Thoughts and life updates
I write this newsletter to share some of the things I’m working on and thinking about. A little about me:
I own and manage a digital agency in Toronto called August, where we design and build websites and apps. We spend about 80% of our time on client work and the balance on internal projects. Most recently, we’ve been working on a directory of real estate development vendors called Buildstack (think: Builtwith for buildings). I also invest in and develop real estate with my two brothers.
Thanks for reading Chris’s Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
In last month’s newsletter, I mentioned that I was optimistic about the short-term prospects for missing middle housing development in Toronto. Specifically, I mentioned that the political conditions were finally right given that,
John Tory has publicly committed to liberalizing Toronto’s land use rules so that the Provincial target of 285,000 new units built over the next 10 years is achievable, and has suggested that the missing middle housing types should play a big role in achieving that target. For context, we saw something like 150,000 units built over the last 10 years.
John Tory has new strong mayor powers that make it much easier for him to make that happen, with or without the support of Council’s nimbyer factions.
John Tory has made it clear that this will be his last term. He has no re-election ambition to constrain him politically.
Of course, since then, John Tory admitted to an affair with a young staffer and resigned.
And now we’re heading into a byelection to determine who our next mayor will be. The second condition above will be true of any new mayor, but the first might not be, if we get an anti-development candidate elected, and the third will certainly not be, given that any new mayor will undoubtedly stick around—or try to—for a couple of terms at a minimum.
So where does that leave us?
Of those candidates who we all basically know will run, I think that Brad Bradford and Ana Bailao could carry the torch in advancing missing middle housing permissions. And I think that anyone else would range from being somewhat worse than John Tory to a complete disaster.
This will be an important election.
Of those two pro-housing candidates, I’m placing my bet and my support with Brad Bradford. A recent Toronto Star piece described him as being like John Tory but willing to do “more, faster”. Since the 2022 election, he served as the Chair of the Planning and Housing Committee and was the architect of the 2023 Housing Action Plan that was approved in Council back in December.
This 2023 Housing Action Plan kicked off a process of updating the City’s Official Plan, Zoning Bylaw, and other planning rules and regulations to “meet or exceed the target of building 285,000 over the next 10 years.” (Reminder: we saw something like 150,000 units built over the last 10 years.)
Here’s a quote:
“We are not going to wait. As a City, we are taking immediate action to create more affordable homes in Toronto. The 2023 Housing Action Plan will allow us to bring in more housing and more affordability faster, by thoughtfully removing red tape and speeding up approval times. We need to take bold actions to encourage the future prosperity of our city and make sure that everyone has access to housing.”
Getting Brad into the mayor’s office would be a big win.
August: Over the past few weeks we’ve been developing the idea of a Scout program for August, and have officially launched it today. Our thinking is that there are many people across many domains and industries with knowledge of upcoming digital projects or digital project needs that have not yet been delegated to an agency, and we want to give them a reason to think about us as early planning for those projects takes place. There’s of course nothing new to this idea. This is an affiliate program, if maybe a bit more involved given the bespoke nature of agency proposals.
One angle I’m especially eager to explore with this is in recruiting people who have just recently retired—especially those coming from senior roles, who would still have the institutional knowledge and networks developed over many years. They might also be interested in taking on small post-retirement projects and earning a few extra bucks. Know anyone we should talk to?
Buildstack: I’m looking for someone to help with Buildstack sales. I don’t yet have a job posting but here’s the gist of it: you spend 3-4 hours per day calling and emailing the 3,000+ companies we have in our database to 1) walk through the product on a screenshare, 2) let them know that we’ve created a profile for their company, 3) confirm with them that the projects we’ve listed in their profile as being those they’ve contributed to are correct, and 4) ask them to further populate their profiles with any projects that they’ve contributed to that we haven’t captured. You don’t yet upsell to a premium account. By signing up for a free account and claiming their company profiles, they’ll see our upsell calls to action throughout the product. We’ll save the direct sales for phase two. I think we could work through all of those companies in six months, taking our time to personalize the outreach and not have this be a fully automated campaign, and have 10-20% upgrade to a premium account on their own.
I’m saying 3-4 hours per day because I think this could be a good role for someone looking for something part-time, but who is committed to sticking around for the long haul.
real estate stuff
FH1*: After many, many months of dealing with the City and our neighbours to get to this point, we’ve finally received some of our building permits and are beginning the early phases of construction. This past month we’ve begun our basement demolition and will begin the underpinning work to reinforce our building foundation next week. It’s always exciting when a project crosses the threshold from paperwork to real work. You get to tour the site and see material progress week by week as the new structure and building emerges.
MR1**: Earlier this week I was thinking that I didn’t have much to report on this project but then I received an email from our planner forwarding the City’s first round of comments on our Official Plan Amendment (OPA) and Zoning Bylaw Amendment (ZBA) applications. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting these for a few more weeks. This is the first time in the process—and it’s been a slow and painful process—that I was pleasantly surprised by the timing of a milestone. To be fair, that largely reflects how low my expectations have fallen. Nevertheless!
At a first glance, the comments are mostly what we expected them to be. There are a few key items that are especially challenging and we’ll navigate them with our consultants as best as we can.
In the meantime, we continue to make our debt service payments as this all plays out and pray to Adam Smith’s invisible hand that the market is in a much better place than it is today when we mark the completion of this rezoning process with the receipt of our Site Specific Zoning Bylaw.
*Forever Hold 1. A proposed four-storey multiunit rental building in Toronto’s west end that we plan on holding forever.
**Midrise 1. A proposed eleven-storey multiunit residential building (tenure to be determined) in Toronto’s west. We’re starting with a rezoning and will see where we take it from there.
stuff I’ve enjoyed
This is some of the content I’ve come across over the past month that’s worth sharing.
Article: We published the Urban Progress website this month, and with it, Eric Lombardi’s piece from the first issue. It’s great, like a manifesto for people who want to get serious about housing affordability in Toronto. He summarizes many of the key points in this twitter thread but it’s worth reading as a whole.
Book: I’m trying to read more older books, but that wasn’t the case this month. I read Bent Flyvjerg’s How Big Things Get Done (HBTGD) on “the surprising factors that determine the fate of every project, from home renovations to space exploration and everything in between”. I first came across Bent Flyvjberg when I read The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management, an anthology he edited. HBTGD was good in that it taught me new things but I think that it fell short of taking on some of the more politically incorrect reasons why big government megaprojects inevitably go over budget and time or never get completed at all. If you want a guide to navigating some of those, you’d be better off re-reading The Power Broker.
Podcast: The Moment of Zen podcast is starting to get good, carried in large part by co-host Antonio Garcia Martinez and recurring guest Amjad Masad. I’ve taken to calling this podcast the off-brand All In, and I’m probably not the only one. But it’s been getting more interesting at the same time that All In has been getting more boring. Extrapolating from these trends, it could be the better podcast of the two fairly soon. Its biggest challenge will be to get its weaker contributors to step it up.
Video: I watched most of the A16Z American Dynamism Summit videos this past month and this one on “modernizing America’s safety net through public interest technology” got my gears spinning. The speaker, Propel Founder Jimmy Chen, describes a business model where you provide a free service that would be useful to a large user base, and then layering on a monetization strategy that benefits from access to that large user base. In the case of Propel, it’s an app that checks the balance of your EBT (food stamp) card. They’ve got 5 million low-income Americans using it as the only way to check an EBT card balance prior to this app existing was to call a 1-800 number. And now that they’ve got those 5 million users within a pretty well-defined demographic, they can target other products to them. I love it, and it got me thinking about other free app ideas that might help with some government function and attract a large userbase. Maybe something like a better UI/UX for your small business CRA dashboard (assuming the required APIs are available)?
And that’s all for now. Here’s to a good and productive March.
Feel free to reply to this email with any comments or questions. I love chatting about everything mentioned above.
Thanks for reading Chris’s Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.