Work Hard, Think Big


Last week I had the pleasure of attending at least one day of the National Multi-Housing Council Conference in La Quinta, California. You know what? I have to tell you: I’m certainly glad that developers, as a rule, are optimists. Well, maybe not the numbers guys, but certainly the visionary guys.

It provided some comfort to hear many of the seasoned veterans remind us that, thought this particular downturn had a unique brutality, they had all been through it before, and knew that if, rather, as they survived they could look forward to making a lot of money in the initial throes of the eventual recovery. Hallelujah!

As many of us have the opportunity to take at least somewhat of a breather after the pandemonium of the housing boom that has now come crashing down around us, to what shall we turn our attention? (Other than finding ways to support the bottom line, of course.)

I am challenged and perplexed by a very simple question that came to me from a young member of our staff who happens to have a background in anthropology. “If there is such a tremendous demand for ‘workforce housing’, why aren’t the developers building more of it?” Essentially, this is the price point versus perceived quality issue, isn’t it? Why aren’t more developers planning and designing communities that offer rental and ownership opportunities for folks in the middle of the middle class?

Well, gee, there are a lot of reasons. Market-driven developers obviously need to make a profit from the work they do, or those of us who own shares in their businesses (through our 401Ks or other investments.) will come screaming back to them. But it’s tough to make these projects “pencil”, especially in the “free” market.

Maybe that’s the issue—the freedom of the market. Absent constraints, for-profit developers will gravitate toward the market where the highest potential return exists—we (as shareholders) demand this from them. So we are left with a dilemma; how do we produce, to wide-ranging satisfaction, housing affordable to the folks in the 120 – 150% AMI range? It is simple to default to the position that all “affordable” housing can and will be produced only through private-public partnerships. Are we willing to accept that as the de facto reality?

What will it take, exactly, for profit-driven developers to tap into that bottomless middle market? What can we design and build that lowers costs sufficiently to make “entry” accessible to broad swaths of our community? Can it be done without partnering with government?

Let’s look together, shall we? Let’s question the established norms, ask big questions, throw jello against the wall . . . whatever it takes. In this (hopefully) temporary lull from the chaotic pace we’ve all known for the last few years, let’s focus on new, inventive solutions. Is it pre-fab? Reliance on transportation? Better understanding of our customer base?

I constantly strive to conjure an interesting, non-self-centered answer to the question, “How are you?” Maybe we should change the question. Perhaps all of us could benefit if the conversation starter we prefer were, “What’s the big idea?” It’s time to dig deep. Let’s spur each other on to true 21st Century thinking.

(Daniel Gehman, AIA, LEED AP, is a Principal in the Los Angeles office of TCA (Thomas P. Cox: Architects), and has led in the design of thousands of multifamily dwellings throughout the United States.