Reimagining an Ancient Concept

Agrihoods and Economics at the Annual Builder Developer Luncheon.

The 2019 Builder-Developer Luncheon, held again at the Hilton Garden Inn in West Des Moines, continued its tradition of conversation, education, and networking over a good meal. This year’s event introduced attendees to the agrihood concept, followed by a glimpse at the national economic forecast (see Housing Economics Forecast) and a look at the local construction and real estate markets (see Builder Developer Luncheon: Informed Decisions Begin Here story).

At its heart, the agrihood movement is a tangible illustration of Hippocrates’ advice: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” But what agrihoods are seeking to heal is more than bodies—they’re restoring communities.

Daron Joffe, the keynote speaker and author of Citizen Farmer, is a consultant on the concept and design of agrihoods and has been working closely with Diligent Development on the Middlebrook development plan for Cumming, just south of Des Moines. Joffe shared his experience in community agriculture and creation of the agrihood concept.

After buying his own farm and struggling to connect his work to his customers, Joffe said, “I realized the Community-Supported Agriculture concept was not enough. To be successful, we need to build community around the farm on a deeper level.”

That realization led to Joffe’s involvement in the first agrihood development in the nation. Serenbe, outside Atlanta, hired Joffe as its founding farmer in 2002, beginning his journey in planning sustainable farming communities for the modern age.

According to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), an agrihood is defined “as single-family, multifamily, or mixed-use communities built with a working farm or community garden as a focus.” A novel concept in the early 2000s, agrihood development is a traditional idea but an innovative approach to development that has begun to find its place in recent years.

“There are over 200 now,” Joffe said. “People are beginning to see this is an ancient concept that’s being made modern and relevant.”

An agrihood can involve something as small as a community garden surrounded by single-family homes or as large as a 1,000-acre working farm nestled among homes, shops, and public spaces. The agrihood design philosophy approaches a community on multiple levels, including land use, housing trends, environmental concerns, and food consumption.

According to ULI’s Agrihoods: Cultivating Best Practices, agrihoods offer multiple benefits to communities, including promoting the health of the residents, encouraging social interaction, conserving the environment, and creating jobs that support the local economy.

“There are different versions, depending on the setting—in town, suburban, or rural. The conservation aspect can determine the design and use, too, depending on how the land is laid out and functioning already,” Joffe explained.

An agrihood allows the community to maintain some of its rural character and still grow, but it also demands a commitment from that community. Volunteers are crucial to the success of a community garden or farm, so residents have to be sold on the concept to make it successful. Joffe said that’s one reason most agrihoods incorporate a variety of housing options.

“Seniors are the driving force in volunteer efforts in most agrihoods,” he said. That means incorporating senior housing can be a key element of the design.

The Cumming project, still in the conceptual phase, is expected to include about 400 acres of development, with a community garden, town farm, and a trail system connecting everything to the residential areas.

The message for builders and developers in central Iowa over the past few years has revolved around a common theme: cost. Land is expensive. Investment needed to develop land continues to rise. Homeowners want more than just a house. Creating homes and neighborhoods adds to the bottom line.

The message from this year’s Builder Developer Luncheon looked at the other side of the cost dilemma—the benefits. Agrihoods aren’t cheaper to develop. They aren’t easier to design. But they might be part of the answer anyway. Building a community around agriculture makes perfect sense. And where better to connect with one another than over a meal, the way the Builder Developer Luncheon has been doing it for the past 12 years.

Housing Economics Forecast

Ralph McLaughlin, deputy chief economist with CoreLogic, presented an overview of the housing economics forecast for the year ahead. As an expert in housing economics, real estate development, land use planning, and more, McLaughlin offered insights into a variety of national trends and their possible effect on the local market.

Here are some highlights from his talk:

  • “There is no such thing as a U.S. housing market. Housing trends are local.”
  • “The Federal Reserve will hike short-term interest rates once or twice in 2019.”
  • “Unemployment rates may seem to rise temporarily as a result of individuals who were out of work and not looking to reenter the job market. This is a good sign.”
  • “We’re in the midst of the longest economic expansion ever, and the chances of a recession in the next year or so as a result are about 20%.”
  • “Most recessions are benign when it comes to housing markets.”
  • “The mortgage rate forecast is the highest since 2011—forecast to rise close to 5%.”
  • “Difference in existing rates is not enough to affect refinances dramatically. Refinance applications may even drop slightly.”
  • “The housing industry has a supply problem, not a demand problem.”
  • “Total home inventory through the end of 2018 remains historically low.”
  • “The national inventory of single-family homes is the lowest it’s been in 15 years.”
  • “Inventory is especially tight for first-time buyers, but this isn’t necessarily a builder issue. Most first-time buyers don’t buy new.”
  • “Rents are rising faster than the cost of living.”
  • “Home ownership rates are increasing, with 2018 having the largest number of owner-occupiers since 2005.”
  • “The number one reason people move? To get a better house.”