The nonprofit company Restore Neighborhoods LA (RNLA) has just built a small homeless housing development in the Vermont Knolls neighborhood of LA. The cost per unit to build was a mere $225,000, less than half of the $500,000 average for homeless housing in LA. With only eight units, it does little to solve homelessness on its own, but RNLA hopes its financing strategy can be used by others to build more affordable housing faster.
How many builders get money is called the “lasagna of financing” — acquiring funding from several sources, including city, county, state, federal, and private sources. Going through this process takes time, as each different source requires a different application and approval process, and things could change between getting approval from one source and being rejected by another. It could also incur additional costs, such as application fees and hiring financial and legal experts. RNLA instead avoided this bureaucracy by opting for mostly single-source financing. They received the entirety of their $920,000 loan from a single private company called Genesis LA, and the rest of their financial support came from LA county grants and crowdfunding.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely that many builders will be able to acquire funding in this way for larger projects. Single sources simply don’t have the money, or don’t want to risk it, for a large project. The lasagna system has the benefit that no single source is incurring much risk, since they are each able to finance a smaller portion of the costs.
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Populous cities are generally considered to be higher density areas, but in some of the largest cities in California, about 75% of the land is zoned for single-family residences. The history of the overabundance of SFRs can be traced back to segregation. It was a tool designed to price out lower-income Black people from predominantly white neighborhoods, something which cities hope to rectify with new zoning laws.
Though many people aren’t aware of the racist roots, and rezoning isn’t going to completely eliminate racism, SFRs are outdated in more ways than one. California desperately needs more affordable housing, but building large apartment complexes is expensive for construction companies. The middle ground is medium-density housing, such as triplexes and fourplexes. To that end, San Francisco has drafted plans to allow fourplexes in every district considered a residential district. A few other Bay Area cities are considering similar plans.
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The first 3D-printed house was put on the market last month, and already multiple other companies are following suit in other states. SQ4D is the company that started it all in New York, and Texas was the first to get on the bandwagon, with ICON completing four 3D-printed homes in East Austin. 3Strands followed suit in Kansas City, and Mighty Buildings in California is also working on a project.
3D printing buildings didn’t just start out, though. ICON actually built several a year ago. They just never went on the market, because they were built as homeless housing, not for-sale properties. ICON has the most experience, but they are no longer without competition. Their biggest competition currently is thought to be Mighty Buildings, which actually started back in 2017 but has taken the time to develop what they hope to be more cost-effective and energy-efficient building materials.
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During the 2000s, California’s population increased by 2 per new housing unit constructed. With an average varying between 2 and 3 people per household, this was a fairly sustainable rate of construction. Unfortunately, construction has slowed at the same time that population is still increasing. The ratio is now an increase of 4 per new housing unit constructed. The state has passed laws to combat the housing shortage, but it’s not enough.
UC Berkeley’s Terner Center may have cracked the code. They’ve done a case study of one San Francisco project that was completed 30% faster and 25% cheaper than similar projects, and identified the key factors that led to its success. According to the Terner Center, they are 1. an upfront commitment to low costs and a quick construction, 2. flexible funding, 3. streamlining the approval process, and 4. taking advantage of modular construction, so that some parts of the construction can be done in parallel with others. This is going to require the aid of local governments to make flexible funding more available and modify the approval process.
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New York construction company SQ4D may have the latest and greatest in construction technology. They’ve used a giant 3D printer to print houses from the bottom up out of concrete, right on the site. Their first demo house, as a proof of ability, was in Calverston, New York. The next one is already up for sale, despite not having been built yet. The 1400 square foot house will be located in Riverhead, New York and is listed at $299,000.
This isn’t just some publicity stunt. 3D printing has some real benefits. Most notably, construction is significantly shorter. SQ4D’s first house took just eight days to build — and that includes the planning process. The actual construction? 48 hours. Making the process this quick must incur significant expenses, right? Well, no, it was actually cheaper according to SQ4D. The transportation and labor costs associated with traditional construction mean that 3D printing is about 30% less expensive. The new method has been met with some skepticism, though. No one is sure exactly how this will affect the construction industry, as skilled tradesmen may suddenly find themselves replaced with printers.
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Low mortgage rates have resulted in increased buyer demand, and shifting preferences in home features are specifically increasing the demand for new constructions. With sellers waiting out the pandemic, there aren’t many existing homes available for sale. In addition, they don’t always have the features that the new generation of buyers is looking for, such as home offices, larger spaces, and outdoor amenities.
Chief economist Robert Dietz of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) predicts a 5% increase in construction starts by the end of 2021. Even so, buyer demand is expected to continue to outpace construction, so sales of existing homes will likely also increase. Builders are going to have trouble keeping up, not only due to lack of time or labor, but also because of increasing costs. The cost of lumber has gone up 169% since April 2020, the month after lockdowns started. Construction companies also report significant issues with obtaining timely approval and navigating new construction ordinances.
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In many cases, high-profile construction companies will purchase large areas of land and build many homes at once. In theory, this ensures that once this project is finished, they will already have homes available to purchase while they start their next project. This theory has started to break down in the current market, as demand has far outpaced construction in the wake of the pandemic lockdowns.
In fact, many buyers not able to find what they’re looking for among the low inventory of homes are actually purchasing homes that haven’t even been built yet. New residential construction sales went up 20% between November 2019 and November 2020. In some cases, buyers will contract builders to build new homes on a plot of land they have bought, but this isn’t the norm and doesn’t explain the surge in new construction sales.
A big part of the problem is that builders aren’t building. During the past year, they simply couldn’t, as lockdowns and rising costs of business made it near impossible to finish construction projects. But the issue started long before then. California’s most recent peak in SFR construction starts was in 2018 at 62,600, but this pales in comparison to the 2005 number of 154,700. And this is just SFRs — multi-family construction is also dropping. Meanwhile, more and more homes are needed, as California’s population increased by 17% between 2000 and 2018.
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Residential construction of both single-family residences (SFRs) and multi-family housing has been on a downturn since the most recent peak in 2018. SFR construction in particular is a long way down from the 2005 numbers when they started to nosedive, while multi-family housing construction has been relatively stable since the 1980s, albeit much lower than it should be.
The number of SFR starts in 2020 is projected to be about 53,000, 10% lower than in 2019 and less than a third of the 2005 number of 154,700. Multi-family housing construction has rebounded from the 2009 trough, but at an expected 48,000, is still down 5% from last year. For multi-family housing, the 50,300 value in 2005 was actually lower than the 2017 and 2018 peak of 53,800 both years.
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