…with what you have, where you are.” — Roosevelt
There are a few quotes that inspire me daily, this being the biggest one in my life right now. Being in real estate in the rust belt in Buffalo, NY means we fight hard to stretch every dollar because our older housing stock desperately needs every penny.
That is the case for the Huntress. As we celebrated the grand opening of What’s Pop-in Gourmet Popcorn this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice all the things we could / should do to the building. If people noticed, they didn’t say anything. They were all smiles to see an old tired building being brought back to life with new small businesses that contribute to the neighborhood in a positive way.
As I said my concerns of not getting everything perfect to a friend yesterday, he reminded me that it was perfectly imperfect and said this: ”it’s an instructive example of Rust Belt practicality and inclusive, non subsidized development!”.
He’s right. The Huntress is a little three unit building — two 550sf commerical storefronts and a little cottage in the back. She’s tired but timeless. A tiny titan! There are no tax breaks or grants for these little buildings yet they’re the ones who matter so much to the local community. These small scale, mixed use buildings help small businesses find their footing, keep rents affordable, add to our local employment, pay taxes and make our neighborhoods more walkable, livable and lovable.
Some may ask — why are so many of these little buildings so tired? Why don’t we build these little cutie pies anymore? Well, let me give you a little reality check. We live in the rust belt where population loss has plagued most cities for nearly half a century. Sadly, the value of this little three unit building sits somewhere around $200K which may sound like a lot to some but with typical bank lending policies, our commitment to not charging ridiculous rents and the purchase price, it left us with ~$50K to make it work… for the entire renovation. I refuse to hire people who aren’t licensed and insured… so don’t think I’m getting a “guy” to do this work cheaper. Instead, over the last few years, I’ve created a scappy start up business that is vertically integrated to handle these little projects because it really is the only way to make it pencil.
So that is where the idea of incremental developement comes in. Over one year we worked slowly on each unit — the rear house first. Once that was rented, we took a breath. Then we turned our focus on the storefronts — getting them painted and with new LVT flooring. Added drywall to meet the inspectors concerns. Fixed the windows, removed the safety bars that covered every window, ripped off the vinyl. We wrapped the storefronts in metal — because they needed deep repair and I haaaaateee vinyl. We couldn’t afford to hire the wrap out so our team bent the metal themselves (and you can tell!) but whatever, we did it. It isn’t perfect… far from it. Even at the opening, there was caulk and trim needing to be fixed! (We will get to it next week!)
But the story is one of the rust belt: where there is a will, there is a way. As we focused on the renovation, my lovely friends threw a small art show pop up with some of Buffalo’s best artists that drew a crowd. The owner of What’s Pop-in signed a lease early. They immediately threw hearts in the window, a pop up dinner and a pop up popcorn event. They even started hitting public markets hard — just to sell product and get the word out. A friend shared my post that I was looking for a tenant and here comes Netta, a strong woman ready to move. I purchased some big planters and flowers. Austin brought over the pumpkins and ferns and a table. Netta and Stefan added their signage. Boom! Just like that, it reached the CAF factor. (For those who don’t know, CAF = Cute as f***).
Today we have a fully occupied building with two new businesses and a house for a family. Both businesses took the leap of faith to open in a brick and mortar. None of the rents are ridiculous. There is no parking. The spaces work and will continue to work over time. Now our neighborhood has an increase in new services, walkscore, livability, employment and resiliency.
But the whole point of this story is to say this: It is tough to do this. If had we have to replace the roof or one major system, this project would have been cost prohbitive and would not have happened without the rents being much higher, subsidies or hiring some “guy” who works off the books. Hell, if I had gone to a typical bank, they would have just said no because of its location and lack of parking. We were denied insurance a couple times just due to the age of the building. And for those who are worrying about property values, had the values been any lower, none of this would have been possible at all. (FYI — I don’t make the rules about capitalism!) In this world and in this rust belt climate, incremental development was, and is, the only way.
So! Long story short, when I look at the project overall, I have to stop and remind myself this: that we did what we could, with what we had, where we were. I have to remind myself that we did it with our small yet mighty team and that we can always do more… incrementally.