Family Office Real Estate

Real estate family helping to make the affordable housing dream come true

Jamie Cooper is a second-generation member of the Toronto-based family business Dream Unlimited, a $16 billion developer of office, residential, retail and logistics property and one of Canada’s largest developers and owners of affordable housing. 

His father Michael Cooper founded the company in 1994, since when it has grown its real estate footprint across Canada and the US, placing inclusivity and connectivity at the core of its investment philosophy. In 2019, the company sold its Dream Global Real Estate Investment Trust to Blackstone for $3.6bn, just before the pandemic hit.

“I remember March 2020 being really scary,” recalls Jamie Cooper. “We spent a lot of time discussing how secure the business was.” The first step was to ensure all 200 plus staff were safe and reassured, then to look through the portfolio to address any business issues including contracts and building projects. 

Jamie Cooper

With the global economy in lockdown, the family had time to reflect on what they wanted to achieve with the business. Cooper says that the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent protests in cities across the world was an obvious sign that people were looking for more from their communities.

“As a business, we have the privilege and responsibility of building very large communities in Toronto and across the country. How they are designed, where we choose to place parks and so on, influences how people live. That’s not a responsibility we take lightly,” says Cooper.

The result of these discussions was the launch of the Dream Impact Fund, one of the world’s first open-ended funds dedicated exclusively to impact investing with a focus on affordable housing, environmental sustainability and resilience, and inclusivity. 

The fund, which launched last March, secured $136mn of commitments within six months from a number of leading financial institutions including Oxford Properties Group, Scotiabank, 1832 Asset Management as well as Dream Unlimited Corp., together with three family offices. 

Real estate represents approximately 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. When the Operating Principles for Impact Management released its Nine Impact Principles in 2019, providing a framework for the design and implementation impact management systems, it helped the Coopers codify the way they described Dream Unlimited.

“We were already doing impact investing for a long time, we just didn’t know the language,” says Cooper. “We still operate the same way. But we’ve devised a methodology so we can rank and score and communicate to all of our stakeholders, the positive social environmental contributions that we’re making.” 

Such is the scale of opportunity to develop impactful real estate that it prompted the Cooper family to bring in outside capital and allow other investors, including like-minded family offices, the chance to invest in such projects. The long-term aim is to address three key challenges that Canada (and many other countries) faces: 1) Housing becoming unaffordable, 2) Climate change and 3) Building communities that are safe and fair for everyone.

To address these challenges, one of the family’s marquee projects is Zibi, a 34-acre development project that is set to become Canada’s largest net-zero carbon community.

The Zibi project is a 15-minute walk from the Parliament Buildings in downtown Ottawa. Because of the city’s unique geography, half of the project sits within the province of Ontario while the other half sits in the province of Quebec, where the local dialect is French. 

“In addition to that, all the land is recognised as the traditional land of the Algonquin people. So we’ve got three languages, two provinces, and we call it one waterfront city. Even though Quebec and Ontario are very different, we’ve built a 300-foot long bridge to integrate it as much as possible into one inclusive community,” explains Cooper. 

The project is already underway but it will take 10 to 12 years to complete. At which point it will become home to over 5,000 people and 6,000 jobs.

The net-zero carbon element of the project is quite unique. Dream Unlimited has approached it by partnering with a local utility company to create its own district energy system. This works by taking hot water from a nearby tissue plant, which will be used to heat Zibi’s buildings during the winter. While during the summer, cold water is extracted from the Ottawa River to cool buildings during the summer. 

“That way we provide the entire community with net-zero heating and cooling,” says Cooper. “We’ve also partnered with the local utility to make a business out of it. So rather than it be a cost centre for the project, we are able to generate a financial return by charging fees just like any other utility company would.”

This is an important point about impact investing. While environmental protection and social inclusivity are guiding principles, this is not to suggest that financial returns are sacrificed. 

“We really focus on how to deliver sustainable buildings and affordable housing through a financially sustainable model, giving investors the market returns that they would get from any other real estate development project,” adds Cooper.

Another project is North America’s first-ever purpose-built Indigenous Hub. Located in the West Don Lands district in downtown Toronto, the Indigenous Hub will provide integrated facilities for healing with Western healthcare, educational services and childcare services for the city’s indigenous population. When completed it will comprise two indigenous centres and two residential buildings.

“We bought the land and the indigenous population will be using the cash to help fund the building development. On the other side of the community centre we are building an apartment building on a ground lease. The payments from this will be sufficient to cover the maintenance and operating costs of the community centre. Partnering with this indigenous group has enabled us to create a very economically sustainable model,” explains Cooper. 

Dream has also been awarded a 13-acre piece of land on Toronto’s waterfront on the site of what was formerly Google Sidewalk Labs and plans to convert it into 4300 residential units including 1,000 affordable units. Like Zibi, it will be a fully net-zero project.

Research published in Family Capital shows that leading on ESG is good for business. 

Cooper’s belief that a focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns can drive sustainable growth is a defining feature of his generation. PwC’s 2022 NextGen survey, published in March, highlights this prevailing view within family businesses: 64% of NextGen say that there is an opportunity for family businesses to lead the way in sustainable business practices but only 28% said they were taking that lead now. 

Cooper is one of the proactive cohorts that is making this a reality, to the advantage of his family’s business. 

“The reaction from investors and from our employees has been remarkable – investors have come on board because they believe the fund will generate better returns, and our employees are excited to be involved in a business that’s making a difference. If you use the business to do good, you feel the benefit on both sides,” concludes Cooper.

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