Landmark Links October 11th – Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

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Lead Story… As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the Obama Administration took the unprecedented action of calling on cities and counties to re-think their zoning laws.   This was a concerted effort to increase affordability and fight back against NIMBY’s who have successfully stopped development in some of America’s most productive cities.  The proposal is bold in that governors don’t often involve themselves in land use issues, let alone a sitting president.  However, the toolkit presented by the Administration is somewhat toothless because cities are ultimately still ultimately free to do as they please and they ultimately have control over local land use policy.

An additional way to achieve more density is actually quite straight forward: cash.  If the Federal Government really wants denser, more walkable mixed use development then they need to incentivize it by amending FHA rules that currently make it very difficult to build product that fits that description.  From The Washington Post (emphasis mine):

Main Street-style development — the “storefront on the first floor, apartments rented out above” style that forms the core of any older town’s historic center — is a residential building form that uses first-floor commercial space to serve community members and enliven a neighborhood. This low-rise density helps prop up the balance sheets of towns responsible for running utilities all the way out to suburban developments, as former city planner and engineer Charles Marohn has repeatedly demonstrated. It also keeps a constant set of the “eyes on the street” that Jane Jacobs identified as necessary for safe streets; renters keep an ear out for burglars after business hours and shopkeepers keep the same at bay during the day. It is, in other words, the core of any successful town-building.

Yet for 80 years, Main Street development has been effectively driven from the market by the growth of federal housing policy hostile to mixed use. Ever since Herbert Hoover’s Commerce Department helped promote the spread of model zoning codes that physically separated people and their community institutions, the federal government has poured its energy and resources into encouraging the growth of widely dispersed single-family homes and large, centralized tower blocks. To this day, FHA standards for loans, which set the market for the entire private banking sector, prohibit any but the most minimal commercial property from being included in residential development. As a groundbreaking report by New York City’s Regional Plan Association found, these standards are “effectively disallowing most buildings with six stories or less.” And depending on the program, a building could have to reach to 17 stories before it is eligible for participation in the normal housing markets. Without the FHA’s blessing, projects are granted the “nonconforming” kiss of death unless their developers can persuade a local bank to write an entirely customized loan for them, one whose risk the bank would have to keep entirely on its own books.

These caps on commercial space and income should be raised to level the playing field for housing development and let small developers invest as much in their home towns as huge corporations will in big cities. Caps currently limited to 15 and 25 percent should be raised to more than 35 percent to legalize even just three- and four-story buildings. As small towns and secondary cities across the country seek to revitalize their downtowns to become more competitive job markets, unreformed financing restrictions act as an invisible barrier, suffocating local efforts to invest in smaller communities. And while the housing affordability crisis has reached the most acute levels in a handful of coastal cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington, the White House admits that “this problem is now being felt in smaller cities and non-coastal locations.”

The current financing restrictions make it so that the tail frequently wags the dog in mixed use residential construction.  Cities often want ground floor retail to be included to add to their tax base and  increase walkability but it’s incredibly difficult to finance.  Instead what happens, is the developer gets stuck trying to thread the needle between building just enough retail to appease the city but keeping it at a low enough percentage of the total project square footage to avoid the dreaded non-conforming label.  The end result is that functional retail space is sacrificed in order to comply with FHA rules.  So, rather than having a well-designed retail concept, you end up with small, non-functional retail components in all but the largest projects.  The space has little actual economic value except as a means to obtain financing.  By way of example, a project one block from our office was recently denied by Newport Beach’s city council due to a lack of ground floor retail.  No doubt that the developer was designing to the financing constraints but didn’t include enough retail to get the City on board.  The federal government took a step in the right direction earlier in the year by making it easier to finance condos.  This is the next logical step if they are serious about increasing density and making housing more affordable.  Time to put your money where your mouth is.

Economy

Meh: The September Jobs Report was sort of a dud.

Here to Stay?  I love this explanation from Bloomberg’s Noah Smith on why low interest rates don’t necessarily cause excessive risk taking:

What is it that allows rates to hover around zero indefinitely without causing investors to do bad things with cheap money? It depends on why rates are low in the first place. If money is cheap because central banks are using their powers to keep rates lower than what the market would bear on its own, it stands to reason that investors will take cheap money and invest it in riskier things than they otherwise would. But if rates are low because of natural forces in the economy, and central banks actually have little to do with it, then there’s no reason business people would be taking extra risk.

Crude Math: An agreed OPEC production cut has oil back above $50/barrel but large, recently discovered reserves are likely to create yet another glut in the not-too-distant future.

Commercial

Over the Hump?  Apartment rents fell for the first time in a very long time in the 3rd quarter.

Dumpster Fire: Bottom tier retailers Kmart and Sears are technically still in business but both stores are utter disasters.  Rating agencies just put Sears Holdings, the company that owns both on death watch and the only way that it’s keeping the lights on is by selling the best assets that it owns.  Part of the problem is that Sears Holdings still own or lease approximately 2,500 properties so this mess will be very difficult and time consuming to wind down.

Sears-map

Residential

Beneficiaries: Vancouver’s home sales are down 33% after they introduced a foreign buyer tax.  Seattle is likely to benefit.  See Also: New York is overtaking London as the #1 destination for international property investment thanks to Brexit.

White Knight?  Tech firms, often considered villains when it comes to housing issues in the Bay Area are now throwing their weight behind pro-development groups to push for more housing construction.  See Also: The housing shortage is going to start negatively impacting economic growth in California more seriously if something isn’t done.

NIMBY Awards: The Bay Area Metropolitan Observer put together a list of their top 10 Bay Area NIMBY moments of 2016.  It would be funnier if it wasn’t so sad.

Profiles

Payday: Everyone’s favorite sexting app, also known as Snapchat is working on an IPO rumored to value the tech firm at $25 billion.

GTL is Cancelled: Tougher regulations and taxes are hitting tanning salons hard and there are 30% less of them than there were in 2008.

Chart of the Day

NIMBYs gone wild: LA Edition

Greg Morrow Capacity Graph

Source: Greg Morrow of UCLA

WTF

Best Excuse Ever: A Canadian pole vaulter who tested positive for cocaine just days before the Rio Olympics and nearly didn’t get to attend claimed that it happened because he made out with a girl that he met on Craigslist.

Wings (and Heads), Beer, Sports: Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook ordered some food at Buffalo Wild Wings and received a deep fried chicken head on his plate.

People of Walmart: Walmart was selling a shirt on it’s website that said: “I’d Rather Be Snorting Cocaine off a Hooker’s Ass.”  Sadly, it was taken down once management realized what was going on.

Bad Idea: Entering a Florida Walmart is a bad idea in the best of times.  Doing it before a major hurricane when people are stocking up is just asking for trouble as you’ll see in the video of the day.

Landmark Links – A candid look at the economy, real estate, and other things sometimes related.

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links October 11th – Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Landmark Links September 27th – Unusual Trend

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Lead Story… “When Orange County catches a cold, the Inland Empire gets the flu.”  If you’ve spent any time in the real estate industry in Southern California, you’ve probably heard some variation of this truism.  The relationship has held up over the years because the two regions are closely linked in terms of geography and economy: OC has white collar jobs and executive housing, whereas the IE traditionally has more blue collar jobs and more plentiful affordable housing.  In a typical cycle, OC home prices rise first, followed by IE prices.  When the cycle turns, the IE pricing and volume typically falls off first when entry level financing disappears and blue-collar employment falls off.  The price movements in the Inland Empire are typically greater in percentage terms (although substantially less in nominal dollar terms) to both the upside and the downside since values there are lower.  This cycle, that historical relationship has broken down, as I detailed in a blog post titled Mind the Gap back in May.  Last week, JBREC’s Rick Palacios JR posted a research piece about the disjointed nature of the recovery across housing markets in the US, summed up neatly in the chart below:

jbrec_housingcycle-marketbymarket_q32016_black3

The first thing that I noted on the chart is that, aside from Houston, every market on here is still on the positive side of the slope.  Larry Roberts at OC Housing News wrote a follow-up post that helps put the above chart in context about how Dodd Frank’s crackdown on so-called affordability products will dampen volatility in future housing cycles.

The second thing that I noticed is more local and that is that JBREC classifies both OC and LA as late Phase 2 to early Phase 3 while the Inland Empire has barely made it out of Phase 1 and is plagued by relatively low levels of housing construction.  Orange County prices exceed the prior cycle peak while Inland Empire prices are still 20% – 30% below.  IMO, there are several reasons for this:

  1. While development impact fees are very high in both Orange County and the Inland Empire, they are far higher as a percentage of new home price in the Inland Empire.  Housing prices crashed in the late aughts but impact fees didn’t, making it very difficult to build homes profitably in further out locations that haven’t experienced the coastal recovery.
  2. The Inland Empire is a less diverse economy than Orange County and is more reliant on real estate development to power it’s economy, which has struggled in light of the low number of housing starts the region is experiencing from what we would typically see at this point of the cycle.
  3. There was a far higher level of distress in the Inland Empire markets during the housing crash which took longer to work off than it did in Orange County.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, the Inland Empire is an affordability-driven market.  Orange County is not.  Riverside and San Bernardino Counties are both highly reliant on FHA financing that allows for much lower down-payments than conventional financing options.  San Bernardino and Riverside Counties are constrained by the FHA limit of $356,500 which is absurd given the massive geography of these two counties – if they were their own state it would be the 11th largest in the US by land mass.  At or below this loan amount a borrower can put up a down-payment as low as 3%. That down-payment goes up substantially for loan amounts above $356,500.  That is a huge problem for builders in the IE since they are essentially sandwiched between rising impact fees / regulatory costs and an FHA price ceiling.  If a builder wants to sell homes priced at or below FHA, he has to find cheap land and it’s still tough to make a profit.  Price above it and his absorption dries up due to a lack of a buyer pool with substantial down payment capacity.  Orange County has an FHA limit of $625,500.  Even still, Orange County just isn’t that beholden to FHA limits because home prices are so high here.  Perhaps the only silver lining is that it’s highly unlikely that the FHA will reduce loan limits for Riverside and San Bernardino Counties next year and increasingly likely that they will raise it a bit.  Still, being constrained by a completely arbitrary government loan cap on a huge and diverse area is hardly a healthy situation, even if you can get some relief when that cap increases.

Perhaps I’m incorrect and the historical relationship will remain in tact when the market eventually turns.  However, it seems unlikely given that the Inland Empire really hasn’t experienced much of a real estate recovery while Orange County has.  It’s a lot more painful to fall off of a ladder than off of a curb.

Economy

Happy Losers: So much of what’s wrong with the US economy is summed up in this paragraph from the Washington Post:

Most of the blame for the struggle of male workers has been attributed to lingering weakness in the economy, particularly in male-dominated industries such as manufacturing. Yet in the new research, economists from Princeton, the University of Rochester and the University of Chicago say that an additional reason many young men are rejecting work is that they have a better alternative: living at home and enjoying video games. The decision may not even be completely conscious, but surveys suggest that young men are happier for it.

Quick to Jump Ship: Why decreasing employee tenure could be a positive sign for the economy.

Paycheck to Paycheck: Small businesses are now surviving but still not thriving. A new JP Morgan study found that the average small business has less than a month of cash operating reserves.

Residential

Movin’ Out: KB Homes is seeing more young people entering the first time home buyer market.  Apparently, there are a few more vacancies in mom’s basement now.

Slim Pickin: Home sales fell in August as inventory fell over 10% from this time last year.

Super Sized Incentives: Builders are constructing super sized homes because they are highly economically incentivized to do so.

 Profiles

Acquisition Target: Suitors are beginning to line up to acquire beleaguered Twitter. Google and Salesforce are the among the latest rumored to be interested as is Disney.  See Also: Why is Salesforce interested in Twitter?  It’s all about the data.

Fashion Statement: Snapchat is entering the hardware business with a line of camera-equipped sunglasses.  This is great news as is it will instantly ID people who deserve to get punched in the face.

Gross: Hampton Creek is a San Francisco startup that wanted to become “the first sustainable-food unicorn” in part by selling a vegan concoction called “Just Mayo.”  The problem was that it apparently tasted like crap and the company was busted buying gallons of their own disgusting concoction from Whole Foods and other stores in an effort to boost it’s sales. (h/t Mike Deermount)

Chart of the Day

REITs get their own sector in major S&P 500 makeover

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WTF

No Regrets: A 27 year old man from Boston attempted to create something he called a “scuba bong” by filling a scuba tank with marijuana smoke. He failed miserably and lost both of his testicles when the tank exploded. The gene pool has been chlorinated once again.

Stupid Is As Stupid Does: As many of you probably know, Apple got rid of headphone jacks on the iPhone 7 leading to angst among many loyal Apple users. A prankster posted a video purporting to show owners of the new phone how to “add” the headphone jack by drilling a hole in the phone. The video went viral and idiots are now breaking their phones by drilling them out. Imagine a person of average intelligence. Now consider that half of the world’s population is dumber than that person.

Florida Has Jumped the Shark: A tweaker on a 5-day methamphetamine binge cut off a certain part of his anatomy and fed it to an alligator because, Florida.  A friend first sent me this story and I thought it was a fake.  It appears to be legit.  When it comes to Florida weirdos, reality is often stranger than fiction. (h/t Andrew Shugart)

Landmark Links – A candid look at the economy, real estate, and other things sometimes related.

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links September 27th – Unusual Trend