The complexity of being affordable

Cracked crumbling asphalt is an unusual site in the more affluent suburbs of the Twin Cities. In fact the number of areas that would be considered distressed across the metro is pretty slim in relation to its size. So it’s a bit of a puzzle why the Four Seasons Mall in Plymouth, a relatively wealthy third tier suburb, has been left unused for the past twelve years.

First Wal-Mart purchased the site, but the neighbors said ‘no.’ It would draw too much traffic off the well traveled State Highway 169 which connects the Minnesota River Valley with the far northern points of the state, where the outfitter town of Ely serves as a portal to the boundary waters. That whole thing took a handful of years.

Then the city spent some time on getting a mixed use project approved on the sixteen acre site which included upwards of several hundred affordable units. Not bad for a fairly wealthy area of town. Here’s a news clip Plymouth Approves Four Seasons Mall Redevelopment – CCX Media explaining the project, and here is a commercial real estate synopsis on the site.

Just recently the whole project came apart because the tax credits were allocated to another project by the Fed’s scoring system. Two years after the community said ‘yes’ to welcoming a housing product that is often rebuked, a chart put together by bureaucrats says ‘no.’ Although I’ve been unable so far to find out where the subsidies were put to use, the feeling seems to be that the funding went to an area with greater need. Which I assume means an area with a higher density of people living in poverty.

Sure enough, according to a study on Low Income Housing Tax Credit, by the Urban Institute:

The program structure can promote the concentration of units in poorer places. Although the program only requires that 40 percent or more of the total units in the property be set aside as affordable, most properties are developed with affordability restrictions on all units to maximize the equity investment because only the affordable units qualify for tax credits. The allocation structure also provides an incentive to build in low-income communities designated as Qualified Census Tracts or Difficult Development Areas.

On the one hand political units like the Metropolitan Council maintain pressure on the greater metro to come up with their fair share of affordable housing unit, on the other hand the means of financing such rehabilitation and new construction can by politically allocated to neighborhoods already carrying more than their share of disadvantaged citizens.

If I were to house people who needed a little extra help in life, I would make the argument that it is sensible to do so in a community with a little extra time and expertise on their hands to help out. But I can’t choose where to house folks as I am not able to purchase tax credits along with friends and neighbors of similar minds.

The process simply isn’t that simple. Here’s a visual that is helpful.

Needless to say the multiple layers of bureaucracy add cost to the process.

LIHTC is an economically inefficient method for producing affordable rental housing. The process
of allocating and awarding tax credits is time consuming and complex. A study produced by the State of Washington found that it frequently takes twice as long to put together a LIHTC-financed project than one that is market rate, in turn contributing to higher legal and other transaction costs (Keightley 2017; Mitchell et al. 2009). Costs are also driven by the complexity of some LIHTC deals. A GAO (1997) study found that the process of syndication (pooling resources from multiple investors) can claim between 10 and 27 percent of project equity. LIHTC projects also have few incentives to keep costs low because reducing development costs would result in not using the full tax credit issued for the project (Mitchell et al. 2009).

From what I gather, low income tax credits are sold to any corporation who wants to invest in them. There is no mission, there is no sense of service. It is a pointy penciled transaction sketched out by a corporate CPA. Does it make more sense that a scoring system by the Federal government with a tongue twisting list of acronyms (CDBG,HOME,AMI, and 60% of this and 30% of that) be the mechanism for matching supply with demand rather than a neighborhood saying yes to affordable housing?

Honestly– the serpentine system seems to be more about keeping people out of the conversation than in it.

Affordable housing is not a product line

Some politicians don’t buy the idea that an additional supply of housing units, at any price point, will lead to more units of affordable housing. They do not accept that increasing the number of units overall, or greater supply, reduces costs.

What they see are swanky high end homes being built and swanky high income people moving in and absolutely nothing happening to the other end of society. So who’s to blame them?

In order to assist in smoothing out some of these misconceptions, it’s necessary to beg people to accept that housing is not an ordinary commodity, like clothing. Everyone needs housing and clothing, but that’s where the similarities ends.

Poli-types and activists talk about affordable housing as if it were one line of housing, like an evening gown is one line of a designer’s seasonal collection. If you only make evening gowns there’s nothing for the average Joleen to wear. We must sew up some practical shirtdresses! It’s that simple: Build affordable housing.

There are two conceptual problems with treating housing like clothing (just pick the right line for goodness sakes!) Housing is a good that is used and reused as opposed to being disposable. And secondly, in part due to this, over time (time is important) depending on how much maintenance it receives (maintenance is important) a home’s usefulness and hence value fluctuates.

When left unattended for too long, the structure depreciates and the land it sits on becomes disproportionately valuable.

Whereas a community doesn’t want too much time to pass with too little maintenance (which creates slums), this is often the scenario playing out for NOAH (naturally occurring affordable housing). A long time landlord may get to the point of not being energized by upgrades and flashy renovations. He or she may be riding out the property’s usefulness as long as the tenants are amicable.

But time never stops. And mechanicals get old. So these situations are only sustainable for so long. When left unattended for too long, the structure depreciates and the land it sits on becomes disproportionately valuable. Down comes the structure to make way for a swanky new one.

Since new is expensive, expensive people move-in. But as long as the new construction is adding units to the pool of housing, and not just being filled with newcomers, then homes are freed up for folks to stair step up through more choices.

Noah is building an ark

A handful of years ago a new term showed up in housing forums and real estate continuing ed classes. NOAH. The acronym stands for naturally occurring affordable housing. The Greater Minnesota Housing Fund explains:

The majority of affordable rental housing in the United States can be found in modest apartment buildings in every city and suburb.

These units are home to every stripe of renter and receive no federal or state subsidy at all. These Class B and Class C rental units comprise the bulk of affordable housing in the country today, but there is nothing to guarantee that they will stay that way.

Nationwide, this affordable rental housing is at risk. In prime real estate markets, this “naturally occurring affordable housing’ (NOAH) is often operated under poor management or in disrepair. Speculators are eager to snap up these developments, upgrade a few amenities, and convert these once-affordable homes to higher-market rents. This loss of affordability threatens the stability of individuals and families who are displaced, and even entire communities.

It was like a frosty burst of January air through an open front door. A much needed break from endless harping on ‘building’ more affordable housing. New construction is the most expensive form of housing and how it is in a community’s best interest pay top dollar for very few units is anxiety rising for any spendthrift.

It is equally refreshing to read that a real estate investor in Charlotte, Mark Ethridge, is building on the concept of NOAH. Here’s how he got started:

Ethridge had watched for years as properties like this were snatched up by big money investors who’d quickly renovate them, jack up the rents and then sell them off for a quick profit. With an estimated 120 people moving to the city every day and an economy on the rise, growth in Charlotte had put these kinds of apartment complexes in the sights of housing investors who saw them not as affordably priced homes for lower income residents but as undervalued assets.

Ethridge has attracted a bunch of like minded people to run up a $58 million fund for the purpose of providing housing at below market rates. The difference here is that his investors will receive annual returns on their investments, just at a reduced rate.

Bowles insists this is not philanthropy, and giving the fund a for-profit structure was a way to bring the discipline needed to ensure it would work for the long run. “We are capitalists,” he says. “We believe in capitalism. But if it’s going to survive, we have to make it work for more people. A lot more people.”

The city is still involved with help on the financing end of things and in return there is a twenty year deed restriction placed on the title of the property to ensure 80-100 percent of the units are rented to residents at the low end of the income scale.

Ethridge calls the effort “social impact capital,” and he says the Housing Impact Fund’s investors recognize that their investment can be both beneficial to society and profitable. “The nice thing about buying existing properties, unlike new construction, they cash flow the day you buy them,” Ethridge says. “So we will pay quarterly returns to our investors and we expect that cash flow to be relatively consistent.”

Who is NOAH anyway?

It was three to four years ago when the acronym NOAH (naturally occurring affordable housing) started appearing in presentations and in print. The sale of a 698-unit apartment complex in Richfield, a modest first tier suburb adjacent to South Minneapolis, and the subsequent fallout from tenants having to relocate in light of the new owners’ ambitions to rehab the ailing structure, brought this situation into focus. The term emerged from the realization that there can be a time when both landlords and tenants benefit by rents low.

Analysts talk about housing like it is a static product. How many units are for rent, with how many bedrooms, and how many square feet. People talk about housing as if the most interesting thing about it is its physical parameters. But properties change over time. What is brand-new, mechanically up-to-date today, becomes tired and dated in the course of a dozen years. People change over time too. A single adult transitions into married life and a family changing their housing needs.

Housing structures have a cycle. New means no repairs but new also means (relative to comparable used properties) the most expensive. As properties age they can become dated and repairs can start to be overlooked. Usually used properties are supporting some mix of these two: the roof is new but the furnace midcycle; the counters are granite but the appliances from a decade gone-by.

Wear and tear and maintenance can also vary depending on the tenants. A drive around any large University campus will show off some student housing that is a little worse for wear. And some landlords are better than others at keeping up on property demands. It can be that the owners are at a later stage of their investment and are happy enough to keep doing repairs instead of replacements, and ignoring the dated carpet runners in the hallways. As long as their renters are happy with stable rent, all parties allow the property to age.

Keep in mind the economics of the lower rent. The owner, by letting improvements slide and just getting by on minimal repairs, has in effect allowed the building to decrease in value. The lower rent is a transfer of building value to the renters. The decreased building value in the open market attracts an investor who is then motivated to do the renovations. And with this the new investor attracts renters who can pay for them.

This most probably describes the evolution of the large apartment complex in Richfield. Other expenses can also impact an owner’s decision to sell.

Dickens sees NOAH threatened across the region, and said landlords get no choice when property values — and thus taxes — rise. Maintenance costs and upkeep also climb, with costs typically passed to tenants.

Is it not beneficial to the community or the renters for a building to deteriorate to the point of condemnation. So the process of an investor rehabbing an aging building in and of itself is a good thing. The reality is that structures depreciate over time, and repairs can only be ignored for so long. NOAH wasn’t a discovery of something new, it just revealed a situation in the open market where both the provider of the housing and the residents found an agreeable equilibrium. For a time.

The biggest takeaway from the acronym is that there is no secret money tree that will appear and save the most vulnerable from their housing burden. NOAH occurs as a situation where an investor tolerates some devaluing of property which is then reflected in lower rent to tenants. But it cannot be sustained without the building becoming a teardown. In the end, when people can’t afford their housing expense, some other group will have to cover the difference.