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Norman: Bringing Finance and Development Lessons from Wall Street to the Classroom

Monday, February 21, 2022

When Marc Norman came to Taubman College in 2017, he was already known as an expert on affordable housing. He spent more than two decades working on Wall Street and with nonprofit organizations around the United States and since 2019 has served as chair of the Federal Reserve Community Advisory Council. During his career he has helped to develop or finance more than 2,000 affordable units, or homes set aside for people making some fraction of their area’s median income. But he has begun to think differently about the housing shortage that is challenging American cities from Los Angeles to New York, and even his adopted home of Ann Arbor.

“I’ve moved on from only talking about affordable housing, because it’s not solving the problem,” says Norman, an associate professor of practice in urban and regional planning. The issue our cities face, he explains, is actually a shortage of housing of all kinds. “We now have a housing problem that is of a magnitude we’ve never had before. At the same time, we decided that swaths of our cities were only ever going to be single-family homes, and we used zoning to separate those houses from jobs and industry. And now cities don’t have enough housing at various sizes and configurations for all the people who want to live there.”

The consequences of choices made in the 20th century are now being felt in the form of staggering housing prices in many city centers, which price out middle and working class residents — in turn contributing to urban sprawl, long commutes, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Governments and activists may push to help lower-income households with housing costs through measures like subsidies, rent control, or inclusionary zoning, in which a proportion of units in new projects must be reserved for low- or middle-income households. But Norman says none of these strategies address the root of the problem: In many cities, especially those with thriving job markets, it has become all but impossible to build enough housing for everyone who wants to live there.

“Most of the kinds of housing we used to build, we’ve restricted from being built now in most of the places we used to build it,” Norman explains. “The rooming house, the boarding house, the granny flat, the accessory dwelling unit — all of those are almost impossible to build in most places. And the problem isn’t just regulations; it’s figuring out ways to overrule homeowners and these established constituencies. We have homeowners who don’t want anything new in their neighborhood, because they think it’s going to affect their property values, which has the long-term effect of restricting housing to a very particular type — single-family homes — that more and more people can’t afford.”

But there is some good news on the horizon, Norman says, as cities and states pass legislation to make it more difficult for NIMBYs (“not in my backyard” types) to block new construction. Some have required cash bonds from anyone who wishes to appeal to local authorities to stop a new development. Others are streamlining the approval process for new construction or restricting the use of zoning regulations that allow only single family homes to be built in certain urban neighborhoods. In 2018, Minneapolis eliminated single-family zoning — which had previously applied to 70 percent of its land area. The move means small apartment buildings can now be built in places they had never been allowed before. 

“Within the planning community, that was seen as a real win and hopefully a roadmap for other cities,” Norman says. “But the development process is slow. Even if rules or regulations change, you need buy-in; you need builders, architects, engineers, banks, and investors on board, too. Planning has to be in dialogue with the financial markets, with demographers, and others. I’m a fan of interdisciplinarity.”

That’s at the heart of Taubman College’s approach to teaching real estate, which include a graduate certificate and an undergraduate minor (the latter was new in 2021). Norman is director of real estate initiatives at Taubman College and the faculty director of the Weiser Center for Real Estate at U-M’s Ross School of Business. Norman’s classes are full not only of architects, urban planners, and MBA candidates, but also students from the School of Social Work and the School for Environment and Sustainability. He hopes they all come away with a thorough understanding of all the angles that must be taken into account as we confront the housing crisis.

“I don’t necessarily want all my students to become developers,” he says, “but I want them to know the language of finance and development so that they can be more effective when they go out and change what they want to change. And I think it’s helpful to have this space where they can be in dialogue with other students bringing different perspectives. Hopefully they’ll learn the ways that their fields interact with other fields. And the students like it, because we are talking about mechanisms for solving what can feel like intractable problems.”

—Amy Crawford

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