In London, like New York, they are building deposit boxes, not housing

by Lloyd Alter


CC BY 2.0 Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie and cranes/ Lloyd Alter

For some time I have been complaining about those who attack the “nostalgists and NIMBYs” for preventing development that according to the laws of supply and demand, would reduce the cost of housing. Writing here and in the Guardian, I have called for a Goldilocks Density:

There is no question that high urban densities are important, but the question is how high, and in what form. There is what I have called the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

shardShard over London/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Now Simon Jenkins describes in the Guardian how London’s empty towers mark a very British form of corruption. He notes that London didn’t get more housing, didn’t get more density, and in fact got nothing but bank deposits in the sky.

In London, as the Guardian shows, [in an earlier story about an empty building] these buildings have nothing to do with housing supply, let alone low-cost supply. Their front doors are manned not by concierges, but by security guards, like banks. They are the product of speculative flows of often “dodgy” cash, seeking an unregulated property market that asks no questions and seeks a quick profit. That is all.

He also makes the point that we have many times: that height has almost nothing to do with population density.

Nor do towers have to do with population density. The idea that modern cities must “go high” as part of the densification cause is rubbish. External landscaping and internal servicing makes them costly and inefficient. The densest parts of London are the crowded and desirable low-rise terraces of Victorian Islington, Camden and Kensington. The recently proposed Paddington Pole, the height of the Shard, had just 330 flats on 72 storeys. Adjacent, Victorian Bayswater could supply 400 on the same plot.

As noted in We Don’t All Have To Live In High Rises To Get Dense Cities; We Should Just Learn From Montreal, it is not necessary to build tall to get density. In fact, our cities have been de-densifying as apartments are combined and fewer people live in them. In New York City, apartment buildings are being converted back into single family houses.

Jenkins calls it corruption:

Livingstone and Johnson promoted these towers not because they cared where ordinary Londoners would live, or because they had a coherent vision of how a historic city should look in the 21st century. They knew they were planning “dead” speculations, because plenty of people told them so. They went ahead because powerful men with money and a gift for flattery just asked. It was very British sort of corruption.

I think that is harsh, because it is happening in every successful city. Perhaps it is more a reflection of the increasing acceptance of inequality, which is why they have been calledPikettyscrapers, “inequality made solid in marble and glass.”

Cities like New York and London demonstrate that height and density restrictions have very little to do with the price of housing; the developers build these towers for the rich because that’s where the money is.

Tags: Housing Industry | London

Commercial Vehicles in an HOA – What is Discrimination?

Adrian_Transit_RearHere is the question sent in by a reader.

“My new neighbor has been told he cannot park his commercial van inside the property, yet there are 3 others that do park here. He feels he is being discriminated against and being singled out. I told him I would contact you to see what his options are.  Informed him he should get in contact with you before moving forward. Appreciate your feedback on this matter.”

I don’t have any facts indicating discrimination at this point. Some of the questions that would arise are whether any of the other persons’ vehicles are grandfathered for any reason. The way this might be justified is if a board has been lax in enforcing rules against commercial vehicles and then that border the next Board besides to “crackdown” which often is the case when things start to go downhill fast, there might be a reason some of the vehicles were grandfathered until the residents left for the vehicles were sold or given to someone else. There might be a considerable difference between one person’s perceived commercial vehicle and others. For example, one might have simple signage and the other might have tool boxes or racks or even a great big cement mixer. There might be an issue about whether the vehicle will fit in a parking space or garage. Thus, I would hesitate to call anything discrimination until I knew all of the facts.  I certainly would suggest not stirring up trouble without having a full understanding of both sides of an issue.  Many HOA documents in California do prohibit commercial vehicles and many boards grapple with what kind of control they should implement given factors like a pickup truck is required to get commercial license plates – does that make it a commercial vehicle that must be prohibited? The answer is no. Some associations require any vehicles with signage to use magnetic signs that can be removed if the vehicle is parked out in the common area or driveways. Some allow signage but don’t allow racks. It varies according to the circumstances, facts, and problems.

As to the issues around one person advocating on the part of another, don’t do it unless you are asked and/are qualified.

Big efficiency for small and medium buildings

Ohio small business

Shutterstock Kenneth Sponsler
90 percent of the commercial real estate market is made up of small and medium buildings.

For those of us working in the green buildings field, it can appear on the surface that all the exciting work is happening in enormous buildings and portfolios in popular coastal cities.

Stories about net-zero renovations in Silicon Valley, innovative efficiency solutions for Fortune 500 headquarters in New York and big Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS) achieving LEED or GRESB certifications dominate the majority of green building media coverage.

While aggressive action to retrofit large existing buildings in mega cities such as New Yorkremains important, it’s also crucial that we don’t overlook smaller cities and companies with smaller portfolios that are often just as interested in lowering energy costs but lack resources to do so.

The majority of buildings in the U.S. aren’t owned by big-name REITS. They’re small and medium buildings occupied by retail stores, offices, restaurants, nonprofits and other small businesses. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) most recent Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), 88 percent of commercial buildings are smaller than 25,000 square feet, and account for over 25 percent of all commercial floor space in the country. For the industry to move forward as a whole, we need to prove the same value proposition of energy efficiency applies to buildings of all shapes and sizes and get beyond using a New York office tower as the primary case study for what’s possible.

Energy efficiency in Cleveland

To that point, the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) and the Council of Smaller Enterprises (COSE) just wrapped up a two-year initiative in Cleveland called the Cleveland Energy-Aligned Leasing Program. The overarching goal of the program was to improve the small business community’s understanding of sustainability through a combination of education, energy audits, green lease resources and financing options in one bundled program package — and turning this effort into a blueprint for cities and local business communities across the U.S.

To reach the most businesses and engage disadvantaged communities, the partners leveraged COSE’s role as Ohio’s largest small business support organization to attract and retain participants. As a trusted voice for local businesses, chambers of commerce such as the Greater Cleveland Partnership and COSE historically have shaped the economic vitality of cities and towns.

Working with a dedicated network of real estate stakeholders including the city and county sustainability offices and the Cleveland 2030 District, IMT and COSE engaged over 60 owners and tenants representing more than 7 million square feet of space to help them pursue energy and water-saving solutions through stronger collaboration. Participants ranged from owners wanting to revamp old industrial facilities to design and build companies looking to add sustainability clauses to leases for its properties, to pastors of churches seeking lower heating and cooling costs for the congregation and its nonprofit tenants.

When IMT and COSE initially met with small business owners, several of them told us that projects they believed would save money and energy were collecting dust on the shelf because of immense time constraints and multiple roles to fill. What helped put efficiency back on the table for them was the combination of introductory educational resources with immediate project support for identifying and tackling the most cost-effective improvements. This type of help made it a much easier undertaking for both businesses and building owners who previously never had time to search for potential solutions on their own.

For example, one property owner inherited a building from his father only to discover that his industrial tenants had rented for years based only on a “gentleman’s handshake agreement.” After bringing key tenants with him to a Cleveland Energy-Aligned Leasing Program workshop, the property owner is finalizing both the building’s first energy-aligned lease (also known as agreen lease) and LED lighting retrofits in multiple tenant spaces.

We also noticed during our interactions that smaller companies naturally use a more personal touch to landlord-tenant collaboration, resulting in some innovation that’s not often seen from publicly traded firms. Cleveland-area real estate firm NEO Realty Group (a 2015 Green Lease Leader) and an American Cancer Society (ACS) Discovery Shop worked together in the middle of a lease to identify energy-saving building improvements and a renewal lease structure that would allow both parties to benefit from the investment. While a smaller organizational chart may mean fewer resources dedicated to seeking out energy efficiency projects, it also means fewer layers of hierarchy are required to approve any individual project.

The two sides developed a custom agreement that upgraded the building, reducing the ACS Discovery Shop’s lighting load by 70 percent and providing NEO Realty a 15 percent return on investment. In the first two years post-upgrade, the ACS Discovery Shop’s annual utility bills will be reduced by 43 percent, according to the results of the energy audit conducted by COSE. Those savings will be directed back into ACS’s mission to eliminate cancer.

Resource guide

As a culmination of technical guidance and case studies created over the course of this initiative, IMT and COSE are releasing “Making Efficiency Work for You: A Guide for Empowering Landlords and Tenants to Collaborate on Saving Energy & Resources,” a resource which presents replicable starting points that others in the commercial real estate industry can use in looking to establish other programs or complement current value propositions around sustainability for small businesses.

As last year’s Green Building Adoption Index shows, the largest buildings in the largest markets already have committed significant resources to energy efficiency. The great opportunity is that more than 90 percent of the market is out there waiting to be engaged. The results from the Cleveland Energy-Aligned Leasing Program have shown that with the right support system in place, small and local businesses absolutely do find value in energy efficiency and will act to improve the performance of their buildings.

Moving ahead, COSE and IMT will collaborate with other local chambers of commerce to help small business landlords and tenants improve the energy efficiency of leased buildings. This work will be a part of the DOE Commercial Building Integration Program’s $8.4 million investment to nationally scale up replicable, energy-efficient solutions for small and medium office buildings, apartments, stores, restaurants and businesses.

We look forward to further engagement in this underserved sector of commercial real estate so we can unlock even greater environmental and economic savings.  In the meantime, I hope that the next case study you read may just be about a small energy-efficient building in Ohio.

How to Approach Handling Angry Residents

Communication Residents Multifamily

“By the time the call got to me, it wasn’t about the toilet or they forgot to fix the oven,” he said. “It was the manager was rude to me and she yelled at me.”

Reaching Resolutions with Angry Residents

The phone rang as Anacan was about to leave for an event. As the caller ranted for a minute or two, he followed the company protocol of diffusing angry residents and apologized profusely for the general manager’s actions, saying he couldn’t imagine such a thing could happen. He felt good that he took the right steps, and was looking forward to tying up the call and getting to his event. Barely two years into his new apartment industry career, that’s when the green behind Anacan’s ears turned darker.

The more he toed the company line, the resident accused him of covering up for the manager and threatened to call the president. “In the middle of this, she called me barbaric,” he said with a laugh.

Many in the industry who routinely interact with residents have no doubt heard worse, enough they may be desensitized to angry voices or, worse, get defensive. Perhaps Anacan’s inexperience was his greatest asset in getting a handle on the call. As the resident’s tone grew terse, he decided to just shut up and listen.

Over the next two minutes, she had the floor. Anacan remained silent, enough that she asked if he was still on the line.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“You’re not saying anything.”

“Obviously, I upset you and made you feel like I wasn’t listening to you, and I’m really focusing and listening.”

The conversation’s tone quickly changed. Her voice got calmer and they soon found middle ground. “We finished up and talked another 10-15 minutes,” he said. “By the end of the call she said thanked me for listening and she never called anyone else. It didn’t escalate.”

‘The lesson I took from that call was … pay attention and be engaged’

Anacan, now a 20-year multifamily teaching veteran, who regularly speaks at national and state housing conferences, tells that story often. It was the moment that the President of Relationship Difference realized that successfully handling angry residents doesn’t always result from a textbook approach.

In his training sessions – he’ll be speaking at the National Apartment Association’s Education Conference & Exposition in San Francisco in June – he offers a seven-step approach and phrases to use or avoid when dealing with upset residents. But not every resident complaint is going to follow an outline. Often, it’s best to first just listen and try to understand.

“The lesson I took from that call was you just have to pay attention and be engaged,” he said. “But it was one of those times if you follow the rules and you’re not connected, you’re not engaged and your ego is leading out in front, it could have been blown to pieces.”

Natural tendencies can get in the way of resolution

At the risk of sounding self-serving, Anacan says the multifamily housing industry needs to embrace training on-site personnel and anyone in contact with residents about how to effectively manage complaints.

According to a Satisfacts survey, 60 percent of residents that move-out do so for reasons that can be directly impacted by the community team.  Your residents are someone else’s prospects, Anacan says.

He believes too often emotion gets in the way, especially with employees who have been in the game a long time. A veteran property manager may try to shut down an angry resident quickly and move on. A less experienced employee could get defensive and cause the complaint to escalate.

Leaders, he said, sometimes feel that people skills should come naturally.

“What I’ve found that what a lot of people do naturally are really what end up making it worse,” Anacan said. “When someone is accusing you of something, your natural tendency is to want to defend yourself. The more you do it the more the person on the other end of it is saying you are covering up, you are lying. What trips us a ton is what we naturally think is the right thing to do, and it’s not the right thing to do.”

Listen to the complaint and compromise if necessary

Anacan recommends taking a timeout if the conversation begins to get unruly. Staying calm will also help both sides reach an amicable concession without wasting valuable time and money.

Giving up small concessions – like waiving an application fee – rather than letting an argument escalate to the corporate level is a much better solution. He says on-site personnel sometimes forget that the resident-manager relationship is a two-way street and usually works best with compromise, especially in tenuous situations.

“In multifamily, handling someone who is angry and upset is not easy, especially when it’s not your fault,” Anacan said. “And it’s not easy when it is your fault because every defense mechanism we have comes up and you don’t want to be the guy who screws it up. Just by allowing a customer to have their say, just by listening, just by making sure we know the story, gives us a starting point. Then after the story is done, it’s really about trying to find what is I can do.”

The resident-manager conversation doesn’t have to become a battle with casualties.

5 Steps to Decluttering Your Apartment Patios this Summer


by  –

Spring and Summer Bring the Clutter

On my way to work one morning, I passed an apartment complex about a mile from my house. While the complex itself appeared to be neat and clean, the resident balconies were filled with clutter. Taking a quick detour through the complex, I saw more balconies than not that were full of items, most of them unidentifiable. I even saw a few bicycles leaning up against the unit walls, and even one just sprawled across the lawn in front of the resident patio.

Aside from the balcony/patio clutter, the complex was tidy; trees trimmed, recently painted, flowers planted by the leasing office. And while I applaud management for keeping the complex tidy, the fact remains that they can have the most pristine grounds, but a visitor’s eye will go immediately toward the clutter that is displayed on those balconies.

Though balcony/patio restrictions are typically included in any multi-unit lease, this is one area that even the best of tenants can abuse. It’s also one of the areas that is hard to enforce. While it’s simple enough to drive through the complex and note balcony/patio clutter, property managers with limited staff often cite the need to focus on the bigger issues.

Unfortunately, while the manager may see a harmless infraction, a potential tenant sees an unsightly apartment community – which immediately makes this a bigger issue. So, what are the best ways to keep this very common problem under control? Here are a few ideas:

  • Address the balcony/patio restrictions with all potential tenants, with new tenants signing a form stating that they have been notified about those restrictions. This way, if balcony or patio clutter becomes an issue down the road, you have a written acknowledgement that the tenant was notified about any restrictions.
  • Be very clear about what is and what is not able to be on a resident’s balcony or patio. This may vary from community to community, but providing tenants with a list of what can and cannot be stored on their balcony may prevent them from inadvertently violating the rules due to lack of knowledge.
  • If possible, offer alternative storage solutions. Perhaps strike a deal with a neighborhood storage facility that will offer your tenants a discount.
  • Actively enforce the policy. While many managers may be reluctant to potentially anger a good tenant over this issue, remember that messing balconies and patios can have a direct effect on leasing rates. Create a system, where you can easily track violators – perhaps approaching them informally the first time. Like any other lease violation, the penalties should become progressively more severe if the issue is not resolved.
  • Offer a ‘Prettiest Balcony’ contest, allowing residents to have a little bit of fun and utilize their creativity. If residents take pride in their balcony, they’re much less likely to fill it with clutter.

Start enforcing your balcony or patio restrictions today, and by summer time, you’ll have the prettiest balconies in the neighborhood.

How HOA Leaders Create Happy Communities

What makes a community happy? A lot goes into it, but it’s no secret that much of it depends on community leadership. That includes members of the homeowners association board and, if professional management is involved, your community manager. This also applies to the management company and the team supporting the community manager.

When these individuals know their rights and responsibilities, then they can be successful at their roles. And when that happens, everyone in the community wins!

So let’s take a look at what some of these rights and responsibilities are. You could think of it as a checklist — or seven steps to a happy community.

The rights of community leaders include:

  1. Counting on owners and residents. Everyone who lives in the community should do their financial part by paying dues and assessments to the association in a timely manner.
  1. Relying on homeowners to know — and follow — the rules. Community leaders should be able to wholeheartedly place their trust in residents to be knowledgeable about all HOA rules and regulations. Beyond knowledge, they should be able to expect compliance, too.
  1. Respect. We’re talking about both receiving it and giving it. Mutual respect among residents, community managers and HOA leadership should be a given.
  1. Meetings that matter. When residents and board members get together, the focus should be on constructive outcomes.
  1. Collaboration. It takes an entire team to build a community, so board members and the professional community management company should be able to rely on residents to do their part, too.
  1. Privacy. Board members are just like everyone else — they deserve downtime, off the clock. That means residents can’t expect them to be “on” while they’re at their homes or joining in community activities.
  1. Improvement.  Access to training and workshops goes a long way toward making board members better at what they do. Your professional management company should provide educational opportunities and board members should take advantage of them.

Community association leaders have a responsibility to…

  1. Work for the good of the community. Board members and community managers have a lot of responsibilities, including the kind of fiscal stewardship that enables a community to maintain its lifestyle standards. Further, it’s up to them to set a long-term vision for the community and to enact the strategies and tactics it takes to realize it. This includes protecting and enhancing the community brand.
  1. Know their stuff. Board members and HOA managers should be knowledgeable when it comes to the ins and outs of the community’s governing documents, local laws, bylaws, and regulations. It’s incumbent upon them to keep apprised of all revisions and changes that these documents might undergo.
  1. Roll out the welcome mat. It’s up to leadership to welcome new residents – and that includes owners and non-owners alike. It’s a great way to not only establish a neighborly rapport, but also help newcomers familiarize themselves with community standards and expectations.
  1. Be responsive. When homeowners ask for records and documents, it’s up to leadership to provide them.
  1. Collect dues and assessments. Of the many hats you’ll wear, “collector” is one of them. But don’t think that it makes you the bad guy; a good community manager or board member will help homeowners undergoing hardship to find a payment plan that enables them to meet their financial commitments. Remember, foreclosure is the last avenue you want to pursue after all other potential solutions have been explored.
  1. Keep communication open. Leadership should keep communication at the forefront of their agenda. Emails, fliers and newsletters are a great way to keep residents informed – and connected. Just remember that communication is a two-way street, so it’s wise to establish an advisory committee that determines best practices for soliciting community member input.
  1. Create community. A sense of togetherness happens through engagement. Leadership should create a robust calendar of social and entertainment events that bring residents together. After all, a sense of community is what we’re all here for.


Urban engineering from ancient ideas

by Lloyd Alter

barcelona from google

© Google Earth

In 1867 an unknown engineer in Barcelona, Ildefons Cerdà, essentially invented urbanism with his General Theory of Urbanization. His ideas were extreme and unprecedented; he wanted gardens in the middle of each block, equal access to services for the rich and the poor, and wider streets. Marta Bausells, writing in the Guardian,describes his success and prescience:

Barcelona planArchives of the Kingdom of Aragon, Barcelona/Ministerio de Cultura/Ministerio de Cultura/Public Domain

Eixample remains a prominent part of Barcelona’s image today: the octagonal blocks, chamfered in the corners, were his unique idea to deal with traffic, allowing drivers to see more easily what was happening to the left and right. Cars hadn’t even been invented yet – but when Cerdà discovered railways: “He realised there would be some sort of small machines moved by steam that each driver could stop in front of their house,” Permanyer explains. Even today, this design makes traffic circulation infinitely easier in Eixample.

Alas, that traffic circulation is almost too easy. Now the roads are full of cars, pollution and noise. In most cities, there are main arteries and quieter side streets, but in Barcelona they are almost all the same.

barcelona blocksUrban Mobility plan of Barcelona/Public Domain

So now they are going to be turned into “superblocks” with a hierarchy of streets, with each superblock surrounded by higher speed streets where cars and trucks can travel at 50 km/hr (About 30 MPH) while within the blocks, cars and trucks are limited to a measly 10 km/hr or 6 MPH- really a crawl. Marta Bausells in the Guardian again:

The objectives are ambitious; by implementing these strategies at once, the city wants to reduce car use by 21% over the next two years and increase mobility by foot, bike and public transport. Superblocks will be complemented by the introduction of 300km of new cycling lanes (there are currently around 100km), as well as an orthogonal bus network that has already been put in place, whereby buses only navigate a series of main thoroughfares.

blocksUrban Mobility plan of Barcelona/Public Domain

Each superblock houses about 5,000 people, and will be treated essentially like a small town. Planner Salvador Rueda notes that “Every superblock is like a small city with its own character….I’m already fantasizing with neighbourhood-organised inflatable swimming pools in the summer.”

Looking from North America, where anything that might remove a lane of traffic or a few parking spaces in favour of bikes or pedestrians is seen as a war on the car, one can only be green with envy.

Tags: Barcelona | Urban Life | Urban Planning