Opinion by Gregory Lobo Jost
The morning after the 2000 election, when many of us were learning about the fascinations of the electoral college and wondering who would be our next president, University Neighborhood Housing Program convened a forum at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus on the early signs of a housing bubble in the Bronx. While no one knew just when such a bubble might burst, we were able to document a growing disparity between sales prices and the profitability of apartment buildings or, in other words, the emergence of a speculative bubble. With the help of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, we refined the research and in 2003 released a report, A Real Estate Bubble in the Bronx? that showed it was impossible to prove we weren't experiencing a speculative bubble.
Fast-forward to 2007 and the release of another UNHP report on the topic, Shrinking Affordability, documented how the disparity between profitability and sales prices was continuing to increase to previously unimaginable levels, fueled primarily by private equity investor groups. In the west Bronx, private equity groups such as SG2, Pinnacle, Prana, Ocelot and Normandy have purchased large numbers of rent stabilized buildings, often paying significantly more per unit than other owners. In 2007, for instance, Private Equity groups paid on average about $83,300 per unit while the rest of the purchasers paid an average of about $76,000 per unit. Adjusted for inflation, the overall average sales price had more than doubled since 2001. Yet the buildings themselves are only about as profitable as they were back in 1990, as the operating expenses have climbed at least as fast as rents (according to Income and Expense Studies from the Rent Guidelines Board).
Our main concern on this issue has been the potential for owners to cut back on services to buildings in order to handle their huge debt service (mortgage) payments and rising operating costs (e.g., fuel, water, insurance). The worst case scenario involves a building going into foreclosure -- a losing situation all around not just for the owner, investor and lender, but more importantly for the building, the tenants and the neighborhood. As we saw in the late 1980s with the rash of multifamily foreclosures in Bronx buildings overfinanced by Freddie Mac, these properties often fell into serious disrepair and communities as a whole suffered.
Is history about to repeat itself? A story in the New York Times earlier this week discusses how the owners of the Riverton, a large middle income and mostly rent stabilized housing complex in Harlem, are warning their lenders that "they are in imminent danger of defaulting on their mortgage." While a number of small Bronx apartment buildings (6 - 15 units) have already gone into foreclosure in recent years, the Riverton may signal a wave of larger defaults stemming from faulty logic made by private equity investor groups in the West Bronx and Upper Manhattan, as a follow-up article in today's Times discusses:
Until a few years ago, places like Upper Manhattan and the Bronx held little allure for investors in residential property. But as the New York real estate market heated up, major real estate companies began competing vigorously for rent-regulated buildings in these neighborhoods in the belief that they could manage them more professionally and, hence, more profitably.
The recent disclosure that the owners of Riverton Houses, a 1,228-unit apartment complex in Harlem, might default on their loan has shocked the real estate industry. And it has raised fears about other apartment building deals from the not-so-distant past, when the frenzy in the market was reaching its peak.
The strategy in these types of investments has been to achieve high levels of turnover in apartments (i.e., force/encourage as many tenants to move out as possible, especially the ones with lower rents) in order to take advantage of rent stabilization laws that allow for a 20% increase in an apartment's rent upon vacancy. Coupled with increases from Major Capital Improvements and the allotted annual increase approved by the Rent Guidelines Board, getting a tenant to move out of an apartment could easily translate into a 25 - 35% jump in the allowable rent for the next tenant. In a gentrifying neighborhood (e.g., northern Manhattan), creating high levels of turnover could dramatically increase a building's income, thereby justifying the high price paid for the property.
With the example of the Riverton leading the way, we are able to see how this strategy might not pan out the way the Private Equity groups are hoping for. First and foremost, tenants are being organized and educated about how to keep their apartments and avoid being forced out. As long-time owner/manager of Bronx and Upper Manhattan buildings Frank Anelante points out in the same Times article today, turnover in his units is closer to 2%. By way of contrast, private equity groups have documented in their filings with the S.E.C. plans to reach turnover rates as high as 30% of the apartments in the first year and 10% percent annually in the following years. With the example of the Riverton, we are beginning to see what may happen to more owners when they can't meet this outlandish target.
And if private equity groups are having a hard time in gentrifying upper Manhattan, their troubles may end up being even worse here in the west Bronx where tenants already typically pay half of their income on rent. For the sake of our neighborhoods, let's all hope for a soft landing.