FOR A WRITER, a blank page can be an insurmountable wall at times. Personally, I find nothing more debilitating than a stark white Word document. I will stare for hours at the screen, hoping that brilliant phrases will magically appear—as if Harry Potter is standing behind me waving his magic stylus. Even when I know exactly what I want to write about—as I did for this month's column—I find myself forced to type a few random, irrelevant words just so that the screen doesn't look so discouragingly barren. India. Dolphins. Lentil soup.
That kind of writer's block can be difficult to manage. After all, with writing, as with any creative form of expression, if you don't continuously hone your craft, it begins to wither. Use it or lose it, as the old adage goes.
Recently, I've been wondering if the same holds true for developers. Since this past September, development seems to have undergone its own version of writer's block. Our staff has not heard of more than a handful of isolated projects breaking ground across the country. And even large, cash-backed developers are opting to keep their backhoes under lock and key. Equity Residential began no new projects in the third quarter of 2008. JPI all but officially disbanded its East Coast development operation. Forest City Residential announced that it would cease all new ground-up development in 2009. And AvalonBay Communities—the least-leveraged REIT in multifamily—will cease all new projects for the first half of 2009.
What if developers start to forget the valuable lessons they have learned in the past few years? Consider that during the residential housing boom, every developer large and small wanted a piece of the for-sale pie. And condos, townhomes, and single-family residences were rising up out of the ground like dandelions. Whether it was a lack of consumer demand or the result of careful planning—or even a factor of sheer luck—the multifamily industry (specifically apartment developers) did not overbuild during the boom. And I think that restraint, inadvertent or not, saved the sector, effectively sheltering multifamily from much of the country's current foreclosure crisis.
That being said, developers can be a forgetful group. The minute the credit gates start to creak open, a flood of developers will begin grasping at the iron gates, eager to ramp up their construction activity once again. But I worry that the industry will try to deliver more rental units in a short period of time than it did in the past decade. In fact, the recent use of restraint may very quickly be tossed aside in favor of a quick buck. After all, if the multifamily industry's leading developers don't use the knowledge they have gained over the past few years, then they, too, might lose it.
I, for one, would like to see more developers direct their energy toward delivering affordable or workforce housing, redeveloping the company's existing apartment stock (most of which is more than 20 years old), or finding opportunities to continue to use their development expertise in innovative ways. At Wood Partners in Atlanta, that means coming up with a green building standard comparison database. At other companies, that might entail researching, implementing, and playing with a new BIM system. [For more on BIM, see "Model Makers".]
The bottom line is that developers can't afford to sit idly by waiting for the next uptick in the real estate cycle. As a writer, when I am blocked for words, I start small—a word here or there—until I am inspired to write more. Multifamily developers, too, must stop bemoaning the lack of opportunity and, instead, start small, hone their skills, find smaller projects they can work on, and let the inspiration come flooding in. Hey, if I can get through writing this column, then anything is possible.
Shabnam Mogharabi, Editor