comment 0

Latest artist collaboration: Juanita Lee-Garcia x Slate Asset Management x Junction House

Today I’m excited to announce the latest artist collaboration at Junction House. (For a background on the others, click here.) Bogota-born, Toronto-based Juanita Lee-Garcia has created a series of hand-cut collage panels for the construction hoarding at Junction House (the background color is the project’s signature electric blue color).

In this installation, Lee-Garcia uses repetition and image repurposing to investigate the limits and the potential of decor in consumer culture. Her work uses simple gestures such as slicing, inserting, folding, and layering to build these new and abstract forms. They are intended to feel both fresh and unfamiliar, as well as comforting — perhaps because of some of their cultural associations.

We love these sorts of collaborations because we want every single one of our development projects to be more than just a new building. We want it to be a catalyst for positive city building change. So the next time you’re in the Junction, I would encourage you to stop by 2720 Dundas Street West and take in Juanita’s work. Limited edition prints of the panels are also available on her website.

comment 1

Canadian immigration rebounds

Population growth — so, immigration — is a crucial demand driver for the real estate industry, and for the growth of the overall Canadian economy. Last year, Canadian immigration averaged about 28,400 people per month, according to a recent equity research report (on the apartment sector) by TD Bank. The total number for 2019 was 341,175 people.

Not surprisingly, this number fell off in March of this year with the closing of our borders. In March, immigration declined to 18,560 per month and bottomed out in April with only 4,135 immigrants being admitted to the country. This has no doubt been a factor in some of the rent softening that we have seen in the multi-family space.

While it’s unlikely that Canada will meet its 2020 target of 320,000 to 370,000 new immigrants, it’s important to note that we have seen a fairly swift recovery (see above). In June of this year, the number rebounded to 19,175 new immigrants. And I’m certain that most of this cohort still went straight toward our biggest cities.

It’s also important to keep in mind that Canada’s three-year goal (2020-2022) remains 1 million new immigrants. TD is of the opinion that this target is still attainable, as this “short-term immigration headwind” is likely to flip into a tailwind once our borders become more porous and we get to the other side of this pandemic.

Looking back on this post from earlier in the week, I think it’s pretty safe to say that you could bucket this immigration blip into (1) short-term dislocation. It is not a (3) long-term structural change. Canada remains one of the greatest countries in the world. We will continue to attract smart and ambitious people from all around the world, and most will want to settle in our urban centers.

All of this, of course, will be good for the real estate industry and will be vital to the strength of the Canadian economy as a whole.

Chart: TD Securities

comment 1

Drive and listen

Who needs to travel when you have, this? This, is a site called Drive & Listen, which allows you to drive around cities — well, watch vides of people driving around cities — while listening to local radio stations. It’s oddly fascinating in an I-spend-hours-on-Google-street-view kind of way. (It’s okay if you do that too.) A colleague sent out the link this morning and I thought it was a pretty clever idea, particularly right now, when many/most of us are yearning to travel, but can’t. The first cities I visited were Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Lisbon, Berlin, and, of course, Toronto.

Photo by Sasha • Stories on Unsplash

comments 2

Everything has a cost

A new report was just published by Urbanation and the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario (FRPO) arguing that the Greater Toronto Area is undersupplying rental housing to the tune of about 20,000 units per year. This number considers both purpose-built rental housing and condominiums that are purchased by investors and later rented out. (Shane Dingman also covered the report in this recent Globe and Mail article.)

These findings probably won’t come as a surprise to a lot of you. It is pretty common for most big/growing cities to operate with a perpetual housing supply deficit. With all of the barriers to development, it’s often impossible to keep pace with demand. This naturally creates upward pressure on pricing. But the other factor that cannot be ignored is development costs. How much does it cost to actually deliver new supply?

Here’s an excerpt from the report that speaks to this consideration:

While the results of the infill development potential exercise are encouraging, the economics
of intensifying these sites may be too difficult for owners to ultimately move them forward in many cases even with a zero land cost, as achievable rents outside of Central Toronto are
often not high enough to offset development and operating costs.

It’s also something that we’ve talked about many times before on the blog. Even with free land, there are going to be countless sites and neighborhoods where it does not make economic sense to build anything new: development costs > potential revenues. And so to build, somebody is going to have to pay. Either the costs need to be subsidized or the revenues needs to be topped up somehow. Otherwise, supply = 0.

If you’re facing a deficit of 20,000 units per year, this seems like something you may want to consider. How might we increase supply? And how might we increase the supply of affordable housing? Many, including some of the folks interviewed in Shane’s Globe and Mail article, believe that inclusionary zoning is one such solution. Force new developments to deliver a certain percentage of affordable units (kind of like forcing restaurants to offer up 5-10% of their tables at a loss).

But again, I think it’s important to remember that whenever costs exceed revenues, somebody is going to have to pay for that shortfall, otherwise supply = 0. Something has to give, whether that be reduced costs, greater density, or higher rents on the remaining market rate units. I think part of the allure of inclusionary zoning is that it creates the allusion of a free lunch. But here’s the thing: everything has a cost.

comment 0

What is it that I believe?

Back in 2008, I was living in the United States. And at that time, during the financial crisis, I remember people positing that the US wouldn’t be able to build another commercial office building for at least the next twenty years. That’s how bad things felt. People were panicking. But of course, that never happened. Yes, it took some time for real estate values to recover and for people to deleverage, but ultimately things did recover. New buildings were built and new ideas flourished.

In fact, I’ll never forget what a close friend of mine said to me a few years after that moment in 2008. He said to me, “you know what Brandon, the crisis was probably one of the best things to happen to me. It meant that I couldn’t find a job and I was forced to start my own company. I probably wouldn’t have done that otherwise.”

Today, we’re living through a different kind of crisis with its own set of uncertainties. Some, or perhaps many, seem to think it could lead to the demise of cities, similar to how our last crisis was supposed to lead to the demise of new office buildings (at least for a period of time). It’s easy to get caught up in narratives and headlines at times like this. And there are always ways to convince ourselves that this time might be different. Sure, we’ve had pandemics before, but previous generations didn’t have the tech that we have, right? Perhaps.

The challenge is that we’re all trying to decode how much of what’s happening today is related to (1) short-term dislocation, (2) trends that were already happening and just got accelerated, or (3) durable and long-term structural changes. My own view is that the post-mortems will reveal more of (1) and (2), as opposed to (3). And that will mean that some of us have maybe been making long-term decisions (flee the city) based on short-term dislocation (a 1-2 year health crisis).

Of course, I could be wrong. But it’s what I believe and what I have conviction around.

Headlines are designed to target what Seth Godin and others refer to as our “lizard brain.” That being the primitive part of our brain that tells us when we’re, among other things, scared, hungry, fearful, and horny. What excites the lizard brain is not a headline saying that everything will probably be just fine. What excites the lizard brain is a headline saying that everything is utterly broken and a new paradigm is now upon us — pay attention or perish.

It’s for this reason that I think it can be helpful to pause and ask yourself: “What is it that I truly believe?”

comment 0

Knock knock — more on Opendoor

Packy McCormick’s latest “Not Boring” essay is up and it’s about Opendoor. It’s a good follow up to last week’s announcement.

Maybe that’s why housing is one of the last major categories that technology has left alone. Sure, companies have tried. Tons of them. The startup graveyard is filled with companies led by entrepreneurs who realized that the way we buy and sell homes sucks, but couldn’t ultimately figure out how to change it. They weren’t thinking big or long-term enough. The companies that have made the biggest impact, like Zillow and Redfin, make it easier to search for houses, but then kick buyers over to agents to go through the offline process, the same way it’s always been done. 

This is topic/problem that is near and dear to me because I spent a year of my life working on a startup that initially set out to solve this exact problem. But like countless others, we couldn’t figure out how exactly to change things. So we pivoted.

Has Opendoor finally cracked the code? I don’t know. But they’re on to something. It is, however, worth noting that the company was founded in 2013. And so what is happening today is already 7 years in the making — and probably longer if you consider the founder’s past startups.

Tough problems clearly require time. Money doesn’t hurt either.

comment 0

[Video] The Glenkerry House in East London

The Open House festival is on this week in London. It’s an annual festival that celebrates London’s urban landscape and it is something that has been going on for the past three decades. (Toronto has something similar called Doors Open.) But this year, as is the case for all of us, they had to get a little creative with online events and other kinds of programming. Below is a short video that was created as part of the Open House Films collection. It is about the brutalist Glenkerry House in East London. Its architecture (by Ernő Goldfinger). Its ideals. And the people who call it home. Looking for more short urbanism films similar to this one? Look here.

comment 0

Some of the cost drivers that impact new developments

Why do some buildings cost more to build than others? And how is it that some cities, as a whole, seem to build more cost effectively than others? Without getting into the specifics of how different markets work, I thought it would be valuable to outline some of the cost drivers that impact new developments. But keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list. So, please feel free to add whatever I’ve missed to the comment section below.

  • Below-grade parking is hugely expensive. It’s almost always a loss leader. You lose money building it. That’s why parking ratios matter a great deal. If you’re building in the suburbs at 1 to 1 parking vs. 0.2 in the core, you’re simply building more of something that doesn’t make money. There’s also the question of whether you need to build a watertight below-grade, or if you can discharge any groundwater into the municipal infrastructure. Big cost difference.
  • Union vs. non-union construction labor.
  • Building stepbacks add cost and create additional complexity. To build more cost effectively, you really want repetition. But terraces are awesome. I get it.
  • Impact fees, development levies, and other government fees can vary widely across cities. As I’ve mentioned many times before on the blog, these line items can add up to 20-24% of the price of a new condominium here Toronto.
  • Time is expensive. One of the bigger line items in a development pro forma is financing interest charges. The longer things take, the more expensive the housing needs to be.
  • Markets are unique. Quebec, for example, has relatively low electricity rates. For this reason, it’s pretty common for homes in Quebec to use electric heating, which is usually pretty cost effective to install. According to this 2019 study, 68% of Ontario households rely on natural gas heating. In Quebec, the number is only 5%.
  • Depending on what you’re building next to, you may face additional costs. For example, if you’re building right up against a rail line, you may need to construct a “crash wall” in order to safeguard against possible derailments and you’ll probably need to up the STC rating on your windows because of the higher noise levels. These costs will not be insignificant.
  • In theory, land costs are supposed to be the residual claimant in a development pro forma. What that means is that you should back into your land value after calculating your projected revenue and considering all of your other development costs. If your revenue is lower, so too should be your land cost. Land cost as a percentage of total costs will, naturally, vary across different markets.

Photo by EJ Yao on Unsplash

comment 0

Weekly link roundup — laneway housing to SPACs

Here’s a weekly round up of links and articles that you may find interesting. The topics cover the sorts of things that we usually talk about on this blog.

  • The latest Mackay Laneway House update is now live on the Globizen Journal. The ground floor steel is complete, with framing currently underway. The post has some background on the challenges faced in order to get to this stage.
  • Brick comparison. Here’s a recent tweet of mine. I’m curious if any of you can tell the difference between these two brick finishes and if you have a clear preference. One of them is stamped concrete and the other is real brick (precast concrete with brick slips).
  • Pools as art. Apparently this is a trend right now, but it’s not necessarily a new one. Pablo Picasso accidentally created one when he “signed” the bottom of one in Spain back in the early 1960s. A pool would be fun right now. [FT paywall]
  • Alley house in King’s Cross by architect David Adjaye is currently on the market for £6.5 million. Lots of black. I love the mint green room with the exposed concrete ceiling. Oh, and there’s a pool.
  • Nightclubs are, not surprisingly, really struggling. Most have been closed since March. Unlike restaurants, you can’t really hack together a solution with outdoor dining, heat lamps and takeout. They’re predicated on people being proximate to each other. [Sorry, another FT paywall]
  • SPACs are so hot right now, particularly in the world of Chamath Palihapitiya and Social Capital. A good follow-up to this week’s earlier post about $IPOB’s merger with real estate startup Opendoor.
  • Monocle has just published a new book about “gentle living.” It’s a guide to “slowing down, enjoying more and being happy.” I’m trying to do more of this, or at least be more mindful about it. It doesn’t always/usually work. Perhaps I need this book.
  • Decade of the home.” Opinion piece about the current desire for suburban over urban locations. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I am steadfast in my belief that urban life is going to prove to be incredibly resilient on the other side of this.
  • McKinsey report about the impact that lockdown is having on digital adoption, e-commerce penetration, and the overall customer experience. You’ll need to enter some information in order to download the PDF, but it’s free.

Photo: Lost House by Adjaye Associates via The Modern House

comment 0

Percentage of US mortgages in forbearance

This recent WSJ article, which is largely about single-family home landlords in the United States, has some interesting charts about mortgaged homes. The following chart shows the percentage of US homes that are worth less than their debt (i.e. they’re underwater). Following the financial crisis, the figure was about a quarter of all mortgaged US homes, and it stayed that way until almost 2012. This percentage surprised me.

The other chart that I’d like to share today shows the percentage of US mortgages in forbearance (i.e. people deferring payments). Not surprisingly, the percentage really increased in April, peaked in early summer, and has since started to seemingly decline. I say seemingly because who knows what this fall/winter will bring. As of September 6, the number was about 3.5 million home loans (or about 7.01%).

The point of the WSJ article is that there are a segment of people who are house-rich, but cash-poor. They have equity that they have built up, but maybe not a lot of cash to weather a storm. That could force some to sell. And it could be a boon for the rental-home landlords, who have been, in many cases, betting on the the suburban rental market since the last recession.