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Understanding Sustainability and Multifamily Housing Solutions

“The truth we all know is that housing is related to everything else. When we talk about housing we’re also talking about ensuring that people can get back to their normal lives safely.” -Mayor Anna Tovar

Earlier this month we were joined by Council Member Erika Strassburger from the City of Pittsburgh and Mayor Anna Tovar of Tolleson, Arizona for our 4th Rhino Live Virtual Roundtable. The nationally viewed conversation touched on how we can begin to understand and address the post-COVID-19 challenges on the horizon, with both of our guests agreeing that how we react to these challenges will determine what the multifamily housing industry might look like for the foreseeable future. Our conversation also included ideas about the importance of prioritizing two types of sustainability in the search for long-term solutions. Here’s what we learned about each one:

Economic Sustainability

Early in our discussion Council Member Strassburger spoke about the need for federal aid to be provided to cities and states across the country in order to address financial hardship created by COVID-19. Describing this federal assistance as “necessary and important” in the recovery from large, system-wide strain, Council Member Strassburger spoke to the fact that not only do most Americans live in smaller cities with populations less than 500,000, but that economic self-sustainability and growth are also uneven across cities generally. She reaffirmed that although the ultimate goal is to create systems that prevent owners and renters from needing assistance in the first place, we must ensure that federal intervention will protect local economies from being stretched too thin and keep them from having to choose between addressing issues today and maintaining economic stability going forward.

Economic sustainability was also spoken about in terms of supporting all parts of financial ecosystems simultaneously. Both of our guests agreed that addressing one set of stakeholders without addressing others only disrupts the directional cashflow that defines financial ecosystems generally and the real estate ecosystem specifically. This sentiment was echoed during a number of our previous Rhino Live events as well. Council Member Strassburger went on to tell us about the work of the Urban Redevelopment Authority in her native Pittsburgh to illustrate the fact that many cities and states have already established ways to create solutions that are economically sustainable. In Pittsburgh, a percentage of money collected through realty transfer taxes is placed into a “Housing Opportunity Fund.” The Urban Redevelopment Authority then allocates that money ($10 million/year on average) into a set of different aid programs designed to help all real estate stakeholders including renters and different types of property owners. These programs include:

Housing stabilization programs for rental and utility assistance

Down payment and closing cost assistance

Small landlord funds

Homeowner assistance funds

Rental gap programs

According to Council Member Strassburger, this is where federal assistance comes back into play. These methods of distributing aid and resources have proven themselves viable on many occasions, and what the challenges of today call for is the funneling of aid money from federal initiatives into these pre-existing infrastructures that have already begun to build solutions that help all real estate stakeholders at the same time.

Environmental Sustainability

Both of our guests also called for a heightened focus on environmental sustainability as members of the multifamily housing industry prepare for life after COVID-19. In describing the importance of building homes that minimize harm done to the environment, Mayor Tovar urged property owners to think of eco-friendly construction as an essential part of their duty going forward. Eco-friendly buildings abide by strict guidelines around the materials they can and cannot use in construction to ensure residents aren’t exposed to harmful and toxic materials as well. She framed this as another way to start rebuilding and strengthening public health, and that green buildings are consequently healthy buildings, which then become a way for owners to attract residents who are looking to stay healthy and feel supported in their recovery from this global pandemic.

Not only are eco-friendly buildings healthier for the environment and for residents, but investing in environmental sustainability early on during construction pays large dividends on the back end in terms of money saved on utilities and other costs, effectiveness in filling vacancies, and demonstrated willingness to work with public officials on things like LEED certification. Council Member Strassburger echoed the importance of prioritizing environmental sustainability, stating that: “A big part of Post-COVID solutions will involve balancing the bang for your buck with new and changing definitions of public health,” and that “environmentally friendly buildings allow owners to do both.” Mayor Tovar even shared that her municipality gives property owners the ability to consult with environmental and sustainability experts from local universities who advise on their plans and construction processes. This type of resourceful collaboration will play a massive part in how we continue to recover from all that has transpired in the last three months.

We’d like to thank our special guests again for all of the things we learned from this conversation. Our virtual roundtables continue to prove valuable in learning how leaders across the country are thinking about necessary solutions. We’re already hard at work preparing for our next #RhinoLive event, and we remain determined in our mission to convene leaders across all sectors to find the solutions that will push multifamily housing forward.

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