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The stories and moments that keep us going

Exploring The Developer's Story | Part 02

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

One Talk Away | The Developers Story, gave us a delightful insight into the world real estate. As we dove deeper into the conversation with our guest panelist Brent Little and Flora Brewer, we had an opportunity to explore the barriers and opportunities available when developing socially oriented projects.

Exploring the Challenges:

Taking a deeper dive into the challenges we explore some of the unique and reoccurring obstacles developers face. NIMBYism, Not in My Back Yard, is a difficult issue to overcome. Some neighborhoods will adamantly oppose any proposed changes to their communities. Common concerns raised often include an increase of crime, loss of view, lower property values, reduction of community character, and an increase of parking related issues. However, as we learn, this is not always the case. 

Location can also be a pressing issue. NIMBYism in addition to zoning can restrict development to a few select areas in town. This often leads to paying extremely high cost for the price of land in prime areas. Another option is to search for cheaper land in underdeveloped areas that are traditionally areas of concentrated poverty. However, regulations in Federal funding restricts the development of affordable projects in areas that have areas of concentrated poverty over 20%. The premise of deconcentrating poverty is not necessarily bad, but in situations like this it can deny certain communities from being economically viable for development that meets their needs. On the premise of urban renewal projects caution must be exercised to not reflect the look of older buildings to the state of the community and not create projects that lead to displacement. To make a project successful, the location also must consider transportation and access to food, public amenities, retail, healthcare, and employment, which can be difficult to accomplish given the forementioned challenges. 

We discover that developing student housing faces additional challenges. For starters, many of the housing support programs to not apply to students. In some cases, the rules can be bent to develop the project, however it can result in strenuous requirements for the students to qualify for affordable units. Reflecting on the grand trifecta, dense affordable student housing projects have difficulties getting the required zoning and entitlements to develop. In an example shared in Amherst, the entire process took over 10 years to complete. In another example in Clemson, the process took two years and resulted in a moratorium on future student housing. The ideal would be to leverage university owned land so they can develop with greater flexibility while also qualify for full tax exemptions. However, that said enrollments are growing at a faster rate than the rate housing is being built. To date only 22% of enrolled students can be housed on campus. Considering that 52% of the local student base at Tarrant County College is experiencing housing insecurity, the college would need housing to support over 50,000 students per year once you count online enrollments. 

On campus support systems can also be limited in their capacity to help. We discuss that at The University of Texas in Arlington they identified students that where falling behind on their rent payments. The university alleviated rent for an extended period to help their students regain stability. However, they could only provide aid for 60 days before it would start counting again their student's scholarship funds. This would leave a dire choice of getting evicted or dropping their classes. This problem becomes compounded due to the invisibility of the challenge. With it being hard to detect some universities do not have support infrastructure for students in need. Resources can be difficult to identify and sometimes are non-existent. In one example shared at The University of North Carolina, they had a couple of rooms available for students in need to use for a $100 a day. The program though was not advertised, as the university feared there would be to many takers. There is also limited data and few groups working collectively to address this challenge. We learned that some universities turn a blind eye to the challenge, and some are hesitant to accept data, fearful that it will require them to take immediate action. 

Social Missions: 

Social missions can be difficult to pursue in development due to the need to generate a profit for the project. The framework does not offer a lot of wiggle room for price reductions. Even with less glamorous finishes, the core construction is still going to cost you the same. The savings for going with lower quality finishes only saves you a marginal amount, which will have to be repaid in more frequent repairs and replacements. Taxes, as mentioned are going to be a reoccurring cost that inhibit affordability. Even though you can serve lower income communities with rent subsidies, you must have a constant flow of funding to support these programs. When a project sells, the cost more than likely will take a steep rise. Though not discussed, this stresses the importance of exploring alternative frameworks in developing housing. 

Dormatories at Students 4 Students.
Dormatories at Students 4 Students.

Serving the Tenant

As a designer I have shared my frustration of being so distant from the key benefactor of a project. The industry positions designers into making broad assumptions on what ideal means. We discussed this in depth at our last forum on Equitable Design, so with ample curiosity we explore this idea in the realm of development. 

Students and other key benefactors as we learn are often not part of the conversation when building housing. That said, there have been a couple examples with student lead housing projects. In Los Angeles, Students 4 Students, provides a dormitory style space for students in need. The organization recruit's student volunteers and offers in house services to assist with food and permanent housing placement. Though noble there are concerns that in the age of COVID-19, proximity living could bring additional challenges. This brings up a broader issue within the realm of student housing. The pedagogies for education have changed from generation to generation. The open exchange of thoughts in the classroom, engaged student and professor, and open and flexible spatial layouts are reflective of these changes. However, housing for students has remained relatively the same. If we are to create effective enviornments for education, we have to rethink what student ready housing really means. This will require organizations taking more intentional efforts to engage students and examine outcomes to establish viable models for replication.

In the homeless arena, we explore the increasing percentage of single parent households. There are measurable economic challenges single parents undergo as compared to married couples. This is in part to the increasing cost of living and the erosion of social support systems. These challenges follow single parents as they try to pursue an education to improve their options, which becomes nearly impossible with a minimum wage job and the day to day responsibilities of parenting. We explore the potential of house sharing in which we could match up potential roommates. This idea has been discussed in some detail at our last forum but given COVID-19 and the discussions on creating better student ready housing, it is uncertain if this would be a viable option. 

Creating Success

We live in a philanthropic community and giving is a part of our culture, but this doesn’t always translate to donated services for housing projects like this. Habitat for Humanity comes out as a champion in this arena and have had success in recruiting volunteers and donor to aid in building affordable housing projects. However, with homelessness it becomes more difficult to market. There is a severely negative stigma around homelessness. The truth though is probably have had interactions with a homeless our housing insecure individual at some point. In some cases, those experiencing homelessness are employed. This experience of working homelessness, speaks again to effects of our current system. We see it in the single mother stripping full time to pay her tuition. Or in the LGBTQ students that get shunned and kicked out of their houses. In some cases, a student is dropping out of college because of $75.00, which could probably be easily covered by any of us on a given day. 

When trying new approaches to housing, we are often stippled by the need to provide an evidence-based model. With this challenge, as discussed earlier, there is not a great pool of data to reference. Even when tracking built projects, more personalized data is needed to determine what aspects helped the most in creating success. A shared data pool could help provide tangible evidence that could help potential investors and donors to contribute to a project. I might also add that there is a need for funding to support research and development in the social spectrum. Companies in the private have been investing an increased percentage of expenses in R&D since 1975. This opportunity is often not afforded to non-profits and socially centered organizations, who are often required to work on show string budgets to provide predetermined solutions. There has been some recent interest in funding social enterprises through organizations like United Way of Metropolitain Dallas and their Social Innovation Accelerator. Thought this helps with incubating unique solutions, there is still a missing gap for research and testing preliminary concepts. In short, experimentation for social projects is difficult to fund.

As for physical properties there is not a unified metric that designates success. For projects like Palm Tree Apartments, Flora looks at success in being able to use an architecturally attractive project as a vessel to address joint issues like code compliance and lack of supportive housing. This is a case by case metric and is not shared by every developer. Reflecting in my career as a designer, success is more subjective and objectively based. There are some exceptions to this with projects that fall under LEED, but overall, the success in seen in the subjective lens of aesthetics. 

In part 03 we will reflect on lessons learned from a couple of recent projects and the insights and idea we discovered at this conversation.


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