New Zealand has been in the news lately for sweeping housing legislation that effectively abolishes single-family zoning throughout most of Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, and Christchurch.
But before I get into how this will all work, here’s a bit of background from an article that Matt Gurney wrote talking about Toronto’s inability to build affordable housing and create safe streets:
Now it’s time to segue back to the New Zealand thing, and there’s no particularly graceful way to do it, so I’ll just be blunt and inelegant: the federal government in New Zealand intervened on local housing rules because there was a crisis that local leaders were unable or unwilling to address. New Zealand has severe housing-affordability challenges (though Canada seems determined to close the gap). This has been a problem in New Zealand for years, and not enough was done, so the federal government stepped in… The government expects this to immediately spur construction of new housing units.
It is no doubt a top down approach. But we all know how difficult it is to build anything at all when you start from the other end.
So the way this new legislation will work is that it forces local councils to allow landowners to build up to 3 homes and 3 storeys on most lots. This is instead of 1 home per lot. The maximum site coverage has also been increased to 50%. And all of this will be available on an as-of-right basis, so no special permissions or variances needed.
The pitch is that this will unlock as many as 105,000 new homes in already built-up areas. This is, of course, a good thing for a whole host of reasons. It uses land and infrastructure more efficiently, it makes public transit more viable, and it increases housing supply in a highly constrained market.
I suspect that we will be seeing a lot more of this in the coming years.
Paris just announced plans to become a “100% cycling city.” A follow-up to plan vélo 2015-2020, which saw a doubling of the city’s bike lanes, plan vélo 2021-2026 includes 130 km of new bike lanes and 52 km of pandemic bike lanes that will now be made permanent.
In addition to cycling lanes, the plans include new bike parking, new transit integrations, and a bunch of other things that are meant to strengthen the overall ecosystem in the city. The total budget for this second plan is about €100 million, which will bring the total cycling investment over the last 10-11 years to about €250 million. This is a serious commitment to cycling.
It’s also a good example of one of the things that we have been talking about on this blog. This pandemic forced us to rethink how we allocate urban space — everything from outdoor restaurant patios to bike lanes. And as we can see here, many of the positive changes are not surprisingly starting to stick.
Most of us have felt the effects of supply chain disruption during this pandemic. When we were building Mackay Laneway House this past winter, it was right when lumber prices were peaking. We had no choice but to just absorb the cost premiums and move forward with the job. On bigger projects with longer construction schedules, I know that a lot of us are trying to time what they can with the expectation that things will eventually sort themselves out.
When things are working as they should, this is the sort of thing that you can take for granted. But now you really need to consider lead times and cost premiums. I was reading this morning that the average number of wait days from anchorage to berth in a port in Los Angeles is now 13 days. What that means is that vessels are sitting out in the water, on average, for almost 2 weeks waiting a spot. This costs money.
As of last week, this translated into 79 container ships sitting in front of Los Angeles and Long Beach waiting to berth (see above chart). If you do the math, which Freight Waves tried to do over here, you get to a value of somewhere around $26 billion worth of stuff sitting out in the water. As I understand it, a big part of the problem is a lack of trucks and drivers to pick up the cargo once these ships have berthed. So you can run the ports 24/7, but you still have a bottleneck.
Logistics clearly matter.
Chart: American Shipper with data from Marine Exchange of Southern California, via Freight Waves
It upsets me when I read things like this (click here if you can’t see the embedded tweet above). I think it creates a false sense of a free lunch and ignores all of the nuances and complexities associated with inclusionary zoning.
IZ is an obligation to provide a certain number of affordable units in new housing developments. There’s a lot of detail and debate around where this should apply, how much needs to be provided, and at what degree of affordability.
But at the end of the day, it’s important to keep in mind that at meaningful levels of affordability, these IZ homes are going to be built at steep losses. More info on the economic impacts of IZ can be found here.
The simple math is that the costs to build these homes are going to be greater than the revenues that they bring in. Which is why developers aren’t out building affordable housing everywhere. There’s no margin.
In order to build, somebody or something needs to provide a subsidy so that this revenue-expense shortfall can be made up. How this works its way through the market is where I have tried to focus the discussion when writing about IZ. There are complexities. Some lessons from Portland, here.
But to just assume that these costs will get magically absorbed by housing developers, with no other knock-on effects or distortions to the market, is incorrect.
Urbanation released its Q3-2021 rental report for the Greater Toronto Area at the beginning of this week. The vacancy rate in purpose-built rental buildings fell to 3.0%. This is down from 5.1% in Q2-2021 and 6.4% in Q1-2021. For the former City of Toronto (the city pre-amalgamation), vacancy rates declined to 3.8% in Q3-2021, down from 9% in Q1-2021. So people are renting apartments.
At the same time, rents are growing. The average rent for newer purpose-built rentals was $2,389 per month or $3.30 per square foot at the end of last quarter. This is up 3.8% from Q2. But what is also interesting to see is how quickly the core / downtown is snapping back. Looking at condominium rentals, the former City of Toronto had the lowest leases-to-listings ratio at the start of the pandemic in Q2-2020. But in Q3 of this year, its ratio was the highest. See below.
Average rents have also spiked for condo rentals in the core, posting an 11.4% quarter-over-quarter increase and a 6.2% year-over-year increase. The average rent is now sitting at $2,405 per month or $3.62 psf. See above. Remember when everyone thought that cities were dead and nobody was ever going to live in a downtown apartment ever again? Yeah, that was funny.
This past weekend Bright Moments opened up their NFT art gallery in New York’s Soho. This is the company’s second gallery. The first was in Venice, California. And there are plans for eight more cities, with Berlin being the next one. (When is Toronto?!)
Bright Moments is a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), which is interesting in its own right but is a topic for another post. You can read a bit more about Bright Moments and DAOs, here and here.
What I would instead like to talk about today is how Bright Moments is operating at the intersection of NFT art and real-world spaces. They are in effect a community. It’s a place for artists to release/showcase their work and a place for people to connect.
One of the things that the company is doing with each gallery launch is minting an NFT collection that is tied to the city and that uses the local demonym. When they opened their popup in Venice, they launched the CryptoVenetians. And last weekend in New York they launched the CryptoNewYorkers.
In each case, 1,000 NFTs were minted and the idea is that once they have expanded to their 10 cities, there will be a collection of 10,000 NFTs.
I have said it before, but this is an exciting time in the world. Maybe this current NFT craze ends up being a massive bubble, or maybe it doesn’t. Either way, things are exciting.
But here’s the thing.
Organizations like Bright Moments show you just how important physical spaces, live communities, and cities continue to be. It doesn’t matter that this is digital art being displayed on a screen and that one could be viewing it from anywhere. People want to hang out in the same room and experience these sorts of new things together.
I am moderating a panel at the Toronto Real Estate Forum later this year (it’s on December 2 to be exact). The topic is innovation in development. There is a great panel of speakers (more info here) and the plan right now is to cover everything from new design and construction approaches to the rise of crypto and blockchains. Topics that are all near and dear to this blog.
But we are still in the early stages of planning and I haven’t yet figured out what the questions to the panel will be. So I thought it would be interesting to hear from all of you: What would you say are the most important topics to cover when it comes to innovation in development? What’s next for our industry, or what should be next for our industry?
If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment below. That way everyone can see them. Supposedly this is one of the most asked for topics at the real estate forum, and so it’s clearly top of mind for many people.
This recent post by Benedict Evans talks about the firehose that is the internet. To illustrate this point, he gives the example of unread emails. If you were to look at your phone right now, how many unread emails would it show?
My work email account is mostly read because reading and responding to emails is one of the ways that I manage to remain gainfully employed. But my personal email currently has 27,230 unread emails. Most of these are newsletters and emails from people wanting to somehow optimize this blog or help me reach 1 trillion followers on Instagram.
Whatever the purpose, it’s almost impossible to keep up. And since having unread asymmetric emails of little consequence doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I let it go.
This is one way to deal with the firehose — acceptance. And in Benedict’s post he makes the argument that maybe the push that we are seeing toward the metaverse is exactly that — full acceptance. “When software eats the world, it’s not software anymore.”
But the opposite way of dealing with information overload is extreme simplification. And there is something so beautiful about minimalism in a world of too much.
Today I learned about a bookstore in Tokyo called Morioka Shoten (shoten = bookstore). It is located in Ginza (pictured above) and the proposition is “a single room with a single book.” The bookstore consists of, you know, a single room and at any given time there is only one book for sale.
Each book is available for six days, after which time a new book is made available. In addition to selling one book at a time, the single room shop is used for things like events and exhibitions.
It’s a radical idea and perhaps it is best suited to Japan. But maybe we all need things that slow us down and focus our attention on only a few things or even a single thing. Maybe we need it to offset the information firehose.
Zillow just announced that it has paused its (algorithmic) US homebuying business for the remainder of this year. The company acquired some 3,800 homes in Q2 of this year and, apparently, it now has a backlog of repairs and sales to work through. As a reminder, this business model, which is sometimes referred to as iBuying, is based on using algorithms to quickly value and buy homes (mostly online). The homes are then renovated and flipped for a profit. The problem, as most of you know, is that this pandemic has, among other things, disrupted construction supply chains and made it difficult to hire people. That has hurt the renovation component of this model.
Today’s news was bad for Zillow’s stock, but good for Opendoor’s stock, which is their main competitor. Opendoor subsequently came out and announced that they remain open for business. (Disclosure: I am long $OPEN). But this announcement is perhaps a good reminder that buying and selling real estate remains a different animal than, say, buying and selling stocks. And so there are some perfectly understandable reasons for why real estate hasn’t been disrupted by the internet in the same way that other industries have. Matt Levine does a great job explaining this in his recent column, “Sorry, Zillow’s Computer Can’t Buy Your House Right Now.”
Here’s an excerpt:
“I’ll pay you $350,000 for your house as long as a human can go out there, look around, and make sure that price isn’t wildly off” is an interesting model but it’s not quite the same as “push this button to sell your house for $350,000.” And “I’ll pay $350,000 for a house and then send out a crew to replace the carpets” is not quite the same as “I’ll pay $350,000 for a house and flip it 20 minutes later for $355,000, collecting a small spread for providing liquidity.” Computerization has come into the housing market, but it hasn’t taken it over yet.
One of the challenges is that the supply of homes is heterogeneous, even in a suburban community or in a multi-family building where you might have the same set of floor plans that repeat. Because maybe the home has been renovated and fit out entirely in gold. Or maybe it’s the opposite and it has been poorly maintained. There are variables to contend with that have historically necessitated more rather than less human involvement. Homes are also something that don’t trade all that frequently, which is less than optimal when it comes to online marketplaces.
But what if buying and selling a home was dramatically cheaper and easier to do? How often would people actually do it? Presumably more often. I agree with Matt that “computerization” hasn’t taken over the real estate industry just yet. But algorithmic homebuying still appears to be one of the more promising approaches.
This is a great 30 minute talk by Horace Dediu that is structured around his 10 commandments of micromobility. If you can’t see the embedded video above, click here. What I think that many of you will appreciate about the talk is that he focuses on smaller interventions. Think bike lanes over big hyperloop moonshoots. In his words, we’re going to get to where we want to go not through hyperbole, but through humility. And micromobility is all about humility.
I’m also a big fan of his last commandment. It is titled: cities always win. Yup.