The First Year of Small Developer Activity

duncanville boot camp
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?

 

Gentrification? Nah. Let’s talk about local jobs and local wealth.

wylie street
A straightforward three bay building on Wylie Street in Reynoldstown, Atlanta.

I think incremental development, modest projects by Small Developers focused on a specific neighborhood, present an genuine opportunity to get well past the usual arguments about gentrification.  The usual narrative describes how immoral developers come into a neighborhood that is in rough shape and start renovating old buildings and building new ones.  New trendy restaurants appear and before you know it rents are going up and folks who have lived in the neighborhood all their lives can no longer afford to live there.

Here’s where I think Small Developers can flip the script.  If you are committed to working in a specific neighborhood, it may be a place that has a lot of room between what it is now and what it could be.  As a small operator you have limited cash and limited credit, so you can only do so much.  I am impressed with the approach Monte Anderson takes when recruiting tenants for some of the buildings he renovates or builds.  He looks for a local entrepreneur that show promise and works with them to build their business to a point where they can qualify for an SBA 7A loan to buy the building.  It is a win/win.  Monte frees up his capital and credit to build or renovate another building in the neighborhood and the local entrepreneur is building their net worth and creating local jobs.

The next place where small operators can make a difference is in cultivating the local building trades.  Chances are the plumbers, framers, electricians, drywallers and roofers already live in the neighborhood you want to work in and they may be traveling significant distances to find steady work on large projects.  What if you could provide a steady backlog of work for those folks right in their neighborhood?  It is going to be in your interest as a developer or builder to do so, since small outfits are usually impacted more severely than big operations when skilled construction labor is in short supply.  Cultivating a reliable trade base is going to be the cornerstone of your business model as a small developer.  How many tradespeople are close to being able to open up their own shop if they knew they had steady work for their crew?  Maybe you introduce them to Janet the excellent local bookkeeper who knows Quickbooks and how lien releases and trade credit works.  Small business people doing favors for each other can go a long way toward building local wealth and local jobs in the neighborhood.  Maybe you guaranty their first line of credit at the lumberyard for a year to help them get on their feet.  Introduce your framer to your banker.  Before long you may be mentoring them so that they can own a couple buildings in the neighborhood.  Building local wealth and local jobs could start with you in the place you are committed to.  Start by taking the long view in cultivating relationships with your building trades. Keep your eye out for local bookkeeping talent.

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.

Monte Anderson Thinks Your Town Needs a Better Class of Developers

Atlanta Small Developer Boot Camp - October 2015
Atlanta Small Developer Boot Camp – October 2015

Who is going to build the finer-grained Missing Middle housing, the small workspaces, the two and three story mixed use buildings that municipalities and neighborhoods are looking for?  Will it be  the large development outfits who see a 10,000 SF single story commercial building or 100 apartment units as a “small deal”?  Doubtful.  Very doubtful, for the simple reason that large scale developers need large scale deals to support their operations.  They can’t execute small deals effectively and they see a lot of opportunity cost in small deals.  “Why would I take on a 4 unit project when I can build 40 units or maybe even 400 units with about the same amount of brain damage?”  Big outfits are constrained by having to achieve economies of scale to get a decent return on their efforts.  Small developers live with the constraint of economy of means.  Small deals, small amounts of capital, small crews, services from small architecture and engineering shops, small sites that make a difference in the neighborhood.

Dallas developer Monte Anderson keeps hearing from folks who want him to move to their town and develop there.  To his credit, Monte is determined to focus on the communities in the Southern Dallas Metro that he knows and cares about.  His advice for the people that want him to come to their town is that they need to find someone who is committed to their town and help that person develop in the place they care about —OR BECOME A DEVELOPER THEMSELVES.

This is actually very pragmatic advice, because the big outfits are NOT COMING to your town or neighborhood to fine-grained projects.  Monte Anderson is a great guy, but he’s not coming to your town either.  Who does that leave?  YOU (or someone a lot like you). Start small.  Learn the business.  Build a reliable team who care about the place like you do.  There is a growing network of support for small developers, some of them are just a few years ahead of you on the learning curve, but they will do whatever it takes to help you avoid repeating their mistakes.

Consider what a small enterprise could accomplish in your town, not just the buildings you might renovate or build, but the local wealth you could create that will stay in your neighborhood.  Think about the jobs that you could create in the trades, and in property management.  Think of the other folks in your neighborhood you could mentor, paying it forward once you have learned the business.  Real capacity for local and lasting economic development is hard to come by, but building the everyday buildings that people need, in a place that you care about will raise up more than walls and a roof.

Whadda Ya mean “Farming”? I thought we were talking about Development?

Cabbagetown Neighborhood, Atlanta

Cabbagetown_0

Dallas Developer Monte Anderson has a marvelous and elaborate metaphor for explaining how to do incremental development.  He calls it “farming”.  His recommended approach is straightforward.  Pick the place you are going to focus your development efforts.  Mark off the boundaries on an actual paper map.  Do it on purpose.  That’s your farm.  Look for opportunities within the boundaries of your farm.  Mark the locations of vacant or underutilized parcels, empty buildings, the street that is too wide and fast that could benefit from on-street parking, the place for the street market.  Look for excuses to walk around the place where you have decided to work.  This is the place where you are going to create and harvest value.

Incremental Development is a better description for what Monte is advocating than small scale development.  In the end you should be building/rebuilding a neighborhood one increment at at time.  If you are committed to that neighborhood you will want to build lots of relationships with the folks who already live and work there.  You should understand the local institutions, schools, churches, local non-profits, hospitals, and barbeque joints.  The more time you spend in your chosen neighborhood, the greater your chance of finding ways to help make it better. You will also increase your chances of meeting people who are glad to help you. In addition to being the right thing to do, cultivating the neighborhood is going to be the right thing for the financial performance of the buildings you build or renovate.  The neighborhood is going to provide the principal amenity for your buildings.  So if you have chosen the place you want to stake your claim on, don’t get distracted by attractive “one-off” projects outside of your farm.  Those projects might produce some revenue, but that revenue will come with a significant opportunity cost.  Those isolated efforts won’t add any value to your other buildings in the neighborhood that should have your attention.  Don’t let your analysis of how a building might perform become myopic.  Look at the context in addition to the simple back-of-the-envelope pro forma you should be doing for any property you are considering.  Understand why an OK deal in close proximity to your other buildings could be much better than an excellent deal in a distant place where you will see zero synergy.   Your time, attention, and relationships are your critical resources.  Nothing will move forward for your efforts without those resources, so don’t spread them around.  Focus and concentrate them on your chosen farm.

August Small Developer Boot Camp Registration is Full

"Whadda mean we have 100 people aready??"
“Whadda mean we have 100 people already??”

The August Boot Camp is full and we are closing the Registration.  Monte Anderson has a great venue for us in the heart of Duncanville’s Main Street, but we are limited to 100 people.  Folks who have registered will be receiving advance materials via email (homework).  We will post that material on the CNU Incremental Development Resources webpage so others can get get a flavor of things as we head into the first of what looks like 6 Boot Camps this year.  Many thanks to the local crew of Wana Smith, Cindy Copeland, Donna Harris, Daniel Flores, and Monte Anderson for pulling the logistics of the Duncanville effort together, and to Chuck Marohn and Jim Kumon at Strong Towns.org.