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What would you like to know about real estate development? (Also, inclusionary zoning)

I asked this question on Twitter this morning because I am planning to write more development-related posts. It’s a topic that seems to be of interest to a lot of people. One question that I received was about the kind of profit margins that Toronto developers have been making over the past few decades. More specifically: How much have they increased? My response was that they haven’t increased. In fact, if anything, they’ve been compressing as a result of rising/additional costs. (I’ve touched on this before in posts like this one about cost-plus pricing.) I think a lot of developers are actually wondering how much elasticity is left in the market to continue absorbing these cost increases.

Follow-up question to my response: Why then does this report by Steve Pomeroy claim that developers could still make a 15% margin even if they earmarked 30-40% of their units as affordable? Well, this was news to me so I went through the report and committed to responding on this blog. To be more precise, the report finds that there’s room in as-of-right developments to dedicate 10% affordable in medium-cost areas and 25% affordable in high-cost areas. For rezoned sites, the numbers are 30% affordable in high-cost areas and 15% affordable in medium-cost areas. These are a potentially dangerous set of takeaways for a few reasons.

Very little mid-rise and high-rise development happens as-of-right in the City of Toronto. I don’t know what the exact percentage is, but I suspect it’s low. It would be very difficult to buy land if you were valuing it on this basis. And when you are valuing it — that is, running a development pro forma — it’s not enough to pull averages from a cost guide and run high-level numbers. You can start there, but ultimately you’re going to have to get more granular. Are you factoring the hundreds of thousands of dollars (more for bigger projects) that the City will charge you to occupy any public right-of-ways? What about your public contribution monies? This has historically been hard to estimate because the math that is used is akin to a secret recipe.

In this particular report, they assume a 100-unit building with 88,750 square feet of gross floor area. Since GFA typically factors some allowable deductions, the gross construction area for the project is going to be greater. Let’s assume it’s 5% more — so about 93,190 square feet. This is how your construction manager will think about and do take-offs for the project. In the report, they peg total construction costs at $23,208,480. That works out to just shy of $250 per square foot (costs divided by above grade GCA). You cannot build a reinforced concrete residential building with below-grade parking for this number in Toronto. In today’s market, and at this small of a scale, you might be looking at $350 to 400 psf.

On the low end of this range, that would mean your costs have just gone up by $9.4 million — which just so happens to be the expected developer/builder profit in this model. Except now you’re underwater and you won’t be able to finance and build your project. It’s probably time to look at your revenues and see if you can increase your projected rents at all. This is what I was getting at with cost-plus pricing. I would also add that I/we typically shy away from projects of this scale. There isn’t a lot of margin for error. One or two surprises and you might be cooked. So with or without inclusionary zoning, these can be challenging projects that many developers won’t even look at.

My point with all of this is twofold: development pro formas are delicate and margins aren’t as generous and locked-in as most people seem to think. More often than not we end up passing on sites because we simply can’t make the numbers work. The land is just too expensive. Development happens on the margin. So talking about developers “absorbing” the costs of inclusionary zoning is perhaps the wrong way to frame this discussion. A more appropriate set of questions might be: Who is going to pay for the cost of inclusionary zoning? Are landowners going to suddenly drop their prices? Is the City going to reduce their development charges/impact fees? Or will developers wait until market prices and rents increase so that they can cover these new costs? This latter scenario is how it has worked so far.

If you have other questions about development that you would like me to take a stab at answering, please leave a comment below or tweet at me.


  1. Femi

    Hey Brandon – how do land value evaluated? What are the factors that affect land value (especially in cities)?


  2. Matty

    Hey nice blog. Heres a question – do you have a development proforma you can share and explain in a blog what everythint is on it? and costs for say a typical mid rise in toronto in 2020?


  3. Pingback: Where developers won’t build even with $0 land |

  4. Assuming, for the moment, that the project is in a very dense area with sub 3% vacancy, wouldn’t it just make sense to go higher until the cost of land is reduced to a small enough percentage of the projected rents (or sales, if condos)? I realize that the higher you go, the more expensive each floor becomes, and past a certain point, say 100 stories, you’re getting into “experimental” type buildings, with motion dampers, large mechanical spaces etc., but in general, isn’t it zoning, rather than economics, that prevent this clear solution?


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