Toby Gannett is not only a developer of affordable housing, but Gannett has also cumulatively served more than six decades on corporate, privately held, family, and non-profit boards of directors and boards of advisors. On these boards, he has been chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, and interim treasurer. He has served as chairman of executive, governance, and CEO search committees. Gannett has served as a CEO and interim CEO. He was a senior executive and principle of an ownership group of a portfolio of companies. These companies earned more than 30 local, state, and national awards.
PPHN: Today, we would like to welcome Toby Gannett, a developer of affordable housing who will be speaking today about the Draper Commons Project on the Southeast edge of Downtown Colorado Springs. Thank you for joining us, Toby. Can you tell me how you got involved in affordable housing, and specifically why Draper Commons?
TG: Yeah, it started a long time ago, I was on the board of the chamber of Economic Development Corporation (EDC) here in Colorado Springs, and one of the key elements of the success of the Economic Development Corporation has been our affordable stock of housing. Many corporations look at Colorado Springs as a cheaper alternative where they can give a higher quality of life to their employees, and about ten years ago we really saw that change.
I was involved with Innovations in Aging Collaborative where we started to analyze a massive shortage in affordable senior housing and that has only accelerated in the last couple years and has impacted a much wider portion of our overall community and so having done a few different studies in the need for affordable housing I knew the need was massive and only getting bigger, and could never have guessed how bad our shortage would become.
I was lucky enough to be a fellow at the Aspen Institute where we really started looking at democracy and how our society is becoming more bifurcated in terms of those who have and do not have assets, and it’s really starting in my mind and to our studies to undermine the very nature of democracy in the United States, so coming out of that I did a program out of Stanford in cooperate innovation and really tried to say, “alright if we’re going to address affordable housing how do we do it at scale in a highly replicable model so we could truly address the need.
Coming out of that I started to really think about what I truly want to do with my life, and I decided to dedicate it to large scale production of affordable housing, and that’s how I got to Draper Commons, long story, and I apologize.
PPHN: We’re happy to hear it. So, when did you begin the Draper Commons project?
TG: Almost four years ago.
PPHN: You said that a project primarily would support seniors in Colorado Springs, does that ring true with Draper Commons specifically?
TG: We originally intended to have it just address seniors, and when Innovations in Aging hired the Quad Innovation Partnership to study best practices globally in affordable housing from construction to finance to green build, to how people live in the communities they really came back with the recommendation that we make it intergenerational, and so we have. We plan to heavily premarket Draper Commons to seniors through organizations like Silver Key and Innovations in Aging, but we’re also working with the local school districts because they’re desperately in need of affordable housing for their teachers and staff. We hope to have a nice mix, and having I worked in senior housing for many many years, and age isolationism really becomes a factor and so when the quad came back with a comment about making it really intergenerational it struck a tone in me and I said that’s the right thing to do.
PPHN: That’ll be a great environment for the community to thrive and build something together as well. What challenges have you faced in completing this project?
TG: How much time do you have?
PPHN: As much as you’d like to give!
TG: I think I would divide those into past present and future challenges. In the past I think part of the challenges were that Colorado Springs just hasn’t done enough affordable housing, so there just wasn’t the skillset in Colorado Springs to necessarily pull off a project of this complexity. So I really had to reach out to people who specialize nationally in in terms of financing and legal skills. I think cities that have done a lot of affordable housing know how to do it and can do it pretty effortlessly, but there was an enormous skillset that needed to be learned, both by myself and by the community to pull off a project like this.
So that was in the past, in the present, I think part of the challenges are that this the most difficult construction market that has ever occurred, between interest rates spiking, the war in the Ukraine, inflation…we can’t even find grout, elevators, or transformers right now. Fighting through the difficulties of this market, currently, which is a unique market, it has definitely been the hardest construction part in my life. After 20+ years of doing commercial development, this was one doozy of a market, and we didn’t have a choice to delay because the Federal Government is moving the qualified census tracks which are critical in determining where non competitive 4% deals can go. And so we close three days before the expiration of that QC2. And so, it was difficult.
For the future, I see the key challenges in Colorado Springs is that we are kind of living in a fantasy land. That our current allocation of bond cap from the federal government can in any way address the scale of the need that we have in Colorado springs. And so the entire allocation the most we can do is probably 200 units a year, and the need as you guys well know, my market study said in my primary market area of the need was 12,154 units and I am the only project in that primary market area…so we’re going to need to get much much more inventive when it comes to affordable housing and my thinking is that we need to go all the way back to when a tree is cut down to start being more efficient at building affordable housing. And another major challenge is that we are just running out of land in Colorado Springs, and the prices of land to give you an example have gone from what we used to see at 2-8$ /square foot, and now we’re seeing $40+/square foot, and in some cases over 100. Unfortunately I’d like to be optimistic about solving this problem but I actually see we’re going in the wrong direction across the board.
PPHN: So you are still currently working to secure those materials and overcome those issues to get this project finished up?
TG: Draper commons is moving along and we should be opening this summer(2023). We have a phase 2 and phase 3 as a part of the project. For a total of 460 units and so we’re moving forward with those. I am really starting to think how do this in 2-3 years in different areas. Because these projects do take 1, 2, 3, and 4 years. Well, one is probably way overly optimistic (chuckles), but should we be looking at more advanced forms of housing manufacturing, transpiration, or modular componentized, there’s many different ways we can work to reducing costs. We also need to look at alternative financing mechanisms that are outside like I said of the private activity bonds because they just won’t go far enough to meet the need of our community, and then we need to find cheaper land than is currently available. And That could be working with school districts, NGOs, faith-based communities, or looking outside of Colorado springs. It’s one of the reasons the quad recommended the purchase of the land downtown was because it would not require a commute For someone living at minimum wage, commutes, commute times, cost of the car, cost of the gas, those are all taxes on the individual but ultimately we’re going to need to look at land outside of the immediate downtown to really make the numbers pencil.
PPHN: There is a large scope of issues that create barriers here. As a final question, is there anything else you would like to share or add from this project or other projects you are looking forward to?
With affordable housing, there’s no magic bullet, it’s finding the 5% here the 5% there, the 5% everywhere to make the cost savings work. Especially if you’re trying to do universal design or green build, those are added costs as opposed to reducing costs but they improve the quality of life of the residents. So I think we’re just going to have to get better at absolutely every aspect of it. Like I said it may start with cutting down the tree, but it also goes to how do we reduce parking requirements, how do we have better mass transit, how do we build a more sustainable and denser city so that we can have the resources to do these affordable housing projects.
A simple example is the Draper Commons, if the city had adopted different parking requirements I could have doubled the size. So we’re choosing to house cars over people, and I can understand that if it’s a suburban environment where people have to use cars, but that’s a great area where the city could change it’s own policies to cultivate more affordable housing in urban development. Another simple example is that the project is required to have separate utility meters for every unit, even though the landlord pays 100% of the4 utility bill by law. And I was looking at doing a large solar array to make the project more green and more economically sustainable a lot of the Federal programs really encourage that and you can actually get the solar array fully financed 100% by the Federal govt., but if you have a solar array on the roof and 180 different (utility) meters, it doesn’t work.
In our city we have Colorado Springs utilities which is led by the city council, a simple change to change affordable housing projects that qualify to commercial buildings would reduce the cost of all those meters, allow the Federal solar programs to be utilized, and all we would need to do…there’s already a president in assistant living communities that are zoned commercial just like I would like to see affordable housing projects. These projects are limited by your AMI (Area Median Income) are all set by the Federal Government and so that is a pretty clear indicator that could go into determining whether or not they could be zoned as commercial. Those are two examples but I probably have a dozen more where our city could be more proactive when it comes to affordable housing, and that’s the challenge.
PPHN: Hopefully we will be moving in that direction in the coming years with new policies in place. Thank you again for taking the time to speak today, is there anywhere that you would like to direct community members to learn about your projects or how they can get involved in making these barriers lessen in the community?
TG: I think you guys are doing it, so I would be the first one to direct business to you guys, school District 2 was just reaching out to me because they are desperately in need of housing for their teachers and staff. So it’s really breaking down the communication barriers are critical, because in Harrison District 2 there are already several projects that are in the works. So it’s really connecting the right people at the right time and breaking down these barriers, like improving how we all work with the city council and mayor’s office, and alike.
PPHN: Thank you for referencing back to us, I was hoping we might be a resource. If you would like to learn about the affordable housing collaborative or get involved, please visit our website at affordablehousingelpasoco.org and follow us on social media, and again, thank you for your time.