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Affordable housing and the economics behind developing new rental apartments

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In most big cities around the world, there is a pressing need for more affordable housing. We know that inclusive cities make for better cities. But from San Francisco to Hong Kong, you always hear people talking about how expensive housing is.

So why is this such a difficult problem to solve?

Part of the problem, I think, is that many people don’t understand the economics behind building a new building. Oftentimes I hear people say that because developers make so much money, they should just build more affordable housing. Done. Simple.

But things are not that simple.

To illustrate my point, let’s walk through the thought process for developing a new rental apartment building.

In its simplest form, developers are concerned with: revenue – costs = profit. And since many of the costs associated with building a new building just are what they are, it all starts with revenue, which in our case would be rents.

To build a new rental tower in Toronto, your rents typically need to be at least in the high $2′s per square foot per month. Otherwise the economics don’t work. But to make the math simple, let’s say you need $3 per square foot in rent. That means a 1,000 sf apartment would rent for $3,000 per month.

That’s not cheap. There are only so many people who can afford these kinds of rents and only so many areas where you can command these kinds of rents, which means there are only so many areas in Toronto where new rental apartments will be built by the private sector.

If the rents instead happen to be $2 psf – meaning that same 1,000 sf apartment now rents for $2,000 per month – then for-profit developers will not build (barring any unique deal circumstances). Even at $2.50 psf / $2,500 per month, it would be difficult to make the numbers work here.

And by the numbers, I am talking about tight returns that really only start to make sense in our environment of record low interest rates. Which means that when interest rates start to rise (pushing cap rates up), it may not even make sense to build rental apartments when the rents are in the high $2′s per square foot. This is particularly true if you’re competing against condo developers to buy the land. They can afford to pay more. 

In this scenario (of rising interest rates), many real estate firms might simply opt to buy existing assets instead of taking on the risk of building anything new. Now all of a sudden your supply of new market rate apartments (not to mention affordable apartments) has dried up. Remember, it’s been decades since Toronto built rental apartments at any sort of meaningful scale.

It’s for reasons like this that Vancouver launched a program called Rental 100. In a nutshell, it helps to reduce the “costs” variable in the equation mentioned above so that developers are able to meet minimum project returns and build more rental buildings. They do that through things such as reduced parking requirements, additional density, development charge waivers, and so on.

In some ways, these items are subsidies. The city is giving up revenue that it could have otherwise collected from a developer building, say, a condo. But in other ways, they are freebies. The city could be unlocking development sites that may have otherwise not been developed. In which case it’s not really forgone revenue.

Vancouver’s Rental 100 program is a market rental housing policy. But there’s no reason that similar thinking couldn’t be applied to create an affordable rental housing policy. It has been done and is being done in many cities.

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