Return On Brain Damage -the small developer’s key metric

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There’s an old joke.  Where does wisdom come from?  Experience.  Where does experience come from?  Lack of wisdom.

Real Estate Finance has a lot of technical terms and acronyms.  Return on Investment (ROI).  Return on Equity (ROE).  Internal Rate of Return (IRR).  These are all worth understanding for a small developer working on incremental projects to make their neighborhood a better place to live.  They are ways to look at the numbers.  But how do you look at more intangible things like know-how, reputation,  and relationships?

More important to the small operator than any of these is the Return On Brain Damage (ROBD).  I am talking about figurative not actual “brain damage”.  Figurative Brain Damage for a small developer is the the accumulated effect of going through an a painfully confusing and ill-defined process to get your project approved and built.  You could call it painful learning gained in an informal ass-backward process.  This kind of learning is painful because while you are proceeding through the effort there is a voice in your head saying “This can’t be right…Are you sure you know what you are doing?  This makes no sense…”

For example, I was looking in a local zoning code to understand if it would be possible to build a four-plex on a 40′ x 125′ infill lot.  I sort through the setbacks, the hight limit, the maximum lot coverage, the minimum lot size, the minimum lot area required per unit, the minimum off-street parking required, and the minimum landscaping standard.  By my reckoning, a four-plex could be built on the lot as of right.  So I took my site plan to the front counter of the building department and met with a helpful staffer.  She showed me the Definitions section in the zoning code and pointed to the bit titled “Multifamily”.  Along with describing any building with three or more dwelling units as multifamily, the definition went on to explain how multifamily buildings were required to be at least 25′ away from any property line.  This would certainly be hard to do on a 40′ wide infill lot.  The fact that the city’s Comprehensive Plan specifically calls for more Missing Middle Housing in the neighborhood where the lots are typically 40′ wide never made it into a rewrite of the zoning code.

So I go through all that on the front end of a promising deal, only to learn that I should not buy the 40′ infill lot.  I had been invited to the town. Reading the Comprehensive Plan got my hopes up.  Reading all about the specific zoning classification applied to the infill lot was pretty encouraging.  I drew a site plan and had a 20 minute meeting with a seasoned staffer before I found out that there were 76 words buried in the Definitions Section of the zoning code that killed the potential four-plex (or anything bigger than a duplex.  So what was my return on brain damage?  What did I learn from that frustrating experience.  Always read the Definitions Sections of the Code.  -Something that I can use in any place I work or help others with their projects.  All in all a pretty good return on the frustrating experience of getting caught between the good intentions Comprehensive Plan and a black letter definition in the back of the zoning code.

If you are weighing one prospective project against 5 or 6 others in the same neighborhood, consider what your return on brain damage is likely to be for each of them.  If you learn the specifics of building on a particularly lousy local soil type, would that new know-how help you understand how to build other projects on that side of town?  If you can build trust with local activists and neighbors would that trust help with your next planning commission application?  If you can get through the communications issues you seem to be having with your architect or your framer, will that make things go more smoothly for the rest of the project?  Is it worth the frustration your historic tax credit consultant to draw a clear diagram of the process using small words (and no jargon).

If you facepalm and ask yourself “What am I getting myself into here?  The next question should be “What’s my likely return on what looks to be a fair amount of brain damage?”

My experience in 20+ years of trying to help large scale developers retool their operations to fit into urban places produced an extremely low return on the brain damage, given the effort required.  That’s why I figured it would be better to invest the effort needed to train a new cohort of developers committed to building incrementally at the neighborhood scale.  Over the last 3 years we have seen an excellent ROBD on that effort.

Three Story Urbanism? No Problem.

 

I think it is important and valuable to build Accessible/Adaptable apartments as  currently required under HUD’s Fair Housing Design Manual .  Here’s how to do that in a straightforward three story walk-up building you could build with ordinary residential construction trades in your local market:

The requirement for apartment building or mixed use buildings containing four or more units, and built without an elevator is that all of the ground floor units must be Accessible/Adaptable.  If the 1st floor has no residential units on it, (say because the ground floor is occupied by commercial space or parking garages), then the next floor (the 2nd floor) becomes the “Ground Floor” for the purposes of compliance with the federal Fair Housing Act and you would have to install an elevator for access to that floor unless the building was adjacent to a steep enough grade to provide access to the 2nd floor without an elevator or lift.  As I explained in an earlier post that seems to be getting a fair amount of play, The International Building Code (IBC) allows you to build a three story TYPE V (wood frame) structure with fire sprinklers with a single exit stair, as long as the upper floors do not have more than 4 units on each of them and that the travel distance from the farthest location within each unit is less than 125 feet from the exit stair enclosure.  Follow the link for the specific IBC code citations:

Another Look at how to build a 3 story building without an elevator

The photos above show some capably designed 3 story buildings.  It is possible to do this.  If you have doubts and you need some help,  I suggest that you contact the good folks at Union Studio in Providence, RI They designed the two 6-plex buildings on the lower left or Eric Brown at Brown Design Studio in Savannah Eric designed the white 6-plex walk-up in the larger image on the right.  My able partner David T. Kim designed the 22 unit Hutchinson Green Apartments in the upper left as our first major project after the Great Recession.

So 3 Story Urbanism is no problem?  Okay, admittedly that title does cross the line into Click Bait, because while these hard working modest buildings are very useful in creating 3 story urbanism, your local zoning code with it’s needlessly deep building setbacks, or bloated off-street parking requirements may make it quite difficult to build good #3StoryUrbanism.  But as you can see, but the International Building Code should not be an issue for you.

Bloated parking requirements will mess up your site plan so that you cannot build the same way as the venerable 1920’s 3 story apartment building across the street.  Municipalities are famously bad at guessing how much parking you should be required to build on your private parcel.  Many cites will not even give you credit for the parking spaces at the curb in front of your potential building -as if they do not physically exist.  Unnecessary parking takes up space, creates additional impervious surface that you have to address for the storm water requirements, and those additional spaces cost money to build and maintain.  Bloated parking screws up perfectly good projects every day.  The development math for parking you don’t need never works in your favor.

 

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.”

Let’s Line the Edges of Parking Lots with Small Shop Front Buildings.

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I think there are lots of great precedents for small single story main street buildings that work well.  Above are some studies David Kim and Will Dowdy did on small, shallow storefront spaces that could be used as parking lot liners or in conjunction  with small apartment buildings and cottage courts located behind the small commercial/flex building to provide mixed use without requiring the use of commercial steel pipe fire sprinklers that can be required if the residential and non-residential Occupancy Types were combined into in one mixed use building.
The intent was provide a wide/shallow space that could be flexible.  We settled on a depth of 26′ as this leaves an 18′ dimension between the 8 x 8 accessible restroom and the storefront.  We were also looking to keep any columns or other intermediate structure out of the floor plan and 20′-32′ of depth is readily spanned without going nuts on the truss design.  You can get pre-engineered bar joists at 40′ long, but we wanted to keep the construction technique within the skills of residential trades.
Keeping the depth modest allows for daylighting of the space from a transom and light shelf over the storefront and awning.  Spaces this small are easily heated and cooled with a ductless mini-split heat pump/air conditioner.

Using a single pitch roof truss, sloping from the street side to the rear, with a parapet on the street side can provide lots of room for signage, while screening compressors or kitchen hood fans from the street view.

Buildings that are flexible enough to house small and inexpensive workspace for retail, services, food and drink, etc. should be in the Small Developer’s tool box.  You may know an under-utilized parking lot that could be lined with something like this.  Could be good way to follow up on testing the location with some food carts.

Steve Mouzon has some very interesting thoughts along these lines.  His blog has better production values than mine does, so I encourage you to click through and check it out.  Steve Mouzon’s Blog Original Green

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?

 

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?