Ivory Prize honors housing innovators

Clark Ivory

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

The state of Oregon and cities of Minneapolis and Austin are innovating to address the housing affordability problem that has challenged communities across the country. Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, shares what these locales are doing and describes the three winners—Entekra, Symbium and Rhino— in the 2020 Ivory Prize for Housing Innovation. Recorded on Thursday, May 7, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams, James Tombs and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get to hear from people who are helping the U achieve new heights. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the U, and my guest today is Clark Ivory. Clark is the CEO of Ivory Homes. He's also a University of Utah alum, former chair of our Board of Trustees and has been an incredible partner in the U's upward trajectory. Clark, warmest welcome!

Clark Ivory: Thank you so much, President Watkins. I love what you're doing at the university.

President Watkins: Well, we appreciate you being with us today. I wanted to talk a little bit about the Ivory Prize. The Ivory Prize is offered through Ivory Innovations, part of the David Eccles School of Business. What an incredible idea this has been to create the Ivory Innovations Institute and offer a prize. Give us a little bit of the history and the purpose of the prize.

Clark Ivory: Well, about 21/2 years ago, three years ago now, I guess, I was surveying the landscape of housing and recognized how difficult it was for us to really fulfill the affordable needs for housing across the U.S. and also in Utah. This is no longer a challenge that's just familiar to the coastal areas, but areas where we've had good job growth and where we have bright futures, are going to have big challenges for housing affordability. Of course, this is a lot different than what I saw 10 years ago, when I saw an oversupply of housing and I warned everyone that we were going to have a housing crisis. This time around, I started beating the drum on the need for more affordable housing units—those that will really help fulfill needs for people that are being left out right now. I think it's a big deal and the only way to solve these kinds of problems is through innovation and entrepreneurship.

These problems are going to be even more pronounced now that we're in this COVID-19 era, so I think it was just something we had to do. We had to look outside of ourselves and figure out what was going on across the country. What we found was there are a lot of very cool things in little markets scattered across the country, and Ivory Innovations was about shining a light on the entrepreneurs and innovators from throughout the United States who could help us with this. We know we're already implementing many of those ideas in our own business, but importantly, we're sharing these so everyone we can. It's a big opportunity for the University of Utah and for Ivory Innovations to let people know about the best ideas going on in housing.

President Watkins: You have been such an advocate for innovation and pushing boundaries and new solutions. I think one of the ways you think that's likely to happen is through public-private partnerships. Can you talk a little bit that?

Clark Ivory: Well, it's interesting. We are focused in three areas with the Ivory Prize. One is construction and design. The other is regulatory reform and then finally finance, and most definitely all three of those areas require public-private partnerships, particularly the latter two. Finance and the way we restructure finance to make it available to Americans everywhere, and particularly those that are often left out, requires a public-private partnership and working with people, particularly at the federal level. Regulatory reform really comes down to what we do with each locality or in our own cities and states, and that requires partnership with cities, counties and with the state. We've seen a few amazing things happen in the last couple of years that had never happened before with these kinds of partnerships. I can give you a couple of examples if you'd like.

President Watkins: Yeah, that'd be great. Thanks.

Clark Ivory: Well, the state of Oregon and the city of Minneapolis, they both just recently, in the last year, stood their zoning on its head. What do I mean by that? They took all of their single-family zoning from throughout the state, in the case of Oregon, and throughout the city, in the case of Minneapolis, and they said no more single-family zoning. Every place we go now in our state or in our city is going to allow at least a duplex or a triplex or various densities, depending on the size of the city and Oregon, et cetera. What that means is that developers now feel in partnership with the state in trying to introduce housing that will allow for more people to be able to afford to live in certain neighborhoods.

The other big breakthrough we had a year ago is we saw a huge number of people interested in what are called ADUs—accessory dwelling units—and an incredible group out of Austin, Texas, was really showing us the best way to approach this. They partnered with the University of Texas at Austin for design assistance. They helped the city of Austin pass a new bond issue that allowed for a lot of financing for ADUs, and then they rezoned half of this city so that many neighborhoods that would not allow ADUs previously now allowed them. Now they're helping entrepreneurs and builders and individuals come and get through the red tape so that they can provide this kind of housing. It not only helps the individual that rents the new accessory dwelling unit, but it helps the individual who's trying to stay in their neighborhood. Perhaps they're now on their retirement pension and they can't quite afford the mortgage payment, but when they bring in that additional income from another unit behind their home, it's a win-win. Those are just a few ideas, Ruth.

President Watkins: It's really impressive, Clark, the innovation and the ideas that you're bringing to our community because, of course, at the U we see the push on housing affordability. We worry about our students, and we are beginning to worry about our faculty. Particularly in some fields, that are finding it difficult to choose Salt Lake, which has had a wonderful history of affordability, because of this pressure. The work you're doing to bring new ideas to our community is just fabulous.

Let's talk a little bit about the prize this year, in particular. I understand that there were 168 applicants and 25 finalists. I got to participate in the celebration of the winners. If you'd talk a little bit about the people you honored this year, and then how that becomes a catalyst for change across the nation.

Clark Ivory: You bet. It was exciting to see participation from 32 different states. I think the word has gotten out and there are also little pockets of innovation across the country, particularly in California, where the problem is so acute. Two of our winners this year came from California.

One was an incredible builder in Modesto, California. They do manufactured housing, prefabricated housing, that they deliver to the job site. It's really best for them to stay within about 200 miles of their plant and factory. Entekra is the company and they originally came out of Ireland, but I am so impressed with this group—the way they operate, their precision, their quality control and their delivery.

They can put up an amazing house in just a day and then allow the builder to go through and make all of the finishes, fit it out, but to be able to bring that kind of efficiency into a market that has been so challenged, even to get the right labor, is a big breakthrough. We're looking at more and more of those. Last year we had 30 different modular builders apply for the prize. We've had two that were real standouts. Both of them happened to come from California and I think we'll see that coming to our own state before we know it. Of course, we're very interested in partnering with someone who would start up those kinds of operations, but that's one of the winners this year, Entekra from Modesto, California.

The other one was Symbium and this is just a super sharp group of folks from Stanford University, where they have put together their own software and technology that allows for cities to quickly assess whether or not something like an ADU would fit within the requirements of the particular building lot . The individual or builder would discuss it with the city about whether or not it works for an ADU, but they really are about cutting through the bureaucracy and red tape. Very shortly their product, called Build, will allow for a builder or an individual building a home to submit their plans and have it reviewed within minutes, red lines coming back that would point out any discrepancies with the code or with the city requirements, but then allow for them to very quickly respond to those needed changes. What it means is instead of waiting weeks, sometimes months, for a building permit to come out and be approved, we could do it in a day. That kind of efficiency will save money and will allow us to move forward in a more efficient way.

Of course, everyone today's recognizing that electronic documents are the way to go. We don't want to be handling paper when we don't have to, and COVID has made that even more manifest. In fact, we have several cities that would not accept electronic documents prior to the COVID-19 era. Now we're seeing that kind of flexibility everywhere, which means they're not going to go back. As they get into the modern age, into the digital age, we're going to see these kinds of platforms have a real impact. The people running Symbium, they are as sharp as they get. Everyone at Google, Amazon and Workforce wants to hire those folks away, but they want to just do their own thing and make a real impact on making our government and municipalities more efficient in processing what we need in order to get a home built.

Finally, I'll just mention the other one, which was a real standout in the area of finance. They came from New York City. The name of the company is Rhino, and these guys recognize that one of the barriers to someone who's trying to get into their first apartment, or even move from one part of a city to another, is they have to pay a big security deposit. That may not sound like a big deal to some, but it's a very big deal to people who are just barely affording their housing. There's a very large percentage of Americans now that are paying as much as 50% of their income for housing. When you pay over 50% of your income for housing, every dollar counts. What these guys have done is provided an insurance based product to landlords, so that they don't have to have a security deposit. Yes, they pay a little amount each month for that insurance, which then gets passed along to the landlord, so the landlord feels it, but it means they have less out-of-pocket expense when they move into a new place.

This will open up the doors for many who are paying such a large percentage of their income for housing, and it's growing rapidly. It's in every state, it's a product that's available. Of course, we're also a multifamily developer. We're working with them right now to make it available in our units, in our apartments here in the state of Utah, but I think it's a very cool product, Rhino, and they were the winner in the area of finance because they're thinking outside the box about how to make things more affordable through either finance or insurance or other instruments that will allow people to get into a home or a rental much easier.

President Watkins: I think, yes, I listened to these prize recipients. I was so impressed by the diversity of ideas that are coming forward, but also the common themes. I heard very strong themes around efficiency and quality, reducing bureaucratic barriers, and then this idea of the early entry into housing for many people, which we, of course, see a lot at the university with graduate students and postdocs and new professionals on the finance side.

It's so impressive to see the talent that is applying and coming to the Ivory Innovations for the Ivory Prize, as well as who you're able to recognize. What an impressive thing for the University of Utah to be host to that. I want to say, one thing I know about you, Clark, is you're not one to rest much. You have a lot of big ideas, so maybe tell us a little bit about what you think might be next on where you're headed.

Clark Ivory: I told our advisory board when we first started this, I said, "I'm not about just running a program that doesn't have impact." We have some great participants. We've got the director of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, Chris Herbert. We have Carol Galante, who runs the Turner Institute at Berkeley. We've got Laurie Goodman who's really the top finance person at the Urban Institute in D.C. The guy that runs Hanley Woods, Builder Magazine, and Kent Colton, who's the former director of the National Home Builders.

I said to this group when we were starting, "If we can't do something super impactful, I'm not going to ask for your time, but give us a chance and let's see what we do." The cool thing was they were so energized by the new ideas and innovations. They started broadcasting them through their networks and they found that they gathered a lot more energy within their own courses, within their own programs, towards innovation and entrepreneurship.

Truthfully, in the past, housing has not been very innovative. We've been really slow, whereas other industries have been on a fast track towards digitization and towards amazing innovations and AI and everything else. It's just hitting housing and they realize it, so they love to be in the middle of it. I don't know how long we're going to do this prize. I guess as long as it's impactful and I'm going to shut it down as soon as I feel that it's not. But the thing that has really been cool on top of having a very insightful advisory board, who's been spreading the word throughout the country, is we have students that are so engaged. We run an innovation course at the University of Utah and we had 18 students that were vetting these companies and organizations from across the country and what a great learning experience for them.

Then we have a certain group of interns that really got to know these companies well, and many of our interns are going to actually be working for these companies because we offered not only cash as part of the price, which was $200,000, but we offered additional support where we would send our sharpest students to help them get to the next level. We're looking forward to seeing those students have an impact on the future of those companies and also benefiting from having that opportunity. It's just, I think, fun and cool right now, and as long as we have the energy and the momentum, we're going to just keep rolling with it, Ruth.

President Watkins: Well, Clark, you have certainly helped showcase the excellence that happens in the state of Utah and at the University of Utah—excellence in entrepreneurship, innovation, creativity and frankly, collaboration and partnership. The U could not have a better partner and champion than Clark Ivory. Clark, thank you so much for taking the time to be my guest today. I appreciate it.

Clark Ivory: Thank you for being the innovative president. Love it, Ruth.

President Watkins: Well, we appreciate it. Listeners, thank you for joining us today for the U Rising podcast and I hope you'll listen to the next episode. Thanks so much.