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DroneBase adds thermal imaging missions

I was reading today about how DroneBase has partnered with FLIR Systems to offer infrared and thermal imaging missions. FLIR actually invested in DroneBase. For those of you who aren’t familiar with DroneBase, they operate the largest drone network in the world and have a wide variety of services geared toward the real estate industry.

This news is noteworthy because infrared thermography cameras allow you to see and measure the thermal energy emitted from objects — such as buildings. For the real estate industry, or even for individual homeowners, it would allow you to quickly visualize things like leakiness (lack of air tightness), water damage, and so on.

These kinds of scans already exist, but putting thermal sensors on drones has the potential to make this technology much more scalable and cost effective. I am sure we will be seeing more of this. And when we do, I bet we’ll discover that many buildings don’t actually perform all that well from an energy standpoint.

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

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The story of Florence Casler

Curbed has a section on their website dedicated to “deep dives on cities, architecture, design, real estate, and urban planning.” It is called Longform. And they have some great stories, including this one on “the female powerhouse [Florence Casler] who developed 1920s Downtown LA.”

Florence was born in 1869 in Welland, Ontario, about 25 kilometers south of Niagara Falls. She married an American — a plumber — and eventually settled in Buffalo, New York. After her husband left to pursue riches in the gold mines, she became a licensed plumber and took over the business.

Eventually this love of plumbing grew into a love of building, and somehow she found herself, with her daughters, in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 20th century.

By the 1920s, she had become a dominant force in the real estate business. Some 60 buildings are credited to Florence and she is thought to be largely responsible for ushering in a new era of multifamily apartments in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, many of her buildings have since been demolished.

As one of the first women in Los Angeles to head a development and/or construction business, I think this is a wonderful story worth telling. For the full Curbed article, click here.

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What’s in a roof?

Over the weekend I stumbled upon this illustrated Medium post by Alfred Twu comparing sloped and flat roofs. The argument is that these two roof types are coded. In this part of the world, at least, sloped roofs signal low-rise “house” and flat roofs signal big city “high-rise.”

I’m not yet convinced of this association with height, or of all the claims made in the article. Did New York City really make the flat roof commonplace in our cities? But the idea that a roofline can trigger certain associations — or even become divisive — is a fascinating one.

Take, for example, Am Fischtal in Berlin. On one side of the street you have, still to this day, homes with flat roofs. And on the other side you have homes with sloped roofs. This clean divide is the result of a supposed “roof war” that took place during the Weimar Republic.

At this moment in time in the suburbs of Berlin, the kind of roof you chose to live under was a proclamation of your political orientation. I’m not sure roofs have as much gravitas as they did in the 1920’s on Am Fischtal, but they still do say something.

Image: Alfred Twu

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How Japan increased its housing supply

River Davis’ recent article in the Wall Street Journal about Tokyo’s generally flat home prices had me, again, wondering about demographics. I mean, aren’t their demographics working in reverse? They have an aging population, low immigration, and a low birthrate. But Tokyo, which represents about 11% of Japan’s total population, is still growing. And their home price index looks like this compared to San Francisco and New York:

Davis’ argument, which of course has been made by others before, is that deregulation has allowed housing supply to actually keep up with demand. Land use policies were relaxed to allow taller and denser buildings to be built and some degree of decision making (I’m not sure how much) was moved to the central government in order to counteract the NIMBY problem that invariably attaches itself to local politics.

The result is housing numbers that look and compare like this:

In Tokyo last year, housing starts came in around 145,000, according to Japan’s land ministry. This figure is on par with the total number of new housing units authorized last year in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Houston combined, based on the U.S. Census Bureau data. The same feat was achieved in 2017.

If we are to normalize against New York, it looks like this:

And the belief seems to be that it is working:

“A reason why housing prices in Japan are not rising as fast as in New York, for example, is the large number of housing starts,” says Masahiro Kobayashi, a director general at the Japan Housing Finance Agency, a state-run entity which supports the housing market by purchasing home loans.

One sentence that really stood out for me in the article is this one here: “Private consultants were given permission to issue building permits to speed up construction.” If any of you have tried to pull a building permit for a large project in Toronto, you’ll know that it can take a very long time (understatement). Maybe it is the same in your city. Should we looking at this?

Charts: WSJ

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Junction House featured in the Toronto Star

This morning the Toronto Star published a profile piece on one of Junction House’s earliest purchasers: Barbara Martinez. Barbara downsized from a house to a 1-bedroom condominium in Roncesvalles, but then realized that she still wanted space to entertain and have guests over. So she decided to buy a 3-bedroom penthouse at Junction House with an approximately 350 square foot terrace. That’ll work. It is truly one of the nicest suites in the building, and will come equipped with a view of the Toronto skyline that looks something like this (see background projection below):

I am quoted in the article as saying that mid-rise condominiums in Toronto’s neighborhoods naturally tend to attract a different set of buyers compared to, say, a downtown tower. That is true and we are seeing it play out at Junction House. Yes, we have 1-bedroom suites that are perfect for young professionals and/or investors, but we also have some spectacular 2-storey suites (the House Collection) and larger single-storey suites for people just like Barbara. Congratulations on your new home purchase!

Photos: Steve Russell for the Toronto Star

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How Opportunity Zones may have impacted real estate prices

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (US) created something known as Opportunity Zones. These are low-income and high-poverty census tracts that are designed to attract investment by offering a number of different tax benefits. I first wrote about it on the blog, here.

Now that some time has passed since the final Opportunity Zones were announced, Zillow Economic Research decided to look at the possible impact of this designation on real estate values. In other words: To what extent, if at all, are the tax benefits getting capitalized into the value of the properties?

Below is a chart showing the year-over-year change in the 12-month moving average sale price for low-income census tracts that were (1) eligible and selected as an Opportunity Zone; (2) eligible and not selected; and (3) not eligible.

My understanding is that the “not eligible” category represents census tracts with similar characteristics to the other two categories but, for whatever reason, were not eligible to become an Opportunity Zone. There are criteria.

The program is still quite new, but what Zillow found was that the eligible census tracts (green and yellow lines) seemed to exhibit similar sale price increases after the Act was signed, but before the final Opportunity Zones were announced. Once the final Zones were announced, sale prices in the selected category (green line) began to surge and move away from the pack.

This may be evidence that the tax benefits are starting to get capitalized, or it may not be. One question I have is about why pricing in the selected Opportunity Zones seems to be a lot more volatile — even before the Act was announced.

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Exploring KING Toronto

Today I stopped by the Exploring KING exhibit that is currently on at 134 Peter Street. It is an exhibition celebrating the design of KING Toronto.

It explains how the design came about. Note all the different unit layouts on the floor.

It includes (foam) study models that go as far back as 2015. That’s four years of design iterations.

It has samples of the glass blocks that will be used on the building’s facades.

Related article: Glass blocks, that staple of 1980s kitsch, are trendy again. Sorry, it’s behind a paywall.

It has a VR setup that allows you to explore the building’s inner courtyard. It’s going to be a fun space.

And there’s even a KING Toronto candle for sale. (Aromatic woods with spicy overtones.)

I thought the overall exhibition was very well done and I am thrilled to see architecture and design so front and center. It is an exciting time to be living in this city.

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Barcelona from above

Barcelona is one of the densest cities in Europe. And Márton Mogyorósy’s recent photo series, called Barcelona from above, does an excellent job of demonstrating that. My favorite photo is this one here, showing La Barceloneta neighborhood adjacent to the beach:

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la barceloneta

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None of the buildings are particularly tall (maybe 6 or 7 storeys at the most), but the streets are probably only about 6m wide, including sidewalks. This is one way that you can achieve density without height and it is a good example of what I was getting at in my post, European-style height, but not density.

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IPOs and home prices

Fred Wilson made an interesting remark in his recent post about the current “IPO bonanza” that is taking place in the tech space. He is, of course, talking about the recent IPO of Lyft, the recent S-1 filings from Pinterest and others, and the expected filings from Uber, Airbnb, and so on.

After listing the benefits of going public, he went on to say that this bonanza will surely also mean that it is going to become even more unaffordable in the Bay Area. Part of this is perhaps self-serving, since he operates a VC firm out of NYC. (Take your money and move to NYC.)

But the data suggests that there is truth to this.

When Twitter when public in 2013, it was estimated that it created some 1,600 millionaires. This is great for the local startup ecosystem as many of these beneficiaries could go on to found their own companies and create a whole new batch of jobs. The money gets recycled.

But what does it do to the local housing market — especially a supply-constrained one like that of the Bay Area where it is difficult to build?

In 2018, Barney Hartman-Glaser, Mark Thibodeau, and Jiro Yoshida penned a paper called, Cash to Spend: IPO Wealth and House Prices. In it, they looked at the impact of IPOs on local home prices in California from 1993 through to 2017.

What they found, among other things, was a “positive and significant association between local house price changes and firms going public.” The price increases were also found to be the greatest the closer you get to the headquarters of the firm that just went public.

If you’d like to download a copy of the paper, you can do that here.

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The compound effect

This evening I was at my alma mater, the Rotman School, for a conversation between Roger Martin (the former dean of the school) and Canadian-Jamaican billionaire, Michael Lee-Chin. Michael is one of the most disciplined, consistent, and charismatic people I have never met. (The soothing Jamaican accent probably doesn’t hurt.)

One of his points this evening was about compounding. Not just compound interest, which is what many of you are probably thinking, but compounding in life. The thing about compounding is that the real benefits come later on. That’s why personal finance people will tell you that the key to financial freedom is to start saving and investing early on.

The problem with this is that, well, the real benefits come later on. And it can be frustrating when the rewards don’t seem to match the efforts. That’s why grit is so important and why some have suggested that it is a far better predictor of future success than things like IQ or a GPA score. There’s no substitute for hard work.

In the development business, projects tend to take a long time. We started working on Junction House back in 2016 and here we are now in 2019 planning for construction. So I thought this evening was a good reminder that there’s lots of value in long-term goals and that more of us (including companies) should be thinking along these lines.