Helping Your City Go Broke When You Know Better is Borderline Criminal

18 x 60 shot gun cottage for Columbus

Do you know where your town comes up with the money needed to repave streets, expand the sewer plant, pay cops, firefighters, teachers, bus drivers?  Most municipalities rely upon a combination of sales tax, utility bills, impact fees on new development, and the big reliable source of money for the General Fund and Capital Projects; property taxes.  Property taxes are assessed according to the value of the buildings on a parcel  The more a building is worth, the more taxes the building owner pays.  Once a building is built, there is a good chance that it will be the basis of the property taxes that will be collected for a very long time.  It makes sense for a municipality to know how much taxable value per acre a given pattern of development yields, since there is only so much serviced developable land within its borders.  Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 does a good job of explaining this fairly obvious math in this video .

The straightforward little two bedroom cottage above is proposed on a 37.5′ X 135′ lot  in city with a minimum lot width of 50 feet.  There are lots of existing platted lots with water and sewer taps in an established and desirable neighborhood that are less that 50′ wide.  A vacant lot in the neighborhood pays about $70 a year in property taxes.  Removing the minimum lot dimension from the local zoning code would make it possible to build modest houses like the one shown above, but like many places, the city foolishly decided to downzone its established neighborhoods a couple decades ago.  That downzoning in favor of a more suburban model damaged their tax base.  There are roughly eight 37′ X 135′ lots in an acre.  If this little two bedroom cottage sold for $135,000 X 8 lots to the acre, the result is $1,080,000 in taxable value per acre.  Compared with the taxable value per acre of the biggest fanciest Super WalMart in the same zip code at $520,000 per acre.

When a developer builds a shopping center of residential subdivision these days, it is fairly typical for the developer to turn ownership the new streets, sewers and other utility infrastructure over to the municipality.  If the taxable value of the new development does not produce enough money to pay for the repaving of the street or the repair and replacement of the other infrastructure when it wears out, this turns out to be a lousy deal for the municipality.  The developer has essentially given the municipality a free great dane puppy.  Unless that dog gets a job, it will be a long term financial drain.

Getting senior staff and elected leadership to recognize the looming cost of replacing and repairing infrastructure in parts of the city that cannot pay their way is going to be difficult. Coming to terms with this structural and systemic failure cannot be done with short term impact fee patches. The problem is bigger and more expensive than what can be laid off on new buildings. The source of the problem comes from building a place with the wrong pattern of development over decades. If you build in a way that spreads civilization too thinly, (Auto-only Sprawl) what gets built cannot support the repaving of roads or the repair and replacement of other infrastructure, let alone paying for cops, fire fighters, schools, parks, libraries, and public health services. If towns and cities create big backlogs in infrastructure repair that they cannot pay for, the financial burden becomes so great that people elected to two or four year terms end up just ignoring the problem and resisting any effort to do the honest math that will force folks to face how much taxes are going to have to be increased to cover the repair and replacement costs that are coming down the line.  This is big money with big consequences.

If you cannot do the math to understand the taxable value per acre of serviced land, you should not be in local elected office or running a municipal department. I recognize that this is typically a problem of ignorance and not one of deliberate malice, but the effect is the same in either case. We have to build differently to provide folks with greater opportunity, but we also have to build differently because towns and cities cannot afford the financial fall out of the wrong development pattern. A town going broke while while elected officials and senior staff are ignorant is unfortunate, but kinda understandable. Going broke when you know better is borderline criminal.

So what pattern is your town going to build in?  Is anyone doing the math?

Sorting out Mobile Homes, Modular Homes and the rest of the Systems-Built Offerings

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Bruce Tolar and me on the porch of Marianne Cusato’s Katrina Cottage in the Cottage Square Neighborhood, Ocean Springs MS.

We (David Kim, Bruce Tolar, Will Burgin and I) are currently working on a wide range of tools for delivering walkable neighborhoods and incremental development.  After Hurricane Katrina, Bruce and a host of others put in thousands of volunteer hours producing an alternative to the awful FEMA travel trailer that came to be called the Katrina Cottages.  The State of Mississippi’s Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) commissioned several thousand MEMA cottages of various sizes that were used as part of the hurricane recovery effort and eventually were sold for permanent housing.

Bruce Tolar has continued to advocate, design and build cottage housing and cottage neighborhoods over the 12 years since the hurricane.  He lives in Cottage Square neighborhood in Ocean Springs, MS. He built a place contains a number of the early prototype cottages designed by colleagues in addition to his own excellent work. As our development company started building a project in Thomasville, Georgia we started looking for manufacturers to produce cottage designs in addition to their usual mobile homes and modular houses.  We continue to find a lot of confusion that comes from not having a workable common vocabulary to talk about the range of housing that is partially or entirely built off-site in a factory.
For example; capital “M” Manufactured Homes (mobile homes) are produced to meet HUD certification that allows for their use anywhere in the US.  You can easily find yourself in a conversation where industry insiders are using “Manufactured Homes” as a term of art referring to mobile homes and lay people are using lower case “m” manufactured homes to describe anything that comes out of a factory regardless of the code or certification it complies with.  In a spoken conversation you cannot hear the capitalization of the word and this leads to needless confusion.
Site building can be quite economical and flexible if you have a good team of local trades and you are well organized. But that level of delivery does not come with a one-off project. You can also build economically if you are competent enough to self-build.
Things get complicated when skilled construction labor is in short supply as it will be for the next 10 years.  Short supplies of skilled construction labor get compounded by the needs of disaster response and recovery within a region. For example, a lot of drywall outfits from Atlanta are now down in the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey, so finding someone to install drywall in Atlanta is a problem.
We need to train folks in the trades for all forms of building across the board.
In additions to training people for site built construction and incremental development, we need to be able to use all manner of systems built housing, depending upon what the right tool for job might be:
  • ANSI spec Tiny Houses.
  • ANSI Spec Park Models.
  • HUD spec mobile homes. (also know as capital “M” Manufactured Homes)
  • IRC spec modular buildings in single box and multiple box configurations.
  • IRC spec wet core modules with site built additions.
  • IRC Spec Panelized Construction.
  • IRC Spec SIPS construction.
The MEMA Cottages produced after Katrina were dual certified as IRC off-frame modular Homes and on frame HUD Spec Mobile Homes.  They could be placed temporarily as HUD spec mobile homes.  Once you removed them from their trailer chassis they could be placed upon permenant foundations as IRC spec Modular homes that comply with the standard local building code, while being inspected by third party engineering outfits at the factory.
Below is a 12′ wide MEMA Cottage w/ 8′ ceilings (one bedroom).  This cottage had its porch tuned up a bit and got repainted when it was taken off the trailer frame and set on a permanent foundation in Ocean Springs.
2017-09-13 07.52.09 HDR

Walk Before You Attempt to Run (or Fly)

cart-before-horse-cartoon
The sequence is really important

 

I do a lot of teaching and coaching of small developers through the Incremental Development Alliance (IncDev).  In the course of that effort I meet folks who are really interested in Alternative community based models for owning buildings.  These include  Benefit Corporations ,  Co-operatives (Co-ops) , Low-profit Limited Liability Companies (L3C’s), or Cohousing.  I think I understand and appreciate the reasons why these arrangements are attractive to people looking to build community, but I want to offer some advice on the mechanics of using these structures in a development project.
These are all structures for owning real estate that have alternative methods for governance and distribution of profits that are alternatives to the more typical tools for owning income producing real estate, the partnership or Limited Liability Company (LLC) .  Before you get fancy with alternative ownership structures, focus upon the basics by standing up an enterprise that will be doing the work of the developer; finding the site, testing various designs and financing approaches, building . leasing and operating the building or buildings.  The Operating Company can be the operating partner, operating co-op member, managing LLC or L3C member, or Benefit Corp. manager. All of these various ownership structures are set up to do the job of describing how capital will be raised for the project and how profits will be distributed. It is the role of the Operating Partner to raise the capital, build/rebuild and operate the buildings profitability so that there is cash flow to distribute among the owners regardless of what ownership model is used, or the mission of the enterprise.
Before you get fancy with alternative ownership structures build a straightforward simple project with straightforward and simple ownership structure, an operating partner and a capital partner under a typical LLC that is limited to just one project as the owner. (a Project-Specific LLC).  You build this structure with an ordinary LLC Operating Agreement.  Under the Operating Agreement, the Operating Partner and the Capital Partner both know who is supposed to do the work (the Operating Partner), who is supposed to put in the capital needed (the Capital Partner), how important decisions will be made, how and when the capital partner will get their original investment back, and how revenue beyond the repayment of principal will be distributed between the capital partner and the operating partner.
The basic deal structure is a good starting point for folks that want to eventually set up other more elaborate alternative forms of ownership. It will help the small developer to  become good at doing the work of the operating partner -an essential role that is required in every one of the alternative ownership structures mentioned above.
In any of these structures people putting up the money in large or small amounts are going to ask a very legitimate series of questions:
  • Who is in charge of this thing?
  • Do they know what they are doing?
  • How do decisions get made?
  • How does the project make money?
  • When do we get our initial investment back?
The horse that goes before the cart is knowing how to do the work of the operating partner. Do that on a small project. It’s like learning how to drive in an empty parking lot before you attempt to drive on local streets or on a freeway. Once you have some of those basic operating skills, then you can look at alternative ownership structures consistent with your mission. The operating partner is the crucial resource, not the money.
Raising money from a couple of individuals and operating under a straightforward project-specific LLC is easier and less complicated than Crowd Funding, REIT formation, starting a co-op, L3C, or Benefit Corporation. Walk before you try to run (attempt to fly).

The Zoning Code makes the Comprehensive Plan Illegal? WTF?

 

 

 

despair-head-in-hands
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.