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How Sydneysiders got to work in 2021

I’m not sure how much you can actually glean from this Australian Bureau of Statistics data (taken from this recent New Geography article):

The data was collected on August 20, 2021 and, at that time, there were still a number of pandemic lockdowns in place. But consider the fact that during the last census (2016), Sydney’s “work @ home” share was only 4.9% and that its transit share was 26.2%.

Where Sydney is sitting today is obviously somewhere between where it was in 2016 and where it was in 2021. Who knows where exactly things stabilize — that is largely unknowable — but at least I got to use “Sydneysider” in a blog post title.

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How to properly complain about development charges

In the wake of Bill 23, there has been a lot of discussion and concern around development charges and parkland dedication revenues. At a high level, the concern is that the proposed changes will reduce the amount of money that cities are able to collect from developers, and that this will exacerbate any existing funding shortfalls and possibly force municipalities to do things like raise property taxes. In the case of Toronto, the estimated figure is about $230 million of lost revenue per year.

For all intents and purposes, this is objectively true. Bill 23 includes changes that will reduce the amount of revenue that cities are able to collect when new stuff is being built. Here is one such example:

New sections 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 provide, respectively, for exemptions from development charges for the creation of affordable residential units and attainable residential units, for non-profit housing developments and for inclusionary zoning residential units.

This makes for great headline fodder: “Bill 23 is bad, it is going to reduce city revenues by $X million, your property taxes may need to go up, so you should be deeply upset about this.” Hmm. We should talk about this. I’m not going to suggest that Bill 23 is entirely perfect. But I do think it is important to consider two important facts when it comes to things like development charges.

Firstly, the above exemption (to use just one example) is specifically related to affordable and attainable housing. It is not a reduction in DCs for the sake of reducing DCs. It is an attempt to recognize that we need more affordable/attainable housing and so maybe we should do things that make it easier and less costly to build it. And this brings me back to a point that I frequently make on this blog, which is that we can talk all we want about the need for more affordable housing, but at the end of the day it comes back to this: Who is going to pay for it? There is no such thing as a free lunch.

The common rebuttal to exemptions like this is that developers will always profit maximize and price their housing at the most the market will bear. In other words, there is no evidence that developers will pass on any cost savings to the end consumer. But this is not entirely true. For developers, pricing a project is typically a cost-plus exercise: how much is this going to cost to build and what do I need in revenue in order to hit my required returns?

When costs go down, it reduces what you need to make a project feasible. This in turn reduces developer risk, because there is always a very real question of absorption. The more you push pricing, the more you slow market absorption. So you might actually be better off selling for less, more quickly. An example of this line of thinking is when condominium developers choose to sell 100% of their inventory upfront as opposed to holding some back with the expectation that prices will increase in the future. Doing this means that you value certainty over profit maximization.

Secondly, this is what development charges are for (taken from the City of Toronto):

Development charges are fees collected from developers at the time a building permit to help pay for the cost of infrastructure required to provide municipal services to new development, such as roads, transit, water and sewer infrastructure, community centres and fire and police facilities.

Put differently, development charges are based on the idea that growth should pay for growth. When you build something new you create additional servicing demands, and so developers should pay for whatever incremental needs their projects are creating. This is, of course, fair. However, it is not the intent that growth pays for existing services. i.e. Ones that would be required regardless of whether there was the presence of development.

So in theory, if new development were to shut off entirely and if development charge revenue were to go to $0, there shouldn’t be any issues funding the existing services. And in theory, nobody should be complaining about this lost revenue, because there is actually no need for this additional revenue. There is no growth to fund and all existing services are being adequately funded by the residents who are already there and using them.

Of course, not all city services are self sustaining. Public transit, for instance, typically requires subsidies. Ridership fares aren’t enough to pay for operations, and this shortfall got understandably a lot worse during the pandemic. But is this a growth-related problem or is it an existing-resident problem? I mean, technically the problem is not enough riders. So isn’t that kind of the opposite of growth related? More people would be a benefit right now.

In any event, the point I am raising today is that there is a right way and a wrong way to complain about lost development charge revenue. The wrong way is thinking, “ah, this lost revenue is going to impact my quality of life and the existing city services that I enjoy. I may have to pay higher property taxes.” The relevant points for this particular discussion should not be that there’s an operating budget shortfall or that existing taxpayers maybe can’t afford to pay.

The more valid way to complain would be to say, “hey, these reduced development charges are going to make it difficult to fund the growth-related upgrades needed to support new and more housing in my community. And we need more housing!” Because if the concern is not actually this second one, then the headlines are a great big red herring. We have a larger financial problem on our hands that we are not speaking about.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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Learning from Kyoto’s machiya

Japan has a building typology known as machiya. They are found throughout Japan, but my understanding is that they are most closely associated with downtown Kyoto. The typical machiya consists of a long wooden home with a narrow street frontage, and at least one interior courtyard garden.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of these townhouses is that, for the centuries that they have existed, they have always been mixed-used. The front of the building traditionally served as a kind of “shop space”, and the private residential spaces were tucked behind it (though this line between public and private was fairly fluid).

And so for hundreds of years, the humble machiya became a flexible building typology that allowed shops, restaurants, and various other small businesses to flourish. This has changed over the years. People went off to work in offices and Western ideals around housing started to infiltrate Japan, among other reasons. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t important lessons to be learned from Kyoto’s machiya.

Here in Toronto, we remain deeply terrified of things like triplexes creeping into our single-family neighborhoods and we remain reticent to allow non-residential uses outside of their designated areas. Old habits die hard.

But take a walk, cycle, or drive across one of our non-Avenue-designated arterial roads (which I did yesterday), and it’s hard not to imagine something much better. My mind immediately goes to an improved streetscape with (1) less on-street parking, (2) a lot more homes (as-of-right), and (3) flexible ground floor permissions that allow for crazy things like a “shop space”.

And then, what kind of city might we have if we had fewer barriers in the way of infill housing and if we allowed for low-cost spaces that could flex up and down based on the needs of small entrepreneurs? I’m pretty sure it would be a better one. And of course, it’s been done before.

Photo by Akira Deng on Unsplash

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Writing into an abyss

Sometimes I stop and think to myself, “my god, I’ve been writing my daily blog for over 9 years. That’s a huge commitment. Should I stop? Is it really worth it?”

But of course I do think it is worth it, mostly because I enjoy writing, I enjoy thinking about things, and I enjoy connecting with people through this blog. I don’t want to stop. It’s perhaps also important for me to keep in mind that 9 years maybe isn’t all that long.

I read this FT article today about investor Howard Marks. Marks is co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management, a person with billions of dollars, and the author of a popular investing memo (200,000+ subscribers) that I generally never miss. And after reading about his backstory, I now feel very much like a blogging baby:

He began writing the memos in 1990, initially sending them by post to Oaktree’s 50 or so clients. For the first 10 years, “I never had one response,” he says. And then, on January 2 2000, Marks distributed a memo called “bubble.com”, in which he made the “overwhelming” case for “an overheated, speculative market in technology, internet and telecommunications stocks”, similar to past manias such as the 18th-century South Sea Bubble. The memo “had two virtues”, says Marks. “It was right and it was right quickly.” The technology-heavy Nasdaq index slumped four-fifths from peak to trough between March 2000 and October 2002. “After 10 years, I became an overnight success.”

I have no particular end goal in mind for this blog. I have no need to become an overnight success. My plan is to just continue writing as an adjunct to all of the other things I do. However, I am attracted to the value of discipline, compounding consistency, and long-term thinking.

It’s not easy doing something for a decade and having nobody respond. At least with this blog, I get the occasional heckler telling me that I’m a greedy developer out to destroy our cities.

P.S.: If you’re into longish memos about investing, I would encourage you to check out Marks’ latest memo about what really matters. In it, he talks about why short-term events — such as, interest rates might do this — are by far the least important thing to focus on.

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The effect of new market-rate housing construction on the low-income housing market

Here is an interesting working paper that assesses the effect of new market-rate housing construction on the low-income housing market:

Increasing supply is frequently proposed as a solution to rising housing costs. However, there is little evidence on how new market-rate construction—which is typically expensive—affects the market for lower quality housing in the short run. I begin by using address history data to identify 52,000 residents of new multifamily buildings in large cities, their previous address, the current residents of those addresses, and so on. This sequence quickly adds lower-income neighborhoods, suggesting that strong migratory connections link the low-income market to new construction. Next, I combine the address histories with a simulation model to estimate that building 100 new market-rate units leads 45-70 and 17-39 people to move out of below-median and bottom-quintile income tracts, respectively, with almost all of the effect occurring within five years. This suggests that new construction reduces demand and loosens the housing market in low and middle-income areas, even in the short run.

This paper is not suggesting that everything will be fine so long as you build lots of new and expensive market-rate housing. But it is suggesting that a “filtering” of housing downward does oftentimes take place.

When you build new supply, you tend to free up some existing supply, and that generally has the opposite effect of what we recently spoke about here, which is an instance of housing filtering upward.

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Opendoor wants to be a transaction layer for homes

We have spoken a lot over the years about Opendoor. And for a period of time, iBuying seemed like a very good idea. Zillow go into it. Redfin got into it. Everybody was iBuying. But then this year everybody started losing money, mostly due to algorithms that could not contend with falling prices.

It turns out that being a market maker for homes can be a tough business because there is a lag between when you buy the home and when you hope to sell it. And so right now, few people want to be an iBuyer. Zillow no longer does it. Redfin no longer does it. And Opendoor’s stock is, at the time of writing this post, down 87.19% YTD.

It is pretty easy to be pessimistic on this space, and that pessimism may be warranted. Though it may not be. My thinking has always been as follows. The process of buying and selling a home will eventually move online. The industry is ripe for change and there is no debating that. The real question is: how the hell do you do it? Everybody, including me in my late 20s, has tried.

Two-sided marketplaces are tricky, because you always run into a chicken-and-egg problem. If you don’t have buyers, no seller is going to bother with your real estate marketplace. And if you don’t have sellers (i.e. homes), no buyer is going to bother with your real estate marketplace. So generally speaking, the way to build a marketplace is to start with one side, somehow get them on and using the platform, and then open it up to the other side.

And this is exactly what iBuying hopes to do. Today it is largely a tool for sellers. It is a tool that says, “I will give you instant liquidity for your home so you don’t have to worry or care about who might actually buy it.” This is, of course, convenient for sellers, which is why people have been using it; but it is capital intensive and, as we have seen this year, it transfers some risk to the iBuyer.

In the world of Opendoor, they call this a first-party (1P) transaction. It is them buying directly from sellers. But the larger vision is for Opendoor to become more of a transaction layer and instead just facilitate third-party (3P) transactions. This is currently being done through Opendoor Exclusives and the objective here is to match buyers and sellers directly, so that Opendoor can avoid taking on the risk of actually owning homes for a period of time.

Will this work? I don’t really know. But I do think it is exciting and I do think it is the way to think about what Opendoor is ultimately trying to do with their business.

Reminder: I am long $OPEN

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Mid-rise development land is more expensive

As is the case every quarter, Bullpen Research & Consulting and Batory Management have just published their latest Greater Toronto Area land insights report (for Q3-2022). The average price per buildable square foot (pbsf) in this report remains the same as in Q2 at $95.

But once again, it’s important to keep in mind that this represents a fairly small sample size (34 land sales in the quarter versus 46 in Q2); that the range in land pricing can be significant across the GTA (here it is $24-274 pbsf); and that there can sometimes be a lag between a deal being struck and actual closing. Here is the summary data:

Another interesting data point from the report is land price compared to building height. The average price for high-rise development land was $88 pbsf, and the average price for mid-rise development land (5-15 storeys) was $131 pbsf.

This once again speaks to the cost differential between high-rise and mid-rise housing. The mid-rise scale is certainly a desirable form of infill, but it is also a more expensive form of housing.

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Bright Moments should come to Toronto

I love what Bright Moments is doing. And Fred Wilson’s post this morning — about their latest event in Mexico City — reminded me of that.

Bright Moments describes themselves as “an NFT art collective on a mission to create environments where artists and collectors witness the birth of generative art together.”

What this means is that they are working to move the experience of NFT art away from individual computer screens toward physical events where the art can be consumed and also created (i.e. minted) in a group setting.

For a taste of what this actually means, check out their website and then hang out for a bit with their homepage video.

So far they have hosted an event in the following 5 cities: Venice Beach (okay, actually a neighborhood), New York, Berlin, London, and Mexico City. And at each stop on their tour of what will be 10 places, they have done an in-person minting of their official collection, called CryptoCitizens.

I haven’t been to one of them, but I can see how it would be a lot of fun and how it might change your perception of NFTs. So I am hoping that for one of their last 4 stops (the first stop was in the “Galaxy”), they’ll come to Toronto. Ethereum was pretty much created in this city, so I think it only makes sense for there to be Toronto CryptoCitizens.

If you too would like to see this happen, make sure you tweet at Bright Moments and tell them that they should come to the greatest city in the world.

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What gentrification looks like

One criticism that you will sometimes hear about development is that the construction of new housing can spur gentrification. The thinking, I think, is that when you create new market-rate housing, richer people will then move in and the area will begin (or continue) its ascent upwards.

If on the other hand, one were to just stop developing new housing, then the neighborhood would remain stable and static and the fear of gentrification would simply go away. But the flaw in this line of thinking is that it assumes no infill development equals some sort of urban homeostasis.

Cities are constantly changing. The reality is that what we are talking about, particularly in the case of low-rise single-family areas, is that we want the physical character of neighborhoods to remain more or less the same. But what happens on the inside is whatever.

Here’s an example:

What you are seeing here are 4 electricity meters, meaning that at some point this structure housed 4 separate homes. But 3 of the 4 meters have now been removed, which presumably means that this structure has been converted (probably back) to a single-family home. So this is 4 homes being reduced to 1.

I don’t know what this place looks like on the outside, but I’m going to guess that not much has changed in terms of its physical character. It probably looks about the same. But this is still gentrification; it is still an example of a neighborhood moving upmarket.

The irony is that we tend to be generally okay with this change. We are okay with reducing the number of homes in a neighborhood so long as it happens in a largely inconspicuous and convenient way. But what we are (sometimes) not okay with is increasing the number of homes in a neighborhood. Apparently that creates too much pressure on the existing housing stock.

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The next hot thing

When I was in grad school at Penn I was active in two clubs: the real estate club and some tech/entrepreneurship club (I can’t remember the exact name). These were two areas that I was interested in and so I wanted to hang out with people who were also interested in these things and I wanted to hear from experienced people who were active in these fields.

At that time, which was before the Great Recession, the real estate club was bigger and more active than the tech club. I think it was something like 3 to 1. But I remember one of my professors telling me that participation across the various clubs generally ebbs and flows. Before the dot-com bubble, the tech club was where you wanted to be. But that asset bubble had burst, and so people had moved onto real estate, which, at that time, was in the midst of creating its own asset bubble.

What we students were effectively doing — by way of deciding where to spend our time — was chasing the next hot thing. They were chasing where they thought they’d be able to make the most money coming out of school. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. The pursuit of profit is fundamental to capitalism. But at the same time, I think it’s crucially important to have some conviction.

Right now we are going through another cycle. Real estate was hot last year and it is not right now. Tech was hot last year and it is not right now. NFTs were hot last year and they are not right now. The list goes on. But if you like these things and if you have some conviction, is it really the time to move onto the next club? You may find the opposite to be true. Now is actually the time to ramp up participation.