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?

 

The Zoning Code makes the Comprehensive Plan Illegal? WTF?

 

 

 

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I can’t build what the Comprehensive Plan requires, because the zoning won’t allow it? WTF???!

 

Warning! Planning Geek stuff ahead….

Most state have a law on the books that requires municipalities to adopt a Comprehensive Plan (called a General Plan in California) that will guide local investments in transportation, schools, parks, fire trucks, hospitals, and sewer plants.  Once the Comprehensive Plan (Comp. Plan) has been adopted, the municipality is supposed to revise their local zoning codes and development ordinances to bring them in line with the goals and policies of the Comp. Plan.  So the Comp. Plan is the big idea, the thoughtfully considered suite of policies that should guide the finer-grained rules and regulations that developers are required to follow if they want to build something.

Here’s a common problem.  After going through a long string of cathartic public meetings, charrettes, visioning sessions, etc. to prepare the Comp. Plan, Downtown Master Plan, Corridor Plan, etc., the mere mortals that staff the local planning department or sit on the planning commission and the city council are kinda burned out.  The unglamorous task of revising the zoning code tends to get delayed or forgotten.  Sometimes there is  just no money in the budget to get the zoning code revisions done.

If developer shows up proposing a project that is in line with the general policies of the new Comp. Plan but violates the specific rules of the old zoning code, the only path forward is some sort of Planned Development Permit (PD), Planned Unit Development (PUD), or some similar additional process designed to allow greater flexibility that is allowed under the letter of the zoning code.  PD’s and PUD’s require require additional applications, additional review by the planning commission, and typically a public hearing.  In the meantime, if someone wants to build some crappy project that violates the policies of the new General Plan, but is specifically allowed under the old zoning code, they could do that as an as-of-right project. That’s just bullshit.  Imagine how local residents who participated in all those visioning workshops for the Comp. Plan are going to feel when they see that crappy project get built.

I think that putting this statement on the front cover of every Comp Plan to save people a lot of time, money and frustration:

“WARNING! This is a feel good scam. We have no intention of actually changing the rules to allow you to build any of it without special permission and a number of public hearings with local residents who have not read this document.”

If your community wants to see the vision of their Comp. Plan actually get built, get serious about changing your zoning code.

What the heck is a “Quadrant Foul?

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the right diagram is worth at least ten thousand.  I am very grateful  Jim Heid of Urban Green has boiled down the difference between Large and Master Planned Development and Small and Incremental Development into the series of excellent diagrams above.

I recently had a conversation with a bright guy in a Masters in Real Estate Development program at a serious university.  He was wondering if a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) would be a good vehicle for people in a local community to be able to invest in small projects in their neighborhood.  Just to set things straight, a REIT would not be a good vehicle for this as a REIT has to have a lot of property under management to justify their existence and overhead, so the structure would be way beyond the scale of small projects in a specific neighborhood.  Investors would own shares in an outfit that owns a large portfolio of a specific type of real estate.

-But the conversation reminded me of Jim Heid’s diagram.  The kind of  local in the neighborhood projects my grad student friend was describing belong in the lower left quadrant of Jim’s diagram, the Small and Incremental/Entrepreneurial and Bootstrapped territory.  Ownership of real estate by a REIT belongs up in the Corporate and Institutional/Large and Master Planned upper right quadrant.  We might want to bring established tried and true tools scaled for the upper right quadrant to bear on projects in the lower left, but often the scale is just…off.  I think we can call that a Quadrant Foul.

Rethinking the development business model for Small Developers will continues to uncover habits that may serve folks doing large project well that need to be substantially retooled to work in small projects, or they may just need to be set aside as because they are not fit to the purpose.

 

How do you know there is a demand for decent renovated or new apartments close to food, drink and day care?

 

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The Blenheim Apartments in Denver.

In most places the demand is large and the supply is pretty damned small.  So just how large is the demand?  If we were able to wave a wand and redirect the entire US housing industry to deliver only new rental housing in walkable urban places tomorrow, we would not catch up with the demand until 2050

If you understand urban places and have the ability to produce modest buildings for a living, I encourage you to figure out how to build apartment buildings and mixed use buildings, rent them out and and hold onto them. You should look for opportunities to do this in walkable or even marginally walkable places.  Avoid completely car dependent locations so you don’t have to build swimming pools nobody uses.
If you are a contractor, I think this might work out better than building for other people.  If you are an Architect or urban designer I think this will work out better than performing fee for service design or consulting work.
If this seems like a crazy idea, please read Arthur C. Nelson’s book Reshaping Metropolitan America and give it a a little more consideration.
Here is a link to Dr. Nelson’s entire data set (in excel file format).
Go ahead and download it and poke around.  At a minimum, cruising through the spreadsheet will make you want to read the book , where Dr. Nelson very helpfully explains what all these data mean. I suspect that if you are half as geeky about this stuff as I am, you will hone in on the place where you live to see what the housing future holds for a place you care about.
 You can look up your Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and find out the annual demand for new rental apartments is going to be in your place.  Then hop over to the US Census website to look at how many multifamily building permits were issued in your county in 2014 and 2015.  http://censtats.census.gov/bldg/bldgprmt.shtml
For example, I live in Albuquerque.  In the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County MSA, the annual demand for new rental units, according to Dr. Nelson is 4,000 units.  Imagine that a quarter of those units get delivered by the apartment fairy in the form of converted single family houses and the demand number comes down to 3,000 units.
In 2014 there were 400 units built in Bernalillo County, so the short fall of 2,600 would roll over into 2015.  add the conservative number of 3,000 units for 2015 and that comes to a demand for 5,600 new rental units.  I check in on the permit activity for the City of Albuquerque and the number for the city (admittedly not the entire MSA) for 2015 was 570.  So now the demand for 2016 is something over 8,000.    Vacancy for apartments in Albuquerque over the last couple years has been less than 2% (–about what you would see when apartments need to be repainted and re-carpeted between tenants)  Rents have gone up 5-10% a year in this market with the higher rents in the walkable parts of town.
Is your area any different?  Do you see an opportunity?

Gracen Johnson is a very quick study.

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Gracen’s diagram of what can get built under her local zoning code.

I got an opportunity to work with Gracen Johnson during the recent Kalamazoo Small Developer Boot Camp.  I was already pretty clear on the fact that she is an exceptionally bright person, but I had no idea what a quick study she is on new technical skills.

She shot some video while I was pulling together diagrams boiling down the zoning code that used for the Edison Neighborhood of Kalamazoo.  We had a chat about how zoning codes typically work.  She said the video would be helpful as she practiced some of this stuff.

Last week she posted a blog on the StrongTowns.org website.  Wow.  She absorbed a lot of technical stuff and made it much more accessible.  The photo above is Gracen’s diagram of one of the zoning categories in her town of Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Gracen Johnson’s wonderful recent blog post

I recommend following Gracen on Twitter and keeping track of her adventures.  She is a genuine talent.  She cares  about people and cities. I can’t begin to imagine what she will be learning and doing in the coming years.  Gracen’s Twitter

An Email Reply to a Prospective Small Developer

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You raise a lot of good points and express concerns which I have also heard from other folks looking to get started in incremental development.  We should probably talk about this by phone or video chat when you have an opportunity.  Some responses;
The most satisfying projects deliver on several levels
  • They post good financial returns that justify the risk of construction and leasing.
  • The process of getting the the building built or renovated builds relationships of trust among your team making it possible to take on another effort with greater confidence.  I think that working with people you genuinely like and respect, seeing them grow and develop new capabilities is very rewarding.
  • A good project contributes to the social and economic flywheel of the neighborhood.  The best projects have lots of synergy that benefits other people.  A restaurant opening across the street from a coffee place strengthens both enterprises and makes that block a good place for someone to want to open their new office.  Building projects that create local wealth and local jobs within a neighborhood protects the long term value of your own buildings in that setting.
Farming
I think it is critical to have a geographic focus for incremental development.  Monte and I talk a lot about “farming”–identifying specific areas and getting to know them well.  That investment of focused time and attention reduces your risk, because you can know the place well enough to understand where catalytic efforts will have the impact needed.  Have you picked an area or neighborhood where you would want to concentrate your efforts?
New Construction vs. Renovation for a first project
I started out in the trades as a carpenter and later, an electrician.  So, I tend to think it is always better for folks who want to understand the nuts and bolts of development and property management to start with a piece of new construction, rather than an ambitious renovation.  That first construction project should also be of modest scale.  Small scale helps you limit your risk and focus your learning. You are not looking for economies of scale on your first building experience, you are looking for an opportunity to learn the basics and connect the pieces so that you can communicate effectively with your team.  Once you get a handle on the  fundamentals and mechanics, you move to more subtle stuff like refining the design to make construction and maintenance easier, or to making the units more pleasant for your tenants.  Renovation and new construction both have risks, and tradeoffs that you need to identify from the start and manage through the process.  (I just think the risks and tradeoffs  of new construction are more straightforward).
Affecting people’s lives
If we think about the resources we have; capital, skills, determination, and vision as things that we have stewardship over, understanding how  we manage them in ways that affect the lives of people in the neighborhood should guide what we do and how we do it.  Building a culture within the team that looks outward is really important in my view.  Conventional development practices applied to existing neighborhoods tend to displace people who have limited choices and opportunities, so we need to have different strategies grounded in the principle of increasing choices and opportunities for local folks.  I really appreciate the way that Monte Anderson finds the local entrepreneur tenants and puts them on a track to eventually buy their own building, so they are not displaced by Starbucks or some national tenant down the line.  The local entrepreneur gets to build local wealth which stays in the community.  That’s  better for everybody.  The current shortage of skilled construction labor presents a problem and an opportunity for an incremental developer working in an underprivileged neighborhood.  A small developer can generate steady work  for the trades.  That steady work can become the platform for training local folks in the trades, with the goal of helping them sort out the logistics of having their own contracting enterprises and eventually owning their own buildings.  There are more opportunities in these neighborhoods than there is capacity to meet them, so the wise strategy would be to build a local trade base to add to that capacity.
Acquiring and sharpening tools
I understand that you have capital you want to put to work soon.  Rather than look for deals right now, I encourage you to sharpen your tools and build your skill set for a while. Maybe set a target of getting into a project by the end of 2016.  One potential way for you to get up to speed on the tools and techniques that will help you as you look at opportunities for incremental development is to come to a boot camp.  The concentrated format of two and a half days gives you a lot of information in a short period of time and getting to know other folks at various stages of doing this kind of work will help you build a network of people you can reach out to for counsel when things get tough.  You will find the the network of small developers has a culture where nobody wants to see their colleagues repeat their learning curve.  There is a lot of lateral support among the crew.  They are generally looking for a chance to pay it forward.  We are scheduling at least one event a month through most of 2016.  Keep an eye on the Incremental Development Alliance website for new dates as events get confirmed.

Time to get signed up for the Small Developer Boot Camp in Dallas August 14-16, 2015

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Many thanks to Chuck Marohn, Jim Kumon and the good folks at StrongTowns.org for putting together the registration set up for the August Boot Camp.

www.strongtowns.us/smallscale-duncanville

We are quite grateful for their help on this, which arrives just in the nick of time.  So for everyone who posted “I’m in ” on the Small Developer/Builders Facebook Group or commented to that effect here on the blog, or sent me an email, text or voice mail, now is the time to get signed up for real.

Later this month we will also be launching a website repository for site plans, pro forma worksheets, etc. so that everyone who has asked for various versions of spreadsheets and step by step help on how to figure out if a building can make money will have a place to go to find the downloadable files.

Stay in the Safe Zone until you are ready to ask for money

A great Food Cart Pod at 10th and Alder in Portland, OR
A great Food Cart Pod at 10th and Alder in Portland, OR (which has nothing to do with today’s topic)…

When I ask folks who want to develop small projects what they are worried about, it’s often that their lack of know how is going to create a problem that is so big that their project will blow up and they will lose all their investors’ money.  That is a legitimate fear.  The best way to address it is to stay in the safe zone and build your know how until you are ready to ask someone for money.

Safe Zone Stage One – Work it out on paper One of the core skills a developer needs is the ability to understand how a building makes more money than is required to build and operate it.  The best way to figure out if you understand your project thoroughly is to write stuff down.  Get your plans and ideas on paper so you can test them and communicate them to other people.  Do your market study so you understand what people are paying in rent for space that is comparable to what you want to provide.  Test your idea for what you want to build on several potential sites.  Build your pro forma from scratch, (even if you have access to someone else’s template) so that you understand how the rents, the hard construction costs, the land cost, the soft costs, the operating expenses all interact in a building that makes money.  Dig into the hard construction costs so that you understand what the most expensive parts of the building are and what you can do to spend your construction budget where it will have the greatest benefit.  If you see a project you like, try to reverse engineer it on paper. (-this is a little like learning how to draw by tracing over another drawing).

Safe Zone Stage Two – Take your paper to your mentors, peers, and colleagues Once you are confident you can describe your project costs, likely rents, likely operating expenses, and your preferred deal structure with your investors, and you have your project down on paper, you are ready to go get other people you trust to look at your work.  Better to learn that you have missed something from your mentor or your colleague than from a potential investor or construction lender.  Find people who will be tough with you because they want you to be successful in your enterprise.  Be sure you do the same for others when they ask. Sit down with your mentor or peer and lay out the project for them.  How does the project make money?  How much equity are you asking your investor for?  When do they get their principal back?  What is their return and when do they get it?What kind of debt financing are you trying to get? How is the cash flow after debt service going to be divided? What are the risks in the project?  How are you planning to address them?  What parts of the proposed project need to be described in more detail? Do you have a one page summary of the deal -or are you expecting an investor to read 23 pages of spreadsheets and site plans and figure it out for themselves?

Find someone who will play the role of your potential investor and practice your pitch on them.  Have someone else observe and critique your effort.  These should be people with enough experience in real estate that you know you are gaining real ability and confidence through the exercise.

Next Time : Leaving the Safe Zone in Stage Three – Taking your paper to your potential Investors and lenders

What is Worrying the Rookie Developer?

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Over the last couple weeks I have been getting some feedback on the things people are worried about as they consider taking on their first development project.  Worries about talking to bankers and asking investors for money are high on the list followed by concerns about how to find reliable trade contractors and property management firms.

The key seems to be helping folks understand how the big hunks of the project fit together sorting out the connections  between Likely Rent, Likely Project Costs, and Likely Operating Expenses.  It is important to sort his stuff out on paper using the pro forma to see how much you can afford to spend building the project, given the likely rents.  The short answer? If you can’t get enough rent, you can’t build the building.  There are lots of details to keep track of, but understanding the fundamentals of how a project makes money will help you see where those details fit in the overall picture.
Once they understand  the “back of the envelope” math, they can understand how the finer grain budgets for hard cost, soft costs, operating expenses, and trade offs typical to the various deal structures with investors.
Back to the investors and bankers thing.  If you have sorted out how your project makes money for someone willing to invest in your enterprise, the conversation becomes much more comfortable.  It is a business deal.  You have to provide a fair return for the risk the investor is taking on.  If you disagree on the particulars you can shake hands and move on.  If you have sorted out how the bank’s construction loan will be repaid, that conversation is straightforward as well. Banks have lots of rules they have to comply with and your loan application should make it easy for your banker to comply with the requirements on their side of the transaction.  Those rules and conventions are all knowable, so we should assemble primers on how to be a good bank customer.
Many thanks to the folks who participated in the recent series of group video calls.  Continued progress.  Please post questions on stuff you are looking for help on.  The Small Developer/Builder group is gathering some bright people that are offering to you sort through this stuff, notably bankers and appraisers.
So don’t worry.  Take things one step at a time.  Figure out your deal on paper and talk with smart people about it while it is just a project on paper.  Developers who have had a lot of practice may appear that they have some special gift of intuition.  They don’t.  They just have put in lots of hours sorting through the basics and asking smart experienced people to look at their deals.

Summer 2015 Small Developer/Builder Boot Camp in Dallas

Some of the very intense Rookie Developers at CNU23 in Dallas.
Some of the very intense Rookie Developers at CNU23 in Dallas.

Things are moving fast with the rapidly expanding Small Developer/Builders group.

I have heard from a number of folks 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 in October 16-18.

But that’s all the way into late October and some 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, we can find a venue at no cost. It could be a very Lean affair.  A meet-up with other folks consider 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 – evaluating 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 Investors.
  • Deal Structures; aligning the interests of partners.
  • Pop-up Retail and Street Markets; cultivating 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 look at covering?

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?

We are also looking at what topics should we tackle for a couple of webinars in the near term.  The intent on all of this is to find ways for Small Developer/Builders, (both rookies and more seasoned types) to reduce their learning curve, share lessons learned, pick up new skills, and find people to collaborate with.

What say you?  Post comments here or email me:  janderson@andersonkim.com