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:


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?


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


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.
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?

Why Bother with this Small Developer Stuff?

Hawthorne Boulevard, Portland OR


If you have been reading this blog you know that I am always pushing for the creation of smaller development enterprises, building smaller and simpler buildings (without elevators for the most part), using off-the-shelf financing, and the delivering smaller units for the smaller households that make up a big portion today’s local markets.

I think we can do a much better job of connecting the housing unit to the list of consequential stuff people consider in their decisions to rent if we can deliver flexible unit configurations, competitive rent + transportation math, and locations close services, food and drink.  Here is a list of stuff I shot off in an email to a colleague this morning:

  • It is important to shift the approach to development projects to a smaller, more incremental scale.
  • Re-imagine the development enterprise as a smaller outfit that can compete without economies of scale, recognizing the constraints in economies of means.  If a municipality wants to revitalize a neighborhood, cultivate multiple small operators and roll out a Pink Zone.  Don’t do a big lumpy Public Private Partnership.
  • A small outfit can aggregate several small projects into a portfolio within a decent neighborhood structure.  This will provide a platform with significantly reduced downside risk and enhanced upside benefits.
  • It is time to take the Arthur C. Nelson’s work seriously.  There is a significant lack of supply of housing in walkable urbanism and half of new housing needed between now and 2030 will need to be rental housing.  (See Dr. Nelson’s Book  and  video).
  • With construction production at less than half of 2005’s peak, builders of single family homes, apartment complexes and commercial buildings are experiencing shortages of skilled trades all over the US, so small developers will need to cultivate a local base of small trade contractors to avoid the labor shortages.
  • Small developers are positioned to help local entrepreneurs create local wealth and local jobs among their trade base and their local tenants.  Small, cheap workspace needs to be provided at modest scale within the context of a neighborhood.
  • The small developer business model needs to be accessible to younger people, immigrants, and folks who already have one or two of the skill sets needed (brokerage, leasing, property management, finance, entitlement, design, construction management, communications).  We will need to develop training, tools and templates and a network of early adopters to reduce the learning curve of rookie developers.  There is a lot of interest in training and tools from the leadership of Congress for the New Urbanism and the Incremental Development Alliance.  I am active in both of these and recommend that anyone interested in this work do the same.
  • Many of the project management, construction management and property management advantages that were once only available to large outfits that could achieve economies of scale have been disrupted by technologies like BaseCamp, BlueBeam, AutoCAD360 for the iPad, QuickBooks,,, YouTube, and the smartphone.
The market demand is large enough and the supply of anything remotely resembling walkable urbanism is small enough that all kinds of lousy half-baked projects are going to get built and get rented or sold in the next 15 years.  This mismatch between very low supply and very high demand provides lots of room for dumb projects, but it also presents the opportunity to re-scale the development business.

An Email Reply to a Prospective Small Developer

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.
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.

Answering some basic questions on forming an LLC and getting a construction loan for a small project


Today I got an email from someone who attended a Small Developer Boot Camp that asked the following questions:

  • How do I structure my project for an outside investor or for my own investment of capital?
  • How do the investors get paid for that investment?
  • How do I set up an LLC?
  • How do I get a construction loan?
  • How do I structure my finances and credit?
  • Should I use of my house and the land as collateral?

I figured posting the questions and my response here on the blog would be helpful to others.

Forming an LLC
You will need to find a local attorney familiar with real estate development and have them draft the Operating Agreement for your LLC.  If you are going to have another person or persons investing in your project you should hold off on actually filing your LLC paperwork at the State until you have sorted your deal with your investors.
The first step you need to take is to outline (on paper) what you want to do in your project and who will do what before you sit down with your lawyer.  The lawyer probably has a boilerplate LLC Operating Agreement that they will start with and they will modify it to suit your goals and requirements.  The Operating agreement is your opportunity to set up your the structure of your deal, answering questions like the following:
  • Who will manage the LLC?  This can be a designated manager or a managing member of the LLC.
  • Who will the other members of the LLC be?
  • Do you have more than one class of LLC member?
  • Are there milestones in the project or performance metrics that will require members to surrender their interest for a stipulated sum?
  • How are the proceeds of the project going to be distributed?
  • What happens if more capital is needed?
The reason why you hold off on filing your LLC documents until you have a deal with your investors, is to save the time and expense of modifying a recorded LLC to reflect the particulars of the deal you stuck with your investor after the LLC was formed.
Your negotiations with an investor should culminate in a (non-binding) Letter of Intent which is where you put down on paper who is going to do what.  Your lawyer will use the Letter of Intent as a guide to draft the LLC documents.
Links to general information about LLC:
(Legal Zoom is an online resource, but I strongly recommend that you find a flesh and blood local lawyer ).
Roles of the parties in a development project
In a basic deal the Operating Partner gets paid a fee to do the work of coordinating the design, entitlement, financing, construction and leasing of the project.  This can range from 5% to 15% depending upon the scale, complexity and duration of the project.  The Operating Partner is the active member of the development and typically serves as the Manager  or the Managing Member of the LLC.
The Investor or Capital Partner has a passive role.  They provide capital which they could lose if the project fails and they received a return in consideration for the risk they have taken in making that investment.  They also may be  guarantying the repayment of the construction loan.
If you are putting up cash you are a capital partner.  If you are running the project for a fee, or for a piece of the deal, you are the operating partner.  An operating partner can also be a capital partner if they are investing cash or contributing their land to the deal, but outside capital partners typically get their investment principal back ahead of an operating partner who has contributed cash or land.
Paying the Investor back their principal and a return
You construct your plan for how your project will make money in the form of a pro forma.  Based upon what the likely hard and soft construction costs and the cost of the land and the needed improvements to bring the land to the level of a finished lot or lots you look at what the likely revenue will be in rent after operating costs and debt service.  Cash flow after operating expenses and debt service is the money you use to pay back the investor their initial principal (the cash they invested) and the return you committed to provide them for taking the risk of investing in your project.  You can also refinance the project after it is built and fully leased up with demonstrated operating expenses.  This new loan will be used to pay off the construction loan and the cash left over can be used to pay the investor their remaining principal and the return you promised them.  For example if they invested $100,000 and you committed to pay them a 12% return, you pay them $112,000.  $100,000 in principal and $12,000 as their return.
Getting a Construction Loan
You get a construction loan by first talking with several banks to gauge their interest in the project and the likely terms of the loan.  Then you submit  a loan application or “bank package” to the lenders you think are the best fit for your project.  The bank will lend you a specific percentage of the total project cost, referred to as the Loan to Cost or LTC percentage or ratio.  If the total cost of your project is $1,000,000 and a bank commits to lending you 75% of the cost, you need to come up with $250,000  (25%) in equity  in essence, your down payment.  The deal with your lender is that if you default on the loan and they foreclose on the project, you lose your equity (or down payment).  If after they foreclose, they sell the project for less than the amount of the outstanding loan, they will look to recover the shortfall from the person who guaranteed the loan, either through a pledge of specific collateral or a personal guaranty.  If the property you have purchased is appraised at $350,000 and you bought it with cash, the land will be sufficient to cover the equity requirement.  If you bought the land for $350,000 with a loan and only put down $150,000 in cash, then the bank will want you and your investor to put in another $100,000 to meet the required 25% of the total project cost.
If you have good credit and enough equity, but you do not have enough assets to guaranty the loan in case of default, you will need to find a capital partner who can cover the guaranty.

Last Call for the Atlanta Small Developer Boot Camp October 13-14, 2015

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

Next week Jim Kumon, Bruce Tollar and I will be in Atlanta for another small developer boot camp.  The Georgia Conservancy and the Atlanta Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism have put together a great venue and did an excellent job getting the word out. Most of the folks who have signed up are from the Atlanta region, but I saw the names of colleagues from Washington DC and Asheville on the list. Last I heard from Jim, 110 people have registered.  So here is a heads up.  Registration closes on Monday.  People infected with the small developer virus have the nerve necessary to wait until the last minute, so there is usually a bit of a surge in the last couple days of registration.

We get started Tuesday evening with a get together at the nifty converted church offices of Kronberg Wall Architects in Reynoldstown and we will be at the Center for Civic Innovation all day Wednesday. (near the Five Points MARTA station)

If you are still on the fence, give a listen to Eric Kronberg explaining what to expect:

Switchyards Podcast with Eric Kronberg

Then go register on the website: Register for the Atlanta Small Developer Boot Camp

The next boot camp on the schedule is an in depth 4 day event in Western Michigan in early December.  Jim Kumon is firming up the dates with the local hosts.

Homework for the Small Developers Boot Camp


The Key Piece of Homework is to try and capture your project in a straightforward pro forma.

You can find the pro forma spreadsheets here in the Small Scale Developers Resources page on the web site.

You will find two pro formas, the first is a simple four unit cottage court, the other a four-plex with potential expansion.  By changing the information in the pro forma spreadsheet that describes the individual apartments, the buildings, the size of the lot, the likely rents you can try out you project and see if it makes money.  If you don’t work with Excel very often you may get frustrated by mechanics of the spreadsheet, but even if you hit a dead end working on this on your own, spending an hour trying to fit your project into one of these pro formas will give you a head start when we start to walk through how to do this in the Boot Camp.

You can also download PDF’s of the site plans for the 4 unit cottage court and the Four-plex from the same Additional Resources page on the’s Small Scale Developer page which may help you visualize what is going on in the pro fro forma spreadsheets.

If you want to present your project for a critique on Sunday morning, the pro forma is a good way to capture some of the basic information that will shape your project:

  • What are the likely rents?
  • What are the likely project costs -(hard and soft)?
  • How much cash will be needed and how much debt?
  • Does the project make money?
  • When does an investor get their principal back?  When do they get their return?
  • Can you draw fees while developing the project?

Things Worth Repeating

My good friend Phil Bess teaches very smart Architecture and Urban Design students at the University of Notre Dame.  He told me that the best students in his classes still need to hear information on important concepts and tools repeated 5 times to retain them and start to recognize how they might be applied.  If you would like a head start on that kind of repetition I recommend that you watch some of the following videos:

Arthur C. Nelson’s presentation of the core stuff in his book Reshaping Metropolitan America from CNU 21

Michael Lander’s talk at the University of Miami’s Masters of Real Estate Development + Urbanism; Design From the Marketplace.

A couple of my video presentations; Recruiting Small Scale Developers from CNU23  and The Dark Art of Developing Small Projects

Link to Small Developer Videos

For anyone not attending the Duncanville Boot Camp this weekend, I encourage you to check out the material above and take a stab at putting your project into the basic pro forma spreadsheet.  And as always, please post a comment or question here or on the Small Developer/Builders Group on FaceBook

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

Small Developer Boot Camp Registration is filling up fast. Better get on it.

Membership is open to people with and without hair.
Membership is open to people with and without hair.

The Small Developer/Builders Group on Facebook now has over 600 members. Small Developer/Builders Group

Some members are curious lurkers, some are practicing developers, and many are on the fence trying to figure out what it would take to make the move from their current day job into developing small scale, incremental projects. We have seen several clusters of folks connect through the group and decide to meet up in person.  It’s been quite marvelous to watch the group grow in number and see the discussion move past daily posts of whatever is on my mind that I think might be useful.  Click the link above and ask to be added to the group if this sounds like something you want to explore.

The August Small Developer Bootcamp in Duncanville has been capped at 75 participants.  There were 56 people registered as of lunch time Friday.  So just 19 spots are left.  If you were intending to join us in Duncanville, now is the time to go over to the registration page and sign up.  It looks like the event will fill up at the early bird registration price of $100.

Boot Camp Registration / Strong Towns