because I knew that paint had, well, I didn’t even know the word VOC, but I knew that they had some bad chemicals in them. But, you could go to paint store and ask for a cleaner, greener paint. They have no idea what you’re talking about. I went to the lumber supplier and said, I want lumber that doesn’t come from raping the rain forest. He goes, “I get my lumbar from the wholesaler; I don’t know where it comes from!” There was no such thing as chain of title. There was no certification. You couldn’t even get data on how much insulation put in a building was cost effective. In ’89, when I started my own company shortly thereafter, and it was no such thing as LEED or anything back then. I developed my own guidelines, which looked like a combination of LEED. Anyway, it kind of looked like LEED today, but it was about 10 S’s, and there were 10 categories of impact to focus on. The first one, by the way, was site. Okay. In the ’60s and ’70s into the ’80s, I saw the hollowing out of our cities. Parts of New York City, the South Bronx, Brooklyn, et cetera were abandoned and burnt down with vast swaths of empty space. America was rapidly suburban. Cities were shrinking, suburbs are growing. From an environmental point of view, it was very clear that the automobile was an enemy of nature. Walkable and mass transit locations were more positive for both individuals, for their economies, and for the environment. Early on, the founding principal of the company was that we would only do transit-focused development. Interestingly, in 1989, that was contradictory to the main theme of the market. It was almost impossible to get financing to do transit-oriented development. You’d only get the answer with suburban sprawl development. I kept saying to everybody, I’m foolish, future-proofing these investments. It wasn’t until probably 2010 or 2011 that the economic value switched and transit-oriented development way outshined sprawl development today. So, location was one. For example, I was mentioning the 10 S’s. The first was to select the right site. That has to do with vocation. I won’t go through all the 10 S’s, but they gave me a framework to evaluate and guide the “greenness” of my projects before there were external frameworks. What makes it so much easier now is there are all these fantastic frameworks. I helped develop one with a national not-for-profit called Enterprise Community Partners. Their framework, the Enterprise Green Community Guidelines, is the predominant greening system for affordable housing. It was designed specifically for affordable housing. Now, I have a framework that everybody in my company can use. We partnered with an amazing not-for-profit called the Healthy Building Network that does research on every material for non-toxicity, et cetera. We can choose the greenest and healthiest materials for our residents. The research, the tools, the systems to make it greener are significantly improved. The same thing on the social side. We work very much to bring social health and education programs to our residents. The amount of research in the efficacy of those things and reporting on it in best practices is much deeper than it was when I started here. Not only not-for-profits, but there’s some for-profits. There’s a range of really great emerging practice that we can learn, can both contribute to and learn from on that side.

The tools available to preserve affordable housing and build new affordable housing have also greatly increased. When I started, whenever they would do lists of the 25 most important issues to people, usually in the bottom three or four was definitely affordable housing and environment was pretty low, too, even though it was very important to some people. Today, affordable housing is at such a crisis level. It’s really number one, two or three in almost every urban city. Think about San Francisco or New York City. The financing tools, the systems that both preserve and develop affordable housing has significantly advanced. The external conditions in these fields has made it much easier to integrate. Part of my career has been to build models of this integration and prove that it can work. Our theory is that we can’t change the world. We can never do enough work to change the world, but if we create models that are successful and duplicatable, that will help. I’ve been at the forefront and others too, in, in modeling this integration and then seeing how it spreads.

Gino Borges:

Where do you find the biggest limitation at the moment? What’s the biggest hurdle?

Jonathan Rose:

Let’s call them difficult, not intractable. We overcome obstacles. An interesting consequence of America’s passion for affordability is the real demand for it. There are 20 million Americans who spend more than 50% of their income on housing. Because there’s more suburban poverty than urban poverty, typically they’re spending another 20% or 30% of their income on car payments, et cetera. Then, they feed and clothe their family. There’s nothing left for education, there’s no resources for daycare. Another fact is there’s not a single county in America where if you work a full-time minimum wage job, you can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. For a single parent and child, there’s only 16 counties (they’re not that big) that you can afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment. There’s an enormous crisis. The federal government is really doing nothing about this. They have the low-income housing tax credit program that was enacted in 1986, and there have been no new affordable housing programs for quite some time, essentially ever since. Cities and states are under enormous volume pressure.

Our work is about creating what we call “Communities of Opportunity” that integrate onsite community gardens, weave in nature, are connected to mass transit, have onsite health care centers, after-school education programs and a whole series of things. As wonderful as this is, and as much as we can actually show that this has larger societal benefits, that pressure is for volume. Cities have such a deficit, they would rather build 20% or 30% more units that are “good enough” versus building fewer units that are nested in extraordinary communities. We’re only willing to do extraordinary. This is whole systems, whole-thinking work. That just makes it harder and harder to put out projects. We’re in a time in which a tide is moved in favor of creating more affordable housing. But, unfortunately, it’s the cost of fully integrated solutions. For the first time in our career, funding agencies are asking would you do less green to save us a little because affordable housing is subsidized. We want to save the subsidy to support other projects.

Gino Borges:

What’s your response to someone asking for less green, considering the importance of the environment to you and your company?

Jonathan Rose:

That’s just one of the many trades. The other really important one, and then I’ll integrate them, is we really know the value of a resident service coordinators. That’s a person on our staff as a social worker who’s working with the residents to help them realize their needs, dreams, and visions. They’re the person who brings in the third party healthcare operators in after-school programs and all that into our projects. The return on investment was enormous, but the agencies will say, you can’t put that in your budget and we’re not going to fund that in your budget. Yet, we know how important it is to have it in our budget. There are all these pressures. First of all, I’m sympathetic. These are not bad people, these are people who see an affordable housing crisis, and it’s not only political, it’s humanitarian. They have a mandate to get the largest number of units out. They’re not asking us to build illegal, immoral, bad, unsafe units. They’re just asking us to build less idealistic units. I totally appreciate the pressures on them and where they’re coming from. My job is then to find another source of funds or another way to get this done as best I can.

Our first project had 23 sources of funds. Our typical projects have 6-12. Sometimes it works; we do the best we can. I mentioned that out of my early work in affordability, I helped create the Enterprise Green Community Program. After my 10 S’s, the US Green Building Council’s LEED program is really focused on office buildings. Working with an amazing national affordable housing not-for-profit, we created a green guideline. We brought together NRDC and Southface, a lot of national and regional environmental groups. We created a green guideline just for affordable housing. We now have two-thirds of the States requiring that, if you want affordable housing funding, you have to follow these guidelines. There are 150 cities, Boston, Washington, New York, LA, San Francisco, et cetera. If you want their funding, you have to follow these guidelines. The leverage point was by greening the financing system. We created an essence mandate. Three-quarters of all affordable housing built in America today is built green, which is larger than the percentage of schools, hospitals, or houses of worship. Enterprise has just released a new version, an even better version of these green guidelines. That automatically means there’s a pretty high minimum bar that all these cities will require. They can’t cut it worse than the Enterprise Green Community Guidelines. The bar is pretty high for what the base level of work is; it’s what we’re required to do. So, that’s a good thing.

Gino Borges:

You acknowledge the pressures of each agency has its own institutional imperative essentially as their own inertia, their own well-intentioned pathway. You mentioned your residential advisor and just how valuable this person is the connecting all the nodes. What do we need to do in the impact space to create the language and a model that demonstrates that this is the wisest investment we can do because it leads to X, Y, and Z.

Jonathan Rose:

It’s creating the models, and then creating valid data about them. I’m going to give you two examples. The simpler one is we won a competition Fannie Mae put out to demonstrate how housing and health could work together. We have a project in Newark. It’s a full city block with about 800 residents, and this is a telemedicine project. The grant allows us to pay and train residents to be community health advisors. They meet other residents in the lobby of the building once or twice a week. They measure their pulse, their blood pressure, their blood oxygen level, and their weight. That goes off via the internet to a medical system that analyzes it. My guess is it’s doing it with algorithms, but if there’s anything that looks off or needs advice, then it notifies a nurse to call the resident. We give recommendations not only on medicine but also on diet, exercise and stress reduction, which is yoga and meditation. Our resident health advisors then work with the residents to help them with diet and exercises. All of our projects have a healthy garden with access to healthy food and exercise rooms. We believe that this should be able to reduce hospital emergency room costs in the surrounding neighborhood by about $500,000 a year. If we can prove this and then do a shared savings with the hospital system, then we can that can pay for the program. Then, it becomes a virtuous circle, a kind of circular economy. On a previous show, you had John Fullerton, who is the dreamer of Regenerative Economies. We think about regeneration in all its forms all the time so that we can create a virtuous circle of regeneration. We’ve put together a partnership of the Harvard School of Public Health on the environmental side, the Columbia Mailman school of public health on the social and human side. Dartmouth has an amazing health economics group that actually helped design Obamacare, Enterprise Community Partners, which has a program called Opportunity360 integrates 200 databases about neighborhood statistics and gives you a snapshot of the characteristics of a neighborhood. A group called NeighborWorks, a national not-for-profit, very experienced in working with low-income residents. We got a grant for them, and they’ve spent a year designing a 10-year longitudinal study of our work. Our goal in 2020 is to launch this study and to study every bit of what we’re doing in what we call “Community of Opportunity” work. Not only on the social health, education, or the environmental side, we’re also looking for patterns that we want to make proof.

Low-income people, because the neighborhoods they’re living in are, have much higher toxic exposure, diesel fumes in the air, industrial plants nearby, power plants, highways, and all that stuff. We know that that continued toxicity exposure reduces people’s immune systems. In low-income buildings, there’s a lot of internal causes of toxicity. For example, very poor people often are living in crappy buildings where their landlords cut off their heat. They heat themselves by turning on their oven, opening the oven door. That puts a lot of particulates this into the air. One of our goals is to measure the toxicity. We’re using all these nontoxic materials. We give them (actually for free) nontoxic cleaning materials, and we’re creating these very healthy nontoxic environments. We want to measure that reduction in toxicity, and we think that improves their immune systems. Low-income people are very exposed to mental toxins, to cognitive stress, that comes from abuse and neglect from violence and from intergenerational poverty. There’s a whole series of these things. That’s also very well-documented that it lowers the immune system and has very demonstrated health impacts. Our theory of change is that actually by creating a healthier environmental environment and a healthier cognitive environment, they have cope positive effects. That’s why we need both the Harvard side and the Columbia side to measure these things. If we can prove that they do and build the data, then we can make the public policy case to say that public policy should be this, and it’s economically worth it. From a social health and educational outcome point of view, the goal is build a model, have a theory of change, build the data about it and try and prove it.

Gino Borges:

Where does arts and humanities fit into the virtuous circle for you, Jonathan?

Jonathan Rose:

On two sides. On the resident’s side, all of our work is what we call “in co-creation” with our residents. We ask our residents what matters to them. Low-income people are often being asked, “what’s the matter with you?” Whenever you fill out a form for a subsidy or whatever, you’re really being asked, “what’s the matter with you?” Instead, we ask them what matters to them. First, they tell us safety, health, healthy food, and education for their kids. The next one almost always to come up is arts and culture. We partner with local, not-for-profits. Even if they didn’t ask, but I’m glad they do… I have another part of my theory of change, which is that the jobs of the 21st century are going to be very different from the jobs of the past. Let’s go to the way, way past 50,000 years ago when humanity went through an enormous change. The change came with the ability of humans to have symbolic thought. Simultaneously what emerged from that was language, religion, science, and art. We see this confluence of these aspects of civilization happening almost simultaneously. We can tell, for example, there was religion because all of a sudden you see the way human burials were being done in a more formalistic way. We know there was science because we found bones with markings on them like an urban Fibonacci series and Cho mathematical knowledge. Music we know because there were flutes, et cetera. The point is that the transformation of humanity came from our ability to have symbolic thought, and the industrial age treated most humans as cheaper machines, machine attendants, or machine companions. The work of the 21st century will be work that requires the cognitive capacity per symbolic language. Whether it’s coding or whether it’s creating the machines, AI are all going to take over most of that, the machine work. If we train people with the knowledge to contribute in the 21st century, we’re not just teaching them coding or teaching them technical things. It’s about a different way of thinking that’s relational, which is actually the essence of all spiritual traditions too, thinking in relation rather than in agency. The most amazing way to do that is with music and art. There’s all this work with kids in inner city orchestras and stuff like that, but children who learn music have all kinds of other amazing attributes. But, I see it as not as a flavor to civilization. It’s not like a nice, pleasant afterschool program for entertainment. I view it as an essential cognitive capacity.

Gino Borges:

I invite you to think about this notion of our semiotic toolkit that essentially has allowed for music, science, and religion. It also, as it’s currently playing out in modern culture, has led to a very disembodied collective. I could make the case that the semiotic realm has numbed the body. We’ve over cerebralized our existence; therefore, not only have we numbed our body, but we’ve numbed a connection to nature as a result. What might be the opportunity cost of line of thinking?

Jonathan Rose:

I view that as one of many capacities. First of all, our communities are physical places, and we really believe that housing and community are in appropriate scale. Social networks are a really important place for this integration to happen. All of this work I’m describing is place-based. Our kids are making things and learning music in place, in community, with each other in terms of embodiment. Then, we have a big wave of obesity with kids too. So, many of our projects have onsite yoga classes and exercise classes. We have that for seniors; we have it for all ages. With the community gardens, we’re trying to weave more nature into our projects, but there’s only so much I can do at a project level. In my book and in my advocacy work, I deeply talk about the integration of nature into cities. What’s interesting is if you either imagine or Google what was the city of the future in the 1920s and ’30s, they were concrete places with swirly, circular, pointy, tall buildings and all these roads going around them with little flying helicopter things. They were gray, dark, concrete, steel, and glass. That’s what they look like today. If you Google city of the future today, you look at the images of them, they’re infused with nature. They’re buildings are swabbed with green coming down the sides of them and you see a much higher density of nature. It’s very clear that humans deeply want to be connected to nature. We have a biophilia. I’ve written a bunch of things about biophilia. You see this, for example, in cities like Singapore. Although my company’s work is in America, my book is about the cities of the world. I talk and have been involved in advising cities around the world anyway. Singapore is an amazing example, which actually now requires all new buildings to be 50 stories, tall, mixed-use, mixed-income, mixed-race and connects all of that with mass transit actually eliminating roads and turning it back into nature. Singapore is becoming an increasingly green city, and they recognize that, by the way, the way we traditionally green cities, is we kind of plant the same tree everywhere. They understand a deep commitment to biodiversity.

Gino Borges:

You’ve shared a lot of threads from the Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language. Just curious on how big of an influence that book has been on your life and thinking.

Jonathan Rose:

I love the ideas. I read some of it in many years ago, but I’m an integrator. There’s the work of many; his work is beautiful. I’ve been lucky to be able to integrate the work of lots of different people into what I do.

Gino Borges:

With our last few minutes, is there something that we’ve touched on that longs for a little bit more articulation or is there something that you’d like to share with your closing comment?

Jonathan Rose:

I had the good fortune that the King of Bhutan read my book. He invited me then to come to Bhutan and work with the government on the greening and integration of all of these elements into its cities. Here’s a country that is rising in wealth, but it’s a poor country with very limited resources, but it has a basically beautiful compassion-focused Buddhist framework and a whole commitment to gross national happiness and a measurement of gross national happiness. It has all the issues of every other place in the world of siloed departments, but incredibly good intentions and desire to do well. I began working with the town’s government. I have learned all these lessons from America and from some of the other places around the world I’ve worked. But, there is a very good sense of what might emerge from the happenings in Bhutan. The other thing I would add to this is just very briefly the story of the Garrison Institute. 15 years ago my wife and I were given a monastery on the Hudson, an hour north of New York City in Garrison, New York. We asked the question, “what is the monastery of the 21st century?” We said it’s a place of deep retreat and contemplation that draws from the world’s lineage traditions of contemplation, and then applies those lessons to the issues of civil society and the environment. That’s really where I learned the first things about toxic stress and trauma. It’s been an incredible learning platform for me and engagement with a whole other amazing set of people. If there’s just a thread of wisdom and knowledge that comes from these traditions, it’s that I also try and integrate into my work.

Gino Borges:

To briefly summarize, Jonathan is perhaps one of the more integrative thinkers and practitioners, not only in the field of housing, community development, environmental design but in the impact space as well. As we talk more and more about regenerative life, whether it’s regenerative agriculture, regenerative design, we look to folks like Jonathan Rose and his colleagues at his firm in New York City, doing work throughout the United States, setting not only a good example, but also creating models for us to be able to share and not only in the United States, but also globally, in places like Bhutan and Singapore. Thank you so much, Jonathan. We feel fortunate to have your voice as part of this collective inquiry into deep impact.