Friday, November 2, 2012

Affordable Green for Everyone

Common Ground, New South Wales
It’s been far too long since my last post. We’ve been super busy at work with closings, new programs and preparation for a new fundraising program. All that aside, I came across a beautiful affordable and green housing project that recently won an award at the world architecture festival. The project call Common Ground was designed by the arch and planning firm Hassell and is located in Camperdown, New South Wales, Australia. While the project is both beautiful and highly efficient it’s also a great example of the new direction that affordable housing has taken as green building techniques have become mainstream and both public and private funders realize the need for energy efficiency in housing.

This type of green and affordable housing is not just popping up in Australia though, and because I live and work in Texas I wanted to share some other great examples of green affordable housing, that’s really cool.

Cevallos Lofts, San Antonio
First off is the Cevallos Loft in San Antonio, Texas. I got to visit this great property just last week during the Texas Association of Local Housing Finance Agencies annual conference. This place blew my socks off. While the location is considered more of an “up and coming” neighborhood, the property is only 5 minutes from downtown and near San Antonio’s world famous riverwalk. The interior courtyard and pool reminded me of a luxury hotel, but I had to keep pinching myself and remember that low-income families also lived in this property.

2424 Sakowitz, Houston
Another great group of recent green and highly artistic properties in Texas are owned and managed by New Hope Housing. This great organization based in Houston, TX have broken the mold of what we think about SRO development. Gone is the idea of bunkhouses and old pay by the week motels. New Hope has successfully mixed art, architecture and green building into everything they touch.

Well, I wish I had more time, cause I might just turn this into a coffee table book if I did. Hope you enjoy the pics and links. Now go out and support affordable housing in your neighborhood.

Best regards,


Friday, June 22, 2012

A Smarter Way to Help Others, While Making Profits

I may not be a frequent blogger but I do consider myself a voracious reader. This morning while waking up slowly to a new day I read a great post by Erik Simanis on the Harvard Business Review. Erik’s newest article was titled The Smart Way to Make Profits While Serving the Poor. Now I’ll admit the title attracted my attention because of its almost devious tone, but the article gave me some great ideas about my own community development work.

Eric’s argument can be broken down like this. “Low price, low margin, high volume” is the traditional model for serving low-income people. However this model requires that a product obtain a large share of the market in order to be successful (30% or more according to Eric).  While his examples are more focused on consumer products, I feel that this same situation also plays out in the community development field.

I work with lots of nonprofits across a very large state. Many struggle to make ends meet because they are also trying to use the “low price, low margin, high volume” model. Unfortunately, there are very few that reach the last, and according to Eric, most important aspect, high volume.

The nonprofits I know are great at producing good products at very low prices and at very low margins. However, it can take years to grow to the point of capturing 30% or more of a market, and in larger urban areas that goal may never be obtainable.  Many groups do manage to hang on and have minimal impact for many years, but never see the growth or impact that they should by using this model of development.

So what’s Eric’s solution? Well, he points to three other strategies that can work individually or together.

  • Localise and Bundle Base Products
  • Offer an Enabling Service
  • Cultivate Customer Peer Groups

These strategies have also been used by many nonprofit organizations successfully. Here are a few examples from the work that I do.

The most successful rental property portfolio that I’ve financed in the past 5 years is run by an organization call Rainbow Housing Assistance Corporation. While they’ve grown by leveraging housing tax credits and tax exempt financing to build a large multi-state housing portfolio, I think that the key to much of their success is the resident services programs that they run.  One might think this service fall more under the category of an “enabling service”, but Rainbow’s delivery system meets the “localize and bundle” category.

Rainbow develops and packages core training and tenant service programs from their home office. These packages are then customized to meet local needs and to leverage local talents and direct service providers. The benefit of this approach is that Rainbow can produce very consistent reporting and performance across a wide variety of properties and locations.

Other organizations do this successfully too. Habitat for Humanity is a great example of a nonprofit that has grown large, and relatively successful, based on their ability to centralize planning and product development, and then dispersing those based products to affiliates on both a national and global scale.

Enabling services are probably the area in which I see the most crossover in the affordable housing sector. Those groups that are the most successful have developed key services that clients can access, which either lead to obtaining housing, or are the pathway to moving up and out of subsidized rental housing programs. Home builders in the affordable arena that provide homebuyer counseling, down payment assistance and in some cases post home buyer services generally are the most successful. Many organizations even start out in one service and then grow into new arenas in order to become more self sufficient.

One recent example of this is Frameworks Community Development Corporation, a growing homebuyer education provider that we’ve helped to become a housing provider through acquisition and redevelopment of foreclosed and blighted properties. Having just reviewed their most recent financial statements shows me that their success in transitioning from a single service entity, into a multi-service one, has been very beneficial for their bottom line.  And very likely for the benefit of their clients, too.

The last area that Eric writes about, cultivating customer peer groups, is an area that nonprofit also do well at, but this is the key component that I think I can do better at in my own work. Over the past three years we’ve built up a network of local partners who’ve helped us build a statewide land banking program with more than 350 properties, to date. Understandably, I’ve been a bit busy with the individual aspects of this program, but Eric’s article helped me realize that there was one significant weakness to the program.

I’ve failed to cultivate our network and bind them together under a common mission and goal. You might call it the ‘forgetting the forest for the trees’ syndrome, but I realized this morning that if my program is going to become more successful I need to focus on this aspect of the program’s development.  Building the strength of my network might also increase participation by my local partners and lead to more property purchased, redeveloped and sold to low-income families. That’s not only our goal, but our mission.

I’ll try to focus on this over the next several months and record what steps I take to move forward. Any advice from readers would be great.

Best regards,


Monday, April 23, 2012

A New Twist on Reusing Abandoned Properties

I really love creative people, especially those that create new ways to reuse abandoned or blighted properties. A new story from Next American City highlights the creativity that one man in New Orleans uses to turn a blighted neighborhood home into a playscape for Kids and Adults alike.

This kind of creativity is not new either. There are hundreds of examples of guerrilla urban planning taking place every year,  every week and every day. From bike paths in Mexico City to temporary shelters for the homeless inAtlanta. One of the largest and most global of these trends that I know of is Parking Day. In thier own words:

PARK(ing) Day is a annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public places.

Since 2005, PARK(ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organizations and individuals… creating new forms of temporary public space in urban contexts around the world.”

I really hope I continue to see more and more of this type of creative, out of the box style thinking not only in urban planning but housing development.

Best aye,


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Unified Theory of Social Change - Dan Pallotta - Harvard Business Review

Anyone who reads this blog regularly, will know that I'm a big fan of Dan Pallota. Here's a new post from him that get's me thinking and hoping for the type of change that we need. 

A Unified Theory of Social Change - Dan Pallotta - Harvard Business Review

Hope you enjoy too, 


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bike Storage Wars

Now I understand that not everyone in the world will adopt a cycling lifestyle. Not everyone will agree that cycling is the most efficient form of transportation. Or, that cyclists and motorists should share our public right-of-ways. But I was shocked to read a diatribe posted by David Smith from the Affordable Housing Institute.

Mr. Smith is obviously no fan of cycling. Which is too bad, because much of what he talks about when it comes to leveling the playing field for housing and infrastructure development should be equally applied to cycling both in the U.S. and elsewhere.

While I could probably dissect his diatribe against urban cycling and bikes line by line, I’ll try to focus on just a few points.

1. The loss of common space to bike lanes.

The idea that our world outside of homes and businesses is common space is nothing new, but like all common space, there are those who feel they have more rights than others. Mr. Smith not only believes that bicycles don’t belong in public spaces, he relegates them to the level of satellite dishes.

That bicycles are used exclusively in public spaces, not private ones, further marks them as urban infrastructure.  Like other forms of private infrastructure such as satellite dishes, they raise tricky questions of urban property rights, imposition on the public realm, and who pays for the externalities.”

Not only does Mr. Smith put bikes in the same realm as satellite dishes, he also seems to believe that the cyclists are out to take away the rights of other users of public space. Now I can only assume that he’s referring to all the space that drivers are losing to bicycle lanes, but I can’t help but think that he’ll be targeting pedestrians and how much public space that sideways are taking away from “other people’s public space” next.

Back in America, as is so often the case, we are much more willing to take away other people’s public space for bicycle lanes than to surrender our own private space.  (That’s a good illustration of political dynamics at work; taking someone else’s street benefits my constituency and costs me nothing.)  Personally, I think bicycle lanes a dubious bit of urban planning because they consume a common resource (street space) for a minority use (representing well less than 1% of all urban vehicular traffic).”

2. The value of parking spaces.

When Mr. Smith starts in on bicycle parking in residential buildings he tries to take a purely economic tact to his argument that bicycles are invading the public and private realm. By breaking down a building into three primary functions (Utility and structural core, Revenue producing space, and Non-revenue common areas) he attempts to show how bicycle parking falls in the the non-revenue category and is therefore wasteful for developers to consider including.

When designing structures, developers hate that third category of space, because it adds nothing to their pro-forma and yet is not justified by necessity.  It’s discretionary, hence questionable – and developers wrack their brains seeking either to minimize the physical non-revenue space or to maximize the revenue they get from it (e.g. by renting out the clubhouse or charging for storage).  Thus developers hate unfunded mandates like this one:

What strikes me as ironic is these very arguments were expressed nearly 100 years ago when the automobile started to become common place. Developers were faced with the very same challenges in meeting the demands of buyers and renters to provide new space for cars. One might argue that cars had a greater impact on taking away public space then bicycles ever will.

The public works of Robert Moses, in New York City and the Hudson Valley are prime examples of projects that took great swaths of public space and funding away from other users for the advancement of automobiles and automobile users. But possibly, Moses had a vision and understanding where our society was headed in the mid to late twentieth century, and may have ultimately shaped not only our past but present development strategies. And maybe contemporary planners have a similar vision and are designing the next form of urban landscape that will last for the next century.

In any case, there is little doubt in my mind that at some point there was a writer and thinker who expressed a similar dislike for automobiles, as Mr. Smith does for bicycles.

3. What makes a good cycling city.

Finally, Mr. Smith wraps his critique of cycling by attempting to make judgements on what makes a good cycling city. Of course, he ignores the obvious fact that most cities have been designed to exclude cyclists (and horses for that matter) for the past 80 years, but I’ll let him draw the noose around his own rantings.

“Not every city works as a bicycle town.  You need a temperate climate (bicycling in the snow sucks), a largely flat topography (you can bike in San Francisco but you’re an athlete to do it), a central city that lends itself to hundreds of short (under one mile) point-to-point natural transits, and a downtown that can readily exclude trucks and transport (which beat up city streets and disrupt traffic flow)..”

Whether bicycles should be part of future urban transport is a debatable proposition, since bicycles are an inflexible mode of transport (one person only), useful only to a small subset of the urban population (basically, healthy people between 20 and 60, traveling alone), with limited cargo-carrying capacity, and physically risky.  (At least two of my friends have been doored, painfully if not worse, while riding through the city, and I myself went head-over-handlebars one rainy weekday morning in Amsterdam forty years ago.) “

I know that my words have been harsh and I’m not very excited to put out such a critical post about another bloggers work. Especially, one that I admire so much for his work in housing. But cycling is important to me. I’ve ridden for leisure and commuting for nearly thirty years now. I love my bikes and love the freedom they have afforded me since childhood. And, maybe I am taking up public space by asking for equal access to the roads and streets that I have and will continue to pay for like everyone else with or without a car. I only hope that others like Mr. Smith eventually see that sharing our public space really isn’t an imposition. They may even realize that the lessons they learned in kindergarten about sharing and tolerance are the best lessons ever.

Best aye,


Living in a Greenhouse

I just read about a amazing looking project in Nantes, France called Habitat 44. Now I'm not sure if that's the name of the project, or the organization that sponsored and manages it, but I couldn't wait to make a brief post about it.

The project was designed by Tetrarc as a 39 unit social housing development focused on community gardens and shared living spaces. The building looks like a four story green house and appears to let an enormous amount of natural light into every space. Habitat 44 also include a mix of rental and home ownership opportunities for residents and is affordable for low and moderate income households.

The design team also organized the layout of most units around kitchen and bathrooms so that living spaces and bedrooms would be exposed the exterior views and natural lighting. Additionally, each unit has direct access to the community gardening spaces, which encourages more interactions among residents.

So check out Arch Daily's article about the project and links to Habitat 44's developers.

Best aye,


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Worst Idea in Housing 2011

Clay model of the Ekinoid base module.
I have seen and heard some truly bad ideas in housing development over the past 10+ years of my career. From self contained foam homes that can be constructed in minutes and given to homeless people, giant indoor cities where no one has to go outside, or homes built on stilts 15 feet high and wrapped in accessible ramps, I’ve seen more than my fair share of bad ideas.

Recently I learned about the Ekinoid project. As the creators put it, “Imagine self-assembling a sustainable, off-the-grid town for 10,000 people - in six months. And then doing that in 10,000 places previously considered marginal or uninhabitable land …”. Upon reading this my first thought was, Why?

The creators provide some doom and gloom statistics about population growth and unsustainable development patterns, which in many ways I agree with them. They also like to repeat statistics on regarding the weight of typical housing in Britain, without really letting us know why heavier houses are bad for the environment. They also appear to have some aversion to "onerous" mortgage agreements and payments, as if the benefits of freedom of leasing a home provided some greater return than the equity that homeowners can build. However, like most projects of this nature there are more assumptions than applications that are provided by the designers.

My favorite part of this “ideal” housing plan is that there is no consideration given to aesthetics or functionality.  Sure, the idea of a bubble house floating above the ground may appeal to a few people, but for all practical purposes, these homes on stilts have little in the way of attractive design features. More importantly, functionality for children, the elderly or persons with disabilities is completely ignored. While some of the designer's plans show spiral ramps that climb more than 30 feet in some cases, they ignore the basic functionality that modern home design provides.

Along with everything else, I must admit that the biggest complaint I have is the designer’s assumption that these will be both easy to assemble and low cost. Now I’ve written about my suspicions on other such projects that claim to be affordable and easy to assemble. And I will continue to call out projects and plans that I am skeptical about, but the Ekinoid project takes the cake, and is therefore my vote for the worst housing idea of 2011.


p.s. Apologies for taking a long hiatus from posting. I hope to be more diligent in the future.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Green Affordable Might Be Here

I just read about a new develop in California focused on providing green affordable and modular housing. The Tierra Del Sol development in Stockton, California includes the construction of 22 homes that are planned to be Net Zero Energy homes. The homes were designed and built by California base ZETA Communities, which specializes in modular construction and high energy efficiency. The developer Visionary Home Builders of California also has a relatively good track record of building both rental and home-ownership developments that target low and very-low income families.

Now I’m always very skeptical when I here about new developments that mix these three.
One reason is that after a bit of investigation I often find that the the term affordable is often thrown around when I don’t think it should be. I’ve seen one too many projects where affordability is only achieved through enormous amounts of subsidy financing.  In many of these cases, the true cost is hidden, or the concept of affordable is skewed. One recent example that I looked into had claimed that a $250,000 home would be affordable to low-income households. After further investigation I found out that not only was the term affordable misused (they were actually referring to households up to 140% of area median income), but the real cost of the homes also didn’t include a $350.00/month HOA fee.

But in this case, the Tierra Del Sol community appears to be on tract for both affordability and green features. The homes will be sold at the ridiculously low price of $160,000. At least that’s very-low priced for California and at 1,268 sq/ft these are not incredibly small homes either.  The homes are considered Net Zero Energy and should create little or no utility bills (at least electric bills) for the home owners.

Each home includes solar panels to supplement energy usage, but the greatest savings comes from the incredibly high level of insulation (up to R-50 in the roof) and weather sealing that’s being used. Indoor air quality is something that often suffers when builders try to get too air tight, but ZETA appears to have planned ahead and will be using natural (non-electric) air exchange systems that will keep indoor air fresh and clean.

The financing plan also includes up to $30,000 in down payment assistance to low-income families, so the eventual cost should be affordable to households at or below 80% of the area median income for Stockton. In fact, these prices would even be affordable here in Austin, which is by far a more affordable housing market than Stockton.

To say the least, I’m impressed with the information that I’ve found so far. I hope they can continue to replicate this model in California and elsewhere.