Could the success of Columbia, Maryland be replicated elsewhere?

Columbia, Maryland is often held up as an unusually successful suburb:

But as Columbia marks the 50th anniversary since the first residents moved in, it has become clear that Rouse got some important things right. As progressive urban planners have turned their attention to the suburbs, they’ve striven to achieve a lot of the same things Columbia already has. The unincorporated town of 100,000 is prosperous and more varied racially and economically than many revitalized urban neighborhoods in cities like New York, Washington and San Francisco, which have become islands of extreme wealth. It turns out that stable, diverse, flourishing communities can exist without short city blocks, warehouses-turned-lofts and beer gardens — and Columbia is the proof…

The “Columbia concept” was innovative in a number of other ways. Instead of having churches or temples, religious denominations shared interfaith centers. (Rouse thought each denomination getting its own plot was a waste of land.) There was even a community health plan that was an early version of an HMO. To maintain open spaces and public facilities, Rouse established the Columbia Association, a nonprofit whose board is elected by residents. The association acts as a quasi-government for the unincorporated town, with hundreds of employees paid through resident dues.

The town was organized but diffuse. Six loosely formed villages, each with a small shopping center and high school, were arranged around the Town Center, whose nucleus was the mall. The village centers catered to residents’ everyday needs, with grocery stores, barber shops, dry cleaners and recreation facilities. Tall signs were forbidden, and power lines were buried to preserve the land’s bucolic appearance. Apartments and townhouses, which were uncommon in suburbs at the time, drew singles, young couples and people with lower incomes than their neighbors in the split-levels and ramblers, a conscious attempt to foster what Rouse and his team called “social mix.” And Columbia was not simply a bedroom community: Rouse Co. executives wooed employers such as General Electric to open offices there.

Not everything worked out perfectly: At one point, Rouse thought he could get corporate executives to move to Columbia alongside their workers, but they largely didn’t. And some of the experiments, such as a minibus system, pilot day-care centers and a women’s center, didn’t pan out. Rouse also fell short of his goal of 10 percent subsidized housing. Still, by 2011, Columbia, flaws and all, had managed to surge past another target of his: a population of 100,000.

Aside from the things cited above, two things stand out to me from this article:

  1. Few developers or builders get an opportunity to plan an entire community. This requires a lot of effort: acquiring land, obtaining permission from local governments, and then seeing a long process through. Instead, much of suburbia is constructed in patches with a developer building a subdivision here while another builds an office park there.
  2. Much of the story of Columbia rests on the shoulders of the developer: James Rouse. Here, he is credited with forward-thinking ideas. He anticipated what might help suburban communities thrive rather than just focusing on profits. (However, I’m guessing he still made a good deal of money.) As noted above, not all of his ideas worked out but many of the key features were his.

On the whole, would it be worthwhile to take these two lessons and apply them to future suburbs? What might happen if developers were given (1) thousands of acres to work with in order to create a full community and (2) the developer had the ability to craft and put into practice a particular vision?

I would venture that some of these master-planned communities would be successful while others might not. Indeed, some of the success might be out of control of the developer and local residents. For example, if the template for Columbia was transported to the Houston region in the 1960s, would it be so successful? Or, if it was plopped into the Bay Area today? Not necessarily given changing regional forces, different demographics, and varied reactions from local officials.

It is interesting to think about how the public narratives regarding urban planning in the last century or so often involve powerful people: Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, the Levitt family, James Rouse. These narratives are either triumphs or disasters depending on how much influence the person wielded (and how they used it) and how their projects operate decades later. Would a structural view of these individuals as well as urban planning as a whole help us better understand how to contribute to thriving communities?

What is the punishment for building a 30,000 square foot home without permission?

A developer in Los Angeles is facing some consequences for building a large home:

Hadid and the city attorney’s office met in private Thursday morning, after which Hadid’s attorneys said their client is close to a guilty plea for violating the city building code by building a 30,000-square-foot spec home at 901 Strada Vecchia, the Courier reported.

The real estate mogul — best known from appearances on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and as the father of supermodel Gigi Hadid — will still face a mix of public service and fines, as well as a potential ban from building in L.A., according to the Courier.

Hadid’s attorneys argue that if sentencing could be delayed, he could bring the property into compliance so any potential criminal conviction would be erased…

The real estate mogul was charged in late 2015 with building a spec mansion without a permit, illegally using land, and failing to comply with orders from the L.A. Department of Building and Safety to halt construction. Angry neighbors called the project “starship enterprise.”

I’m not sure what you would do to someone who constructs such a home. Jail them?

I know the burden is on the owner here but I wonder why the city didn’t step in at some point during the process. Most locales have people checking permits and codes along the way. And if the home was so large and attracting the attention of neighbors, why wasn’t this stopped?

Finally, the headline for this story calls this home a McMansion. The architecture may lend itself to this; the included picture suggests the exterior is designed to impress and the neighbors certainly had an interesting moniker for the home. Yet, it is a home with 30,000 square feet. It would be one thing to quickly construct a 3,000 square foot home but 30,000 square feet is on a whole level up.

NAR economist: “major housing shortage” in the US

The chief economist for the National Association of Realtors suggests there is a major housing shortage:

“A major housing shortage exists in this country,” Yun said in a statement. “It is therefore disappointing to witness in March the continued lackluster performance in new-home building, which was the second lowest activity over the past six months. Home prices have risen by 41 percent and rents have climbed 17 percent over the past five years at a time when the typical worker wage has grown by only 11 percent. To relieve housing costs, there simply needs to be more homes built.”

My first thought on this reading this: builders and developers are still skittish from the 2000s housing bubble. Instead of risking overextending themselves, compared to the past they are now focusing on more expensive homes or rental properties. Oddly though, I have seen little media coverage regarding builders and developers. They may be a secretive bunch generally but why isn’t there more scrutiny of their actions and motivations?

My second thought: if there is indeed a housing shortage, what does this say about the state of the economy? A booming construction sector is often related to a good economy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way in the future, particularly if there is a shift away from sprawl and homeownership of detached single-family homes, even if it was true in the post-World War II era.

Finally, who might be held responsible if there is indeed a housing shortage? It is hard to rally potential homebuyers into a cohesive group. Is there a way to prod politicians and business leaders to act and if so, could their actions even effect much change?

More unusual conversions of buildings to housing in Chicago

Here are a few examples in Chicago of converting solid older structures into residences:

Developers have never shied away from turning the remnants of Chicago’s past into residences—see the omnipresent warehouse-turned-loft projects across the city. Conversion treatments are now being found where they are less expected: A former Jewish orphanage in Wicker Park is now a single-family home. The old Sears store on Lawrence Avenue in Lincoln Square? It’s likely to become a 40-unit apartment building. Most impressively, a landmarked church at 2900 West Shakespeare Avenue in Logan Square reemerged in November as a 10-unit condo building. Other similar projects are in the works.

The reason for repurposing instead of demolishing is simple: The quality of old construction often surpasses that of today’s standards. “Most of the brick structures that were built in the postfire era used high-quality materials such as Chicago brick,” says Greg Whelan, a Redfin real estate agent. “Intrinsically, these buildings have high value because they don’t make that brick anymore.” Plus, existing structures bypass height restrictions dictated by modern zoning laws and solve the issue of the lack of vacant land in the most desirable neighborhoods.

These projects fix problems for developers. And the quirks of unconventional buildings appeal to homeowners. In the former church, bell towers allow ceilings, supported by original steel trusses, to soar as high as 30 feet. Slate from the old roof was repurposed as tile in the lobby. (There are plenty of modern features, too, including floating vanities the bathrooms and quartz countertops in the kitchens.) The exterior looks much like it did when the church was built in 1908, with dramatic arched Gothic windows and regal stone detailing around newly built balconies. Three of the 10 units were still available at presstime for between $480,000 and $650,000.

Presumably there are some limits to which older buildings get converted. Although this article doesn’t mention it, I assume a big factor is money: will the conversion provide a sufficient return on investment for the developer? Also, cities won’t necessarily allow anything to be converted to residences. It likely helps if the structure is already in a residential location (common for churches) and is a building that the neighbors like (as opposed to an eyesore or mismatch that even a conversion can’t fix).

I’m still intrigued by the conversion of religious buildings into residences. The architecture of such buildings is often conducive to groups (which would be limited when converted into multiple units) and intended to provide a physica connection with the spiritual realm. How exactly does this architecture fit the tastes of homeowners? Can you easily reduce the spiritual architecture to its component pieces like large windows and high ceilings? See an earlier post about converting Chicago churches into residences.

Do teardown McMansions pit developers against residents?

An op-ed suggests there are two sides in debates over teardowns:

Can we please focus on what neighborhood residents want and not what developers want?

Two quick thoughts on this simplistic breakdown:

  1. It is very easy to make this claim because it suggests there are money-hungry outsiders – developers – and then average residents who don’t have the same resources. However, this is not always the case: what if the home or property was sold to the developer by a resident? Or, a new buyer wants to live in the neighborhood and wants to construct a larger home? There are plenty of cases where teardowns pit neighbors against neighbors and this gets a lot more complicated than just having an evil outsider at work.
  2. Should neighborhood residents always have complete control over what happens near them? Having input into a process is different than being able to control the process. A lot of residents might want to freeze their neighborhoods in time when they purchase their home. After all, the liked the neighborhood the way it was. However, few neighborhoods undergo no changes and urban neighborhoods can undergo significant changes over the decades.

While this op-ed is based on a particular case in Raleigh, all together, the developers-who-want-McMansions vs. residents may be true some of the time but many teardown McMansion situations are different.

Illegal wealth funneled through luxury urban housing?

The higher end of the real estate market is booming in many American cities but it may involve tainted money:

It is the first time the federal government has required real estate companies to disclose names behind cash transactions, and it is likely to send shudders through the real estate industry, which has benefited enormously in recent years from a building boom increasingly dependent on wealthy, secretive buyers.

The initiative is part of a broader federal effort to increase the focus on money laundering in real estate. Treasury and federal law enforcement officials said they were putting greater resources into investigating luxury real estate sales that involve shell companies like limited liability companies, often known as L.L.C.s; partnerships; and other entities…

Officials said the new government efforts were inspired in part by a series last year in The New York Times that examined the rising use of shell companies as foreign buyers increasingly sought safe havens for their money in the United States. The investigation found that real estate professionals, especially in the luxury market, often do not know much about buyers. Until now, none of them have been legally required to.

The use of shell companies in real estate is legal, and L.L.C.s have a range of uses unrelated to secrecy. But a top Treasury official, Jennifer Shasky Calvery, said her agency had seen instances in which multimillion-dollar homes were being used as safe deposit boxes for ill-gotten gains, in transactions made more opaque by the use of anonymous shell companies.

It would be fascinating to hear what local officials, developers, and real estate professionals have to say about this in private. I imagine few would be willing to appear to publicly condone illegal uses of money, yet such a move could threaten status and profits. If there are indeed numerous cases of this, does this taint particular developments or cities? Or is the wave of luxury building simply too strong (and advantageous) to be derailed by a few negative instances?

Calculator suggests developers can profit and build affordable housing

The Inclusionary Calculator suggests developers can typically make 10% profits and build 12-15% affordable housing at the same time:

It can feel like a mantra among private developers: Requirements by municipal governments to include affordable units in market-rate housing developments make those developments unprofitable, even unfeasible. It may be one of the most frequently repeated claims about housing in general. Can it possibly be right?

The Inclusionary Calculator is an effort to settle this question—and to prove that one major assumption about affordable housing is a myth. Developed by the Cornerstone Partnership, the tool allows users to simulate the balance sheets for market-rate developments for any number of scenarios. It accounts for factors such as costs of production, financing, affordability set-asides, and parking requirements…

“In almost every case, we could target a 10 percent profit for the developer and still leave at least 12 to 15 percent of the units to be affordable,” McCarthy says…

So, not only does inclusionary zoning not raise the costs of market-rate construction beyond reason, it also does not raise the price of market-rate units for homeowners. It eats away at developer profits. That makes affordable housing a moral question, not a feasibility issue: Do leaders dare to challenge developers on their profit margins?

The Inclusionary Calculator is available here after watching a training video and registering.

This poses a fascinating question in the housing industry (as well as for other sectors of the American economy): just how much profit is enough? Very few people outside the housing industry would have any idea how much money developers and others make on the construction and sale of housing units. Perhaps the process is deliberately opaque or perhaps it is simply complicated. But, I wonder how the public in many communities would respond if they knew that 10% profits were generally possible while also providing affordable housing.

Of course, this is just one hurdle in the construction of affordable housing. Not allowing developers to claim that they can’t make money would help the process but in many communities, neighbors would still complain. A NIMBY response often takes over; who lives in affordable housing? What does this signal to outsiders? Won’t this lower our property values?