Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Alternative Development Forms - Natural Co-Housing

The most interesting development models to me are often those that exist in the space between traditional home ownership and rental. Co-housing is one of these models, and I just recently found an update about a project in Ithaca, New York, called Ecovillage.

Despite the overly “pc” name of the place, there are some amazing features to this development that I think are begging to be replicated on a larger scale in both urban and rural development projects.

Yard Sharing
In my own experience I have found that “good fences can make for good neighbors”. But that’s not how I’d really like to live. When I bought my house (as I suspect you did)  I wasn’t able to interview and choose our neighbors, but the idea of sharing outside spaces with neighbors and friends is most appealing to me.

For a short time I did have one neighbor that removed our common fence, and while it was hard to train her landscapers to stop coming into my yard and mowing over my drip hoses, I very much enjoyed the fact that our children were able to move from one yard to the next without any barriers. It created a great sense of community and we became very close in the process. Unfortunately, a fence has been built now and we have found interaction between our families  to be limited and much less frequent.

Though we still have a gate that allows us to go back an fourth, the very presence of the fence creates a visual and physical barrier. With my other neighbors we have chain link fences separating our yards. Although these create a physical barrier and many people might think they are less appealing then a nice wooden fence, I find that I have more frequent interaction with these neighbors.

Communal Resources
Another feature that I love to see in any development is shared or communal resources. In the case of Ecovillage there are shared kitchen, laundry facilities and workshops with tools.  My attraction to these types of shared resources is multi-fold. Kitchen’s and dining areas provide a common space for neighborhood meetings,  parties and other events. More importantly they can provide access to healthy home cooked meals for seniors and other individuals that either don’t have the ability or skills to cook for themselves.

Shared laundry facilities are an obvious cost savings that eliminate the need for every household to buy expensive machines that typically only get used periodically. Additionally, the savings from shared workshops and tool programs allows not only direct savings, but the ability to share skills between neighbors and another avenue for neighbor to neighbor interaction.

Expanded Natural Spaces
The last thing that places like Ecovillage can provide is an alternative form of land use that can be seen as more efficient and less invasive in our natural environment. While my experience with Ecovillage is limited to photos and other materials that I have seen on the web, the development gives me the sense that there is plenty of space one might consider in its “natural state”.

Housing and buildings in Ecovillage are compact and located close together. Unlike typical subdivisions in urban or suburban developments, buildings are organized in tight formations that help maximize and consolidate outdoor living areas. This is certainly not a new idea but one that I have always been attracted to.

The idea of reorganizing suburban spaces to maximize outdoor living was first introduced to me through the book Experience of Place by Tony Hiss.  This was the first time I heard of one of the early pioneers in planning Benton MacKaye.  MacKaye is better known for his work on the Appalachian trail, park lands and trail systems for the national parks.  Tony Hiss however discusses how MacKaye took land planning and suburban development in a new direction by focusing on maximizing natural spaces in developments that created the same density per acre that traditional suburban developments would.

This idea was revolutionary to me at the time and I still advocate and think about it every time I look at new development projects.

What all this boils down to is a belief that I hold in the ability for alternative development patterns and ownership structures to have a positive impact on creating more accessible, affordable and ecologically sound forms of housing. I certainly am no expert on the numbers or statistics about why or how places like Ecovillage are better for our environment, but it would surprise me if they weren’t given the anecdotal evidence that’s been provided so far.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Expect Failure, Then Deal With It

Failure is a topic that a lot of business and nonprofit professionals are talking about today. Whether this trend is a result of new ideas or concepts on how organizations deal with failure or a reflection of the overall economic recession, there are a few key concepts that I have taken from my readings that I’d like to share here.

Failure is not Immoral

Dan Pallotta, one of my favorite thinkers in the nonprofit world, recently released an article on how risk should not be considered immoral in the nonprofit world. I’d like to take his thinking one step further and add that failure is also not immoral.

Pilot projects are one of my favorite ways to test new ideas on a small scale. At my current position, we started a pilot program for land banking with three different local partners and one national. We invested a small amount of seed money to buy properties and work through the logistics of foreclosure sales, local partner agreements and ground leases.

In the end, we were only able to buy one property during that 9 month pilot . We certainly didn’t see the financial returns we wanted from the pilot, but we were able to test the waters and identify many of the hurdles that we would experience in the future.

Was it immoral or wrong to invest my time, our companies time and our local partners’ time in this pilot that produced so little? My answer two years ago may have been different, but today we have been able to raise more than $6.2 million, create more than 350 affordable housing units, and have covered our operating costs as a result of that pilot program. I’d call that a big success in our corner of the world.

The example above might be more of a parable on taking risks and finding solutions to problems you encounter, but isn’t failure just another way to discover problems and find out which of your assumptions were wrong.  

As an administrator of federal funding in past jobs, I experienced the failure of my assumptions on almost a daily basis. From assuming that all nonprofits could produce annual financial statements, to application materials that didn’t include clear instructions that anyone could follow. Failure seemed like a daily tasks.

In order to over come this type of failure, there are a couple of beliefs I have developed over the years that I think have helped me endure.

First, learn everything that you can about the product, the market and the client that you can. Knowledge is power after all, and knowing everything you can before you launch that new program or product will be the most valuable work you do up front.

Second, assume that you don’t know everything about the product, the market or the client that you need to.  This might be more an attitude, but it helps me deal with the problems that inevitably pop-up, and has worked better for me than just standing my ground on the “facts” I believe I know.

The nonprofit world is rife with adversity. Our missions and work often focus on those with the lowest incomes, the least resources and the most insurmountable problems. So it can often feel wrong, even unethical to take risks or fail when so much is at stake. But failure, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  When we fail, we must learn. Then apply what we’ve learned and move forward.

I believe one of our defining characteristics as humans is the urge to move forward. To challenge ourselves, to explore new ideas and improve our standard of living. Just think about where we’d be if our parents, ancestors and society had given up and stopped moving forward.


Friday, October 7, 2011

Credible Utopias - A New Chinese Development Model


I came across a not so new planning and development strategy being used in China to create communities that can link urban and rural life styles. The architects of this new strategy are New York architect firm Tsao & McKown and  developer IMC Octave, which share a familial link through Calvin Tsao and Frederick Tsao who are brothers. IMC Octave is a large industrial conglomerate that started as a shipping company and now includes off shore drilling, ship building, industrial production and large scale comprehensive development.

Their concept attempts to link agrarian and urban living through new developments the size of most mid-sized cities. The concept papers note that they want their inhabitants to have easy access to all of the developments amenities and resources so that “one might work in a 100 story high rise during the day and then sleep under the stars listening the bleating of chickens after diner”.
Las Colinas, TX

I don’t think this is a new concept in urban planning. Since the turn of the twentieth century, and even before, corporations and politicians have dreamed of creating an ideal mix of urban and rural living in one place. This strategy of master planning entire new cities has not been attempted in the U.S. in more than 30 years (I’m excluding places like Celebration, but including Las Colinas, Texas). But the strategy might work in the highly organized and often authoritative society of China. I’m no expert on Chinese society, but I have to believe that hundreds of bureaucrats will have to approve this enormous undertaking, and staying true to the Tsao brothers concept will be hard to manage.

In the U.S. I also doubt that such a plan would be successful. For one, we don’t have large enough development companies that would be able to control all of the facets of developing a singular urban/rural concept project. We also live in a culture where community input and buy-in are critical to the success of such large scale projects. I’m not saying this as a negative, in fact I would have it no other way. But what would be the benefits of developing an entire city where environmental, employment, housing and recreational uses were all master planned from the beginning? I can only imagine that if the planning was good and no corners were cut, planning an entire city from the start could be a huge success.

In the end I hope that the Tsao brothers are successful. In China where they estimate that at least ten new metropolitan areas the size of New York are needed in the next ten year, the Tsao brothers may be right on target. Their ventures could create communities that are sustainable and useful in many more ways than discussed here. But only time will tell.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Smaller or Bigger - It really doesn’t matter

I read a great article on Bloomberg news the other day by Edward Glaeser, on how we, as a nation, might be able to move forward with government reform by focusing on quality rather than quantity. As Mr. Glaeser puts it:

“The important challenge today is to make government smarter and more effective, not slightly bigger or smaller.”

I agree whole heatedly. Unfortunately, my experience with government housing programs has proven to be a mixed bag in the “smarter and more effective” department. Having worked in a state housing agency and managed several contracts with both state and federal agencies I believe I’ve ran the full gambit of problems. These include unending paperwork, lack of clarity in regulations, changing interpretation of rules, and just plain bureaucratic morass (and that includes more “asses”, too).

But I’ve also experienced the hope that things can be better and more efficient at times. Unfortunately, these moment of hope are usually attributed to the work of a couple of really great people and not a systems change that will have wide spread impact on other programs or services. This doesn’t mean that there are no talented leaders in government agencies, rather that many of the system in place already are generally designed to quash the ingenuity and creativity that will bounce government programs out of their ruts.

This is where I turn to the nonprofit sector for hope. Nonprofits can be as bad as governments, especially when their leadership settles into a path that was successful yesterday, but may need to change today in order to maintain relevancy. One of my favorite thinkers on this subject is Dan Palotta.

Mr. Palotta recently wrote a great article the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and how they can improve customer service. about one of the first steps that government agencies can take in improving, customer service. Dan’s article on the TSA gave several simple tips on how the perception of the TSA would be greatly improved if they implemented several simple customer service tactics like not shouting at your customers, allowing employees to improve equipment to meet customer needs and creating a more relaxed and comforting atmosphere in security lines.

While I agree 100% with Dan, I’m really hopeful that the issues and ideas that Mr. Glaeser’s touches on can be used to create greater efficiency not only within government agencies, but for the customers they serve.  

Among my favorites it the consolidation, or at least cooperation and communication, among poverty related program. Mr. Glaeser in just a few words sets out a simple plan to improve the impact of our poverty support system that I believe would have an enormous impact.

“A 21st-century anti-poverty program would ensure that similar households would get similar levels of total benefits. It would look holistically at every household receiving public support, and determine whether a recipient is getting the right mix of financial support and aid in kind, such as housing vouchers or medical benefits. Is providing so much aid in the form of food stamps appropriate given the U.S. obesity epidemic?”

One piece of silver lining that I’ve seen recently is the plan by USDA, HUD and other federal agencies involved in affordable housing to consolidate rule and regulatory practices so that multiple agencies do not have multiple ways of collecting the same data or adhering to the same policy.  For example, USDA and HUD both require property condition assessments and appraisals when applying for funding to rehab older housing projects. For years now I have worked with developers that struggle to provide two separate reports in order to meet the different standards each agency has. The good news is that these agencies are now working on more than 20 similar issues to make their programs more accessible and efficient for clients and themselves.

Another of my favorites is the idea of charging for congestion on highways. I have to admit that this is one of the great proposals that Rick Perry had a few years back, and despite the political backlash, I am hopeful it will become the corner stone of new and improved highway systems across the U.S.

“Once upon a time, it was expensive to pay for roads with tolls, so we turned to gas taxes. But technology has made it easy to charge drivers without tollbooth personnel or even forcing users to slow down. Singapore, the second densest nation on earth, has free-flowing roads because drivers pay for the congestion they cause.”

Paying for infrastructure with user fees is the best model for rebuilding America because it eliminates bridges-to-nowhere and pushes us toward more economically valuable investments. The public sector still needs to help plan and coordinate infrastructure, but the actual road construction and maintenance can be done by properly regulated, privately funded entities.”

I agree. As an avid fisherman I’m happy to pay for access to public parks and for my annual fishing licence so that game wardens can monitor and protect our natural resources.  Maybe that’s not a good example, but I also love tolls roads, especially when they are generally better maintained and faster than the antiquated interstate highway system.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Better Bicycle Parking Please

I’m an avid cyclist and bicycle commuter. I ride most days to work and try to make short trips around the neighborhood for small errands and to bring my oldest to school.  I have been a commuter for more than 25 years and one universal problem I experience is adequate parking/lock up facilities most places I go.  

Like all seasoned commuters I’ve become skillful at using any form of street furniture or building appendage to lock up. But it’s not always easy and it often limits access to other users of the public right of way. But there is hope. I search blogs and RSS feeds all the time for new and exciting bicycle parking solutions, and here are a few of my most recent favorites.

Cycle Hoops is a small company that I love. They jumped on the scene through re-purposing street signs with simple attachments that create easy parking without costly new instilations or using up extra space on sidewalk. Check out Cycle Hoops here:

NYC has also been replacing meters since last year with bike racks and carried out a large design competition a few years back to select the design. I’m not sue why they needed to replace the meters with racks (instead of re-purposing Alla Cycle Hoop) but I’ll support the addition of racks over meters to safely park my bike.

The Delaware Valley Green Building Council held a design competition last year to re-purpose a parking lot in downtown Philly for bicycle parking. While it would be great to have so much parking in one area I’m not sure if bike parking will ever need 300 or 500 sights in one place, even in Philly. Cyclist like there ability to be free to park close to work, including parking in their offices. But I certainly love the design and hope that someday this type of mass parking will encourage bicycle tourists to visit downtown.

Annie Scheel, BIKE & Delaware Valley Green Building Council
Some ideas may be great concepts, but I’m not so sure they’ll last. Riverside, California launched the bike shell program three year ago, and while I couldn’t find newer photos of them, I’m interested in knowing just how long these last and if the planners still think it was a good idea.

Finally, there are some idea I feel won’t work just by looking at them. I hate to nay-say on and creative concepts, but I’m almost certain that the rotating bicycle hanging system proposed by  Manifesto Architects won’t become mainstream. Although, I understand they are installing a prototype now and may even have a buyer lined up. I hope they prove me wrong.

The vertically-hung, space-saving Bike Hanger by Manifesto Architecture

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

PreFab Homes - Blu Homes Might Make You Happy

A great article on Tree Hugger last week brought some new light on the Prefab home builder Blu Homes. Blu has a very unique and possibly one of a kind folding modular home building system that solves some of the problems that modular housing faces. Specifically, Blu Homes are designed so that in transport mode they are more compact than typical modular systems from other companies (mostly manufactured home builders), plus they are are also able to squeeze more home into the same module since each unit unfolds into a larger single unit.

Now this company has been around for some time and they are one of the few designer/builders of modular homes that also work with home owners through the install process. This gives them several advantages over more typical arrangements in the modular home field, and makes it possible to improve upon subsequent designs, as feed back from install is direct to the builder/designer.

I’ve been touting Blu as if I’m a big fan of modular, and while my heart is with the concept, I’m not sure that I believe it will solve every problem that the first modular home proponets had dreamed of. As Lloyd Alter, with Tree Hugger wrote in his post,

“Unfortunately, the goalposts have moved in the decade since Allison Arieff wrote the book Prefab. Then, the vision of those working in green modern prefab was to make it affordable and accessible to a large market, to do for housing what IKEA did for furniture. Instead, it is generally being used to build expensive country homes on huge exurban lots for individual homeowners, and in an era of climate crisis, that's not solving a problem but is making it worse. The problem has changed, and it's bigger than Blu.

Mr. Alter is spot on here. The goal posts have moved and unfortunately most of the dreamers behind modular housing have missed the target by a mile. If there are any “affordable” modular homes in the market today, it’s likely they’re also called double wides or mobile homes. That’s not to say that there are plenty of well build manufacture homes out there. But the idea of modular homes, in my opinion, should be more than a modern looking Palm Harbor home.

The promise of affordability so often espoused by prefab converts has never been realized. Advocates point to the Katrina Cottage, Clayton I-Homes and the dozens of university competition homes that never reach the market. And that’s the problem, these examples never reach a point of saturation in the market place. Until a home design becomes “popular” with the masses (me included) then the promise of low cost through mechanization and standardization will never occur for modular homes.

The other problem I see, and I’ll give Mr. Alter kudos for pointing this out in other blog posts, is that currently the market for modern and green modular is driven by generally wealthy or at least upper middle class home buyers. This means that what ends up on the market (i.e. the 20+ I Homes that have been built since 2008) are loaded with high cost finishes and features, and provide little promise to the rest of the affordable market.

I’m sure by now I really do sound like a “Debbie Downer” on affordable modular homes, but I do believe in their promise. Maybe what we really need though is less focus on making modular affordable modern looking homes, and more focus on making modular affordable homes that are energy efficient and green.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Investors Will Save the Housing Market - Counter Point

An open letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was published in the Atlantic this past week that proposes a couple of alternative strategies to getting the housing market jump started. The author, Daniel Indiviglio, is an editor and regular contributor to the Atlantic on economic and housing market issues. While his credentials and credits are lengthy, I want to step out here and say that his letter on fixing the housing market is way off base.

You can read the article at the Atlantic online, but I’ll summarize his main points here.

1. The actions already taken by the Treasury are not sufficient enough to create a recovery in the housing market. (Agreed)

2. In order to fix the housing market we need to provide huge incentives for single family investors to buy up foreclosures and rent them out. (Not Agreed)

Now in all fairness Mr. Indiviglio has three components to his incentives for investors. These include tax breaks for income generated from rental homes, tax breaks on repairs made to rental homes and property tax breaks for rental homes.

I shouldn’t need to say more, since I hope most of the people that will read my blog will agree that this is just a giveaway to investors that might reduce the number of foreclosed homes on the market, but I’m not convinced it would be beneficial to the market in general.

My first point of contention is that Mr. Indiviglio appears to assume that housing investors are benevolent in their activities. His ideas ignore the enormous damage that absentee owners have on building communities of choice for renters and home owners. He ignores the slums that often get created when large percentages of homes are bought up by investors and only minimal rehab is completed. And, he ignores some very important economic principals.

Now I hate to challenge an economist on economic principals, but I think that Mr. Indiviglio appears to put to much weight on the “invisivible hand” of the market theory.  He seems to think that investors are tied into a beneficial and benevolent recovery of the housing market through factors like demand and competition. While that might be true in a functioning housing market, the reality is that competition and demand aren’t providing controls in our current market.

An investor today can go into most metropolitan markets and find large pockets of under priced homes to buy and convert to rental. Competition for these homes is not driving up prices in any significant manner. Investors are also finding that the construction of new homes isn’t keeping up with basic population growth or inmigration, so the demand of rental homes is very high. With little competition of homes to buy and high demand for rentals the scales are not balanced to provide incentives to investors to act in a benevolent manner. The invisible hand theory leaves only self-interest to drive investors decisions. So what are investors doing? They are buying up thousands of foreclosed homes already. But what they aren't’ doing may be more important.

In a market where demand is high and competition is low, investors are able to buy homes cheap and do little or no rehab in order to find tenants. Mr. Indiviglio would like us to think that if we provide them with tax breaks they might be willing to spend a little more on rehab. But there’s no incentive in the current market, and tax breaks are unlikely to drive additional rehab spending if investors know they can already do the minimum and make a good return on their investment.

Mr. Indiviglio’s other suggestions also don’t create sufficient return in order to drive investors to act in benevolent ways. Income taxes for investors are already dangerously low given the numerous corporate structures and write-offs that make rental home investment a lucrative business. Property taxes are also a area that investors have already learned how to game the system and create additional wealth through creative accounting and income reporting to local taxing entities.

In all fairness to Mr. Indiviglio, I’ll reveal my assumption that many, not all, but many investors are just slum lords. They may not be renting to drug dealers or criminals, but they are not generally interested in investing money into assets that already provide them with a good return on their investment.  Investors also rarely, if ever look at the community impacts that rental homes can have on a community. Whether it’s a small investor that buys one or two homes in the same neighborhood, or the corporate investor that buys up dozens of homes in a single neighborhood, there is no incentive for them to determine whether their activities have a negative impact on the community as a whole.

I wish I had a brilliant idea about how to fix the housing market to introduce as a counter point to Mr. Indiviglio. I certainly think that the Treasury’s NIBP program has helped thousands of families obtain housing for the first time in a very tough and risky housing market, and even gotten some multifamily rental developments off the ground in one of the worst bond markets we’ve seen since the 1980s.  The best part about the NIBP program is that it incentivizes investment from the private sector and creates minimal risk for the Treasury or tax payers. This is a strategy that I’m hopeful will be renewed in 2012 and maybe even see a relaxation in first-time home buyer requirements for a temporary period.

In summary, I’m hopeful that Mr. Indiviglio’s letter will be summarily ignored by the Treasury and Mr. Geithner.  I’m hopeful that new shoots are already starting to sprout in the housing market and that our long recovery will begin to show fruits, or at the very least bring hope to bond markets and community leaders soon. Finally, I hope that the Treasury, and other government entities, will learn from the programs that didn’t meet expectations and find ways to reduce regulation and increase program efficiency so that they may be used again, but with much better results.



Thursday, July 28, 2011

Who Do You Want To Fund

July 29, 2011

The other day at work I was presented with one of the most common problems that community development funders face. Our staff has just completed reviewing a series of applications for threshold criteria and had to terminate an application from one of our favorite new groups. The applicant had failed to submit financial audits and we were all shocked to here that they didn’t have them.

Now this is a young organization that has only three years under their belt, but has been very active and successful with the few projects they have completed so far. They also fit into one of our least used target funding goals so there was a double sting to the termination. Being so young, they hadn’t generated enough financial activity to require a full audit.

You see, young nonprofits generally don’t come out of the gate with $500,000 in activity. It takes time to start-up, fund raise and set your goals. Generally, during this start-up period smaller organizations will have an accountant file taxes annually, and the better ones will get a Compilation Report or even an Auditors Review of their financials in order to have some type of report to pass on to funders and financial partners.

What’s important for this story is that the applicant had submitted a compilation report, but our guidelines required the full audit. Now I generally will agree that an audit is the best thing you can get from an applicant in order to determine their financial health and well being. However, our reviewers were in a bind because one of the better new groups was ineligible due of our criteria and we wanted to support younger groups just like this one.

So here’s my point. Just like they tell you in college writing and speech courses, it is critical to know who your audience is. In this case, we had failed to consider the types of organizations that we wanted to fund. We had thought about the types of projects, the funding per unit and even how to give scoring advantages to key internal goals. But, we forgot to think about the types of organizations that would apply for our funding and determine who we wanted to let in to the competition, or who to keep out.

I think the need to carefully consider your target applicant, the one you desire the most, is really the second most important aspect of grant or funding programs, after the type of projects you want to fund. Knowing how your applicants work, what their financial capabilities and experience levels is critical information that we need to be successful.

This sort of careful consideration of target applicants is very common. Other recent examples of failures I’ve seen are state programs requiring applicants to set up lines of credit to fund activities prior to reimbursements. This is possible for private companies and nonprofits (sometimes), but the biggest target applicant was cities and counties that are prohibited by law from borrowing money in this manner.

Another great example I remember from many years ago was a capacity building program targeted to new nonprofit home builders. Unfortunately, the threshold criteria required them to have built 20 or more than homes in the past year and have more than 5 years of experience. There are very few small nonprofit start-ups that can build 20 homes in a year, and after 5-years most organizations generally don’t consider themselves start-ups. Needless to say the program was a bit of a failure.

So, i hope my point is clear by now. As funders and financiers of community development, we need to carefully consider “who” will be completing the goals we set out to fund. We need to consider what types of applicants we want to fund and then spend the extra time to research how they operate.

As always, I hope some of you will comment on this post and let me know what you think.

Best regards,

First Blog Post - 7.28.11

This is the first blog post I’ve ever done, but hopefully not the last. For year’s I’ve been a pen and paper kind of guy. I have dozens of journals and note books filled with thoughts and ideas about community development.  The topic areas are wide ranging but almost always rooted in what I believe are good planning principles and sound business fundamentals. Most of my material is developed while at meetings or conferences when something sparks an idea in my head. Other times I get ideas from long walks or bike rides through cities and neighborhoods I’m visiting for the first time. In either case, they are ideas that I collect in order to build a better understanding of the developed world around me, and the process of creating better communities.

This blog then, is my attempt to organize my ideas in a central location. My journals obviously lack a search function, and this blog also gives me a chance to put thoughts in a space that can help me link key ideas, like partnerships, capacity building, access and frugality, across broader topic areas.

I’m also a very big believer in having my ideas challenged by others. So I’m hopeful that while some of you may agree with what I write, others will join the discussion in order to challenge some of my assumptions.  This will help me refine ideas and hopefully open up new ways of thinking about the topics I plan to raise.

Well, I hope those of you that come across my blog find something of interest and maybe even take the time to provide some feedback.

Best regards,