Are Developers Just Trying to Maximize Profit?

 

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Podium Building -Photo by G.B Arrington

I commented on a friend’s Facebook thread in which lamented the lame podium building getting built on his street. Somebody posted a comment that “It’s all about maximizing the developer’s profit” to explain why the building was not great.

I gotta say, that’s over-simplifying what it takes to get a building constructed in Portland.  There is a pretty good chance that trying to build a building will result in the developer losing money if they are not on top of things. I guess Not Losing Money may be the same as Maximizing Profit, but there is a lot more to the work. If you lose money often enough you become a former developer.

Most developers are minimizing risks and maximizing returns within the current crop of constraints including local, state, and federal regulations, local approval processes, skilled labor shortages, and a number of short sighted bad habits. Over the life a a project it is too easy for design to end up as the superficial consideration of what the frosting on the cake will be. All of the other things (that will blow up your project if you don’t pay attention) are about the cake. Attention to urban design and place making should be part of the cake . The developers that get that can employ urban design as a tool with great flexibility and utility. For the rest, well, it’s just frosting.

While we can beat up developers for being unaware of the power of design to manage risk, there is plenty of cluelessness to go around.  Some of the problem with how buildings are currently conceived and delivered be found in the unfortunate culture and habits of the design community. Most planners, urban designers, and architects are satisfied with remaining uninformed and unskilled when it comes to developer math and operations.  In the end they don’t have much of a common vocabulary to communicate with their clients (which is unfortunate.)

The bar for decent infill is pretty low these days -even in a place that considers itself forward thinking and progressive.  It is very hard to build trust with local folks who have seen a lot of lousy buildings built recently. If you do succeed in building something  something decent, you can start to carve out a place for yourself in the neighborhood. No matter how good your built work is, chances are good you will still be treated with contempt if your chosen line of work is to be a developer. Other people get paid at their job, but getting paid to make buildings happen is somehow a trade that many consider reserved for individuals of low character. Your buildings will have to speak for your character after you are dead. In the mean time, most folks will think you are an asshole.  That does not make you some sort of community builder /martyr.  It’s an everyday thing.  Humans prejudge strangers based upon fear, myth, or by their direct experience of bad act by somebody that you resemble.

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Arrrgh! How do we start a productive conversation about Inclusionary Zoning? (Part I)

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I live in Portland Oregon.  Moved here last December.

Last year Oregon’s legislature removed a prohibition on Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) which now allows cities to require a percentage of Affordable Housing units in new buildings of 20 units or more.  The Portland City Council unanimously voted to put an IZ ordinance in place.  Recently I have had a number of folks from around the country and from Portland ask me what I think about IZ.  I have had a hard time coming up with a response that does not shut down the conversation. I get really exorcised over this topic.  To be blunt, IZ makes me nuts and I tend to go off on the people who innocently ask me about it.  Clearly, I need to craft a more grownup response.

I respect the motivation behind wanting to see more affordable housing get delivered. I am appalled by the naive methods being employed toward that very positive goal.  I get frustrated with smart and sincere people who are serious about the delivery of housing if I think they have not made a serious effort to understand the basics of how housing gets delivered.  Maybe that information has not been available to them if they are not in the business.  It’s not reasonable to hold people accountable for information they don’t have, so let’s start by laying out the basics of how a building makes money and how people decide if they want to construct a building in a given location.

If you can’t get the rent, you shouldn’t build the building.  The rental income for a building needs to cover the Total Project Cost.  This includes cost of buying the site, , paying the impact fees, designing, bidding, financing, building and leasing the building.  The rental income also needs to allow for some of the units not paying rent from time to time because nobody is living in them (Vacancy).  Finally, the rental income needs to be able to cover the building’s Operating Expenses which include property taxes, insurance, property management, maintenance, water, sewer and trash, and replacements reserves of $300-$500 per unit set aside each year.

In addition to covering these costs, a building need to make a profit to justify why someone is going to put up 20% – 40% of the cash need to make the building happen.  Whoever puts that money up (and signs a guaranty to repay the construction loan that will provide the rest)  has other things they can do with that money and they can reasonably expect to get paid something for the risk they are taking in undertaking a construction project.  A construction project has more risk than a savings account, treasury bond or mutual fund, so money put into a real estate project has to pay a higher return than alternative investments with lower risk.  A workable rule of thumb is that $1 in monthly rent can typically support $100 in Total Project Costs and yield a reasonable return of 10-12% on the cash you put in the building.

What happens if 20% of the units in a building don’t pay their way because the rent you can charge has been limited by the IZ Ordinance?  The assumption is that you will have to convince the potential tenants for the other 80% of the market rate units to pay higher rent, or find a way to  reduce the Total Project Cost.  Reducing Total Project Costs will come down to convincing the person selling you the site that you need to pay less for it.

In Part II we can walk through the math on how this works on a example building.

 

 

The Best Cottage Court Guy I know

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Front row left to right; Bruce Tolar, Steve Mouzon, Jason Spellings, and Jene Ray Barranco.

Last weekend I was working on a charrette crew that included my colleague and partner, Bruce B. Tolar.  Searching through my hard drive today I came across my (improvised) remarks from when the New Urban Guild gave the 2015 Barranco Award to Bruce, the Developer/Builder of Cottage Square in Ocean Springs Mississippi.

“For those of us who knew Michael Barranco and were there for the Katrina charrettes, this is a person who really made a mark on our lives, not just because we showed up and did work together, but because his character was such that it was like playing in a pro-am: You really upped your game when playing around Michael. Very genuine. No artifice. No phoniness. He was genuinely concerned about every person he ever met, and wanted everyone’s life to be better. He decided that architecture was his way to do that.

With his passing, there is a hole in the CNU, but the New Urban Guild offers the Barranco Award to practitioners who are that kind of stand-up guy. It’s about the character with which you comport yourself. It’s about how hungry you are to learn. It’s about how much you care about your community. It’s about how much you love and encourage your fellow-citizens. With that said, I’d like to introduce you to this year’s award-winner, Bruce Tolar, through some of his work. <begin slides of Bruce’s projects>

The original Katrina Cottage which by itself was great, but Bruce took it out of the total chaos and mayhem and bad financial circumstances that were pretty much an everyday deal in Ocean Springs at that time, and all along the coast. And from nothing, he created the peaceful excellence of Cottage Square, where he put the pieces together into something amazing which that community cherishes. It has even become a tourist destination. Imagine that: an interim housing solution after a hurricane has become a tourist destination!

So Bruce pulled together all the Katrina Cottages that were built as prototypes for demonstration purposes and brought them to Cottage Square. And he made something out of the pieces, just as we all try to do, which is to aggregate a great place from small incremental parts. It is a modest place, with gravel sidewalks; a place where you can operate a tiny business out of those tiny buildings. And the community that has formed there has become a real anchor to Ocean Springs. From there, Bruce launched an expansion, which was an incredibly ambitious project in a place governed by FEMA… <cough> <laughs and applause> … a terrible environment to work under, but he is doing amazing, excellent work with modest little pieces.

He reached out to nonprofits in the area; he connects with so many people; he’s been in that town forever, serving on many boards; and the idea that there was something to be done after a hurricane, and fixing civilization in general, was a natural thing for Bruce. The people love this neighborhood. The nonprofits he’s been working with have been tremendously empowered by seeing one guy’s ability to put people together and make things work. Bruce is the best design caulking gun you can imagine, pulling everything together on modest means and making things happen. So with that, I’d like to present this year’s Barranco Award to Bruce Tolar.”

If you are traveling along the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Mobile you should give yourself a treat and stop to walk around Cottage Square.  It is a special place built in tough circumstances by a remarkable guy.

A Noticeably Less Shitty Version of Darth Vader

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The following is PG-13 version of a piece of an interview which was cleaned up a bit for this piece by Rob Studeville on Public Square. (thanks Rob).

Incremental Development does sound like you need a lot of capital and that there would be a lot of risk if you don’t know what it is. If you didn’t know what indoor plumbing is and how it works, that might also sound like a crazy risky idea. But Incremental Development is not that complicated nor that risky. The biggest barrier to entry is the initial step. What is the road map? What is the territory? It’s a black box in a lot of people’s minds.

Developers are held in very low-esteem.  I see that as more of a feature than a bug because if the bar is low, it’s pretty easy to under-promise and over-deliver. On the spectrum of all possible developers that might arrive in your neighborhood from Mahatma Gandhi to Darth Vader,  people expect a developer to resemble Darth Vader.

A small developer just needs to be a noticeably less shitty version of Darth Vader.”

Does Your Town Need an Authentic Asshole?

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Atlanta Small Developer Boot Camp – October 2015

 

One of the themes I have seen following the recent election, is that many people are tired of being talked down to by people who seem to think they are better.  Call it a backlash against smugness, for lack of a more precise term.  Recently I proposed that for people trying to build better places, the alternative to smugness would be to become authentic assholes. I am serious on this point.  Authenticity appears to be the quality that lets you get a partial pass on being an asshole, as long as you don’t talk down to people..

I’m directing this approach to the Architects, Engineers, Planners, Policy Folks, and Academics who are members of the Congress for the New Urbanism or similar place making advocacy groups.  If being the fancy people who know stuff, (the people perceived as smug or condescending) is not working, then let’s not be those people.  Let’s be authentic assholes.

The fire marshal’s mandate is not a collection of sincere feelings that we should help the community process through group hugs. It’s bullshit that hurts the town. Some asshole needs to call the fire marshall out for being part of a calcified over-reach that makes no sense.

Off-Street Parking minimums? More bullshit that needs to be called out. Municipalities completely suck at guessing how much parking is going to be needed for all possible land uses, and the community was wrong to give them that job. The result was they picked numbers that produced fewer complaints and phone calls. Some asshole needs to call out that lazy bullshit in stark terms and poison the well. Make the position of advocating for such nonsense so awful that anyone who defends parking minimums (or maximums) is discredited for being a lazy bullshitter.

You want to make a difference at the local or regional level? Become a developer or a builder. Free yourself from the shackles of propriety and elaborate argument. Every community needs people who can build and rebuild the place. That’s where we can find our place in the moral, economic, and cultural fabric of a place. Architects, Engineers, Planners, Academics have a professional obligation to at least appear to be interested in making the city a better place with ideas. People who are fearful see a host of horrible outcomes, real or imagined, when ideas are advanced in clumsy ways disconnected from the base concerns of daily life. Developers and builders are not burdened with those expectations and when the dust clears there are buildings built or rebuilt, people find benefit in the buildings or they don’t. (–Keep in mind that the bar for a decent building or street is quite low many places). Nobody expects virtue from a developer. They may look to exact virtuous action from the developer under duress, but they really do not expect it as a natural expression of what is in the developer’s greasy soul. An exaction or tax is often given reluctantly, out of resignation.  An unexpected gift can be a sincere expression of our better nature.

This is a framing thing. When New Urbanists propose a better place that starts to sound like some kind of utopia and the built effort that follows only delivers 68% utopia, folks get disappointed and pissed off because their high expectations (however unreasonable) have not been met. If a developer commits to meet all local codes and regulations and to deliver something the market seems to want and the built result is 32% utopia, people are accepting and sometimes even happy, because their low expectations have been exceeded.

Be virtuous in your heart, but don’t wear it on your sleeve. Be cunning and deliberate. Have a plan for your neighborhood. Gather resources that others cannot access. If we can be the people who actually get stuff built during a recession (And that stuff doesn’t suck), if we can build well, despite the severe shortage of skilled construction labor, who is going to mess with us at the local level?

If you would like a glimpse of what an insurgency of Small and determined developers might look like, wander over to the Small Developer/Builders Group on Facebook and see what those folks are talking about. We worked to keep the group fairly politics-free. If you are not on Facebook, find somebody who is and they can guide you.  Come to a Small Developer Workshop where you will meet folks who are serious about making a difference in their neighborhoods (even if other people think they are assholes).

Nobody suspects virtue in a developer. You can pick the opportunity to surprise them. Under-promise and then over-deliver.

You’re an Urbanist? Excellent. Why Aren’t You a Developer Yet?

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A napkin sketch showing how to add an attached ADU and a detached ADU to a small existing house on a 50′ x 100′ lot in Portland, OR.

I continue to ask Urbanists “why aren’t you a developer yet?” That’s a sincere and serious question. I am serious about recruiting Architects, planners, engineers, activists who consider themselves to be urbanists (New or otherwise) into the ranks of the small developer cohort because I think it is the best way for an urbanist to have an impact in a place they care about. If you have devoted thousand of hours of study and practice to what makes a good place, why leave the construction and renovation of buildings to developers? This question becomes a bit more pointed when you recognize that many conventional developers are doing work in urban settings under duress or without much of a clue how to make their efforts fit a more urban context.  I think the typical generalist/urbanist will do a better job than whatever big development outfits are working in their city.

While Urbanists are working to heal the city or build better places, they should hang onto some of the buildings that get built/rebuilt along the way.  Having a modest portfolio of buildings that pay rent will help them weather the next recession.  (It is really hard to make a living doing fee for service or consulting work when nothing is getting built).

With those reasons in mind, we still need to have a sober and realistic grasp of what is involved for someone making a transition to become a developer, given the arena they are likely to operate in.  This stuff ain’t easy.

People tend to think that all real estate developers make a ton of money, because some developers have.  For every major league star in the real estate game there are scores of people hustling to make a living by making their neighborhood better.  Lots of people are fooled by the guy in the nice suit driving a  very nice leased vehicle.

I don’t know how people arrive at the amount of money they assume is made on a development project. The assumptions may be ridiculous, but until somebody actually goes through the process, it is not reasonable to expect them to know the math.

I also recognize that until you can demonstrate otherwise, a new developer is part of a disgraced enterprise. So folks considering taking up this work should not expect thanks or regard.  Start small. Hustle on a small project will help you acquire the know how and relationships that will make larger or more complex projects possible, but hustle will only take you so far and you don’t want to get into a project that will turn you into a former developer because it is too big or complicated.

The First Year of Small Developer Activity

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Attendees; First Small Developer Boot Camp in Duncanville, TX August, 2015

 

I tend to let too many files accumulate on my computer desktop.  As I was clearing out files today I came across the photo above and the text below.  As you can see from the photo, we did manage to put on the first boot camp in Duncanville.  By the end of 2015 we had done six bootcamps and workshops and launched non-profit to coordinate the effort to cultivate Small Developers around the US, the Incremental Development Alliance (IDA).  Next Tuesday, June 7th in Hamtramck, Michigan we will running the 7th event of 2016 the day before the 24th gathering of the Congress of the New Urbanism starts up on June 8th.

In addition to running the one day and three day training events, IDA along with Midtown, Inc has been awarded a Knight Foundation grant to do a deeper diver into the Midtown neighborhoods of Columbus Georgia, providing 18 months of extended training and mentoring for local small developers.

None of this would have been possible without the hustle and hard work of local sponsors and volunteers in each of the cities that hosted us and the ongoing efforts of the IDA staff and board.  Strong Towns helped us get started, hosting the boot camp registration for the first couple events on their website.  Lynn Richards and the staff at CNU have been tremendously supportive as we continue to figure out how to scale up the Small/Incremental Development Effort.  The CNU’s Project for Lean Urbanism was the genesis of this entire effort.  The time we spent with the Lean Urbanism Working Group exploring what it would take to Make Small Possible made it very clear that we need a new business model for development, That shifting the scale of the development enterprise was going to be critical to building better places.   Thank you everyone.

 

June 5, 2015

Things are moving FAST with the rapidly expanding Small Developer/Builders Facebook group that we set up last April prior to CNU 23 in Dallas.

I have heard from a number of group members via email and phone calls that they would be interested in a hands-on workshop on basic skills needed as a small developer builder. There is an effort percolating to hold a one day workshop for Small Builders in Atlanta the day before the National Town Builders Association (NTBA) Fall Roundtable October 16-18.

But that’s all the way into late October and folks are pressing for something much sooner.

I think we can put this together in the Dallas area rather inexpensively. If the folks attending cover their own travel, lodging and meals, if we can find a venue at modest cost. It could be a very Lean affair.  A meet-up with other folks considering or practicing as Small Developer/Builders. Connect with some mentors, roll up our sleeves and get some skills.

Here’s what we are thinking for content:

  • BUILDING FOR-RENT VS. BUILDING FOR SALE PROJECTS.
  • HOW TO DO BASIC MARKET RESEARCH.
  • PRO FORMA BASICS, SORTING OUT YOUR DEAL ON PAPER.
  • HOW TO BUDGET FOR HARD AND SOFT COSTS.
  • OPERATING EXPENSE BUDGETS AND THE PROPERTY MANAGEMENT BASICS.
  • SITE SELECTION – EVALUATE SEVERAL SITES TO FIND THE BEST ONE TO START ON.
  • HOW YOUR FINANCING REQUEST LOOKS TO YOUR BANKER.
  • NAVIGATING THE APPRAISAL PROCESS.
  • HOW TO PITCH A DEAL TO AN INVESTOR.
  • DEAL STRUCTURES; ALIGNING THE INTERESTS OF PARTNERS.
  • POP-UP RETAIL AND STREET MARKETS; HOW TO CULTIVATE TENANTS (WHEN YOU HAVE NO MONEY).
  • UNDERSTANDING FHA LOAN PROGRAMS 203(B) AND 203(K) FOR 4 UNIT PROJECTS.
  • DEALING WITH CONSTRUCTION IF YOU DON’T HAVE A CONSTRUCTION BACKGROUND (AND EVEN IF YOU DO).
  • COMMON SENSE DESIGN STRATEGIES AND WORKING WITH ARCHITECTS AND ENGINEERS.
  • MULTIPLE ON-RAMPS, SCENARIOS FOR HOW TO GET STARTED AS A DEVELOPER/BUILDER.
  • A STANDARD 4-PLEX DEAL; ALL RESIDENTIAL OR SMALL MIXED USE BUILDING.
  • A STANDARD COTTAGE COURT DEAL.

What other content should we cover?

We are thinking folks would arrive in time for food and drink on Friday evening, leave after lunch on Sunday.  We are doing this on August 14-16,  Who’s in?