Tag Archives: Commercial real estate

New Office Construction Down 91% in Orange County – Dozens of High-Rise Projects Stalled

An ominous sign for the Southern California commercial real estate market – and for the economy in general – is the report this week that office construction in Orange County, California, plunged 90.8 percent in the second quarter of 2008 from last year’s figures.

According to a report from Voit Commercial Brokerage, “The first half of 2008 has been characterized by a significant reduction in office development in Orange County.” 

“The total space under construction in Orange County at the end of the second quarter is 325,276 square feet,” said Jerry Holdner, vice president of market research for Voit Commercial Brokerage. “The total amount of construction is 90 percent lower than what was under construction at the same time last year.”

A drive down the 405 Freeway in Irvine shows dozens of stalled high-rise office construction projects.

Perhaps another indicator of the bust in office construction are the recent closings of several high-end restaurants in the Irvine Spectrum, which had relied substantially on business lunches. 

The slowdown in new office construction in Orange County means that more jobs will be lost in the building sector, and indicates that few companies plan to expand, or move to, this affluent and still high-priced Southern California county, which had served as the epicenter of the subprime mortgage industry.

On the other hand, the lack of new construction will likely mean that the vacancy rate for Orange County offices, which has been climbing steadily, will come down.

The vacancy rate is at 14.46 percent this quarter, which is significantly higher than the 8.95 percent vacancy rate recorded in the second quarter of 2007.

Foreclosure Activity Up 53% Over June 2007

Default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions were reported on 252,363 U.S. properties during June 2008, a 3 percent decrease from the previous month but still a 53 percent increase from June 2007, according to the latest RealtyTrac Foreclosure Market Report.

The report also shows that one in every 501 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing during the month.

“June was the second straight month with more than a quarter million properties nationwide receiving foreclosure filings,” said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. “Foreclosure activity slipped 3 percent lower from the previous month, but the year-over-year increase of more than 50 percent indicates we have not yet reached the top of this foreclosure cycle. Bank repossessions, or REOs, continue to increase at a much faster pace than default notices or auction notices. REOs in June were up 171 percent from a year ago, while default notices were up 38 percent and auction notices were up 22 percent over the same time period.”

Nevada, California and Arizona continued to document the three highest state foreclosure rates in June.  Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana and Utah were other states that made the top ten.

For the third month in a row, California and Florida cities accounted for nine out of the top 10 metropolitan foreclosure rates among the 230 metropolitan areas tracked in the report.

RealtyTrac noted that “Foreclosure filings were reported on 8,713 Nevada properties during the month, up nearly 85 percent from June 2007, and one in every 122 Nevada households received a foreclosure filing — more than four times the national average.”

“One in every 192 California properties received a foreclosure filing in June, the nation’s second highest state foreclosure rate and 2.6 times the national average.”

“One in every 201 Arizona properties received a foreclosure filing during the month, the nation’s third highest state foreclosure rate and nearly 2.5 times the national average. Foreclosure filings were reported on 12,950 Arizona properties, down less than 1 percent from the previous month but still up nearly 127 percent from June 2007.”

“Foreclosure filings were reported on 68,666 California properties in June, down nearly 5 percent from the previous month but still up nearly 77 percent from June 2007. California’s total was highest among the states for the 18th consecutive month.”

“Florida continued to register the nation’s second highest foreclosure total, with foreclosure filings reported on 40,351 properties in June — an increase of nearly 8 percent from the previous month and an increase of nearly 92 percent from June 2007. One in every 211 Florida properties received a foreclosure filing during the month, the nation’s fourth highest state foreclosure rate and 2.4 times the national average.”

“Foreclosure filings were reported on 13,194 Ohio properties in June, the nation’s third highest state foreclosure total. Ohio’s foreclosure activity increased 7 percent from the previous month and 11 percent from June 2007. The state’s foreclosure rate ranked No. 6 among the 50 states. Other states in the top 10 for total properties with filings were Arizona, Michigan, Texas, Georgia, Nevada, Illinois and New York.”

“Seven California metro areas were in the top 10, and the top three rates were in California: Stockton, with one in every 72 households receiving a foreclosure filing; Merced, withone in every 77 households receiving a foreclosure filing; and Modesto, with one in every 86 households receiving a foreclosure filing. Other California metro areas in the top 10 were Riverside-San Bernardino at No. 5; Vallejo-Fairfield at No. 7; Bakersfield at No. 8; and Salinas-Monterey at No. 10.”

“The top metro foreclosure rate in Florida was once again posted by Cape Coral-Fort Myers, where one in every 91 households received a foreclosure filing — fourth highest among the nation’s metro foreclosure rates. The foreclosure rate in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., ranked No. 9. LasVegas continued to be the only city outside of California and Florida with a foreclosure rate ranking among the top 10. One in every 99 Las Vegas households received a foreclosure filing in June, more than five times the national average and No. 6 among the metro areas.”

“Metro areas with foreclosure rates among the top 20 included Phoenix at No. 12, Detroit at No. 13, Miami at No. 15 and San Diego at No. 17”

RealtyTrac does not expect foreclosure activity to ease up until 2009.

Real Estate Values Per Square Foot Down More than 20% in Six Major Markets

Real estate prices continue to fall in most markets, according to Radar Logic Incorporated, a real estate data and analytics company that calculates per-square-foot valuations.

Among the key findings of the latest report from Radar Logic:

  • The broad housing slump continued as consumers showed persistent lack of confidence and difficulty in financing home purchases.
  • April 2008 continued to exhibit price per square foot (PPSF) weakness compared to last year in almost all markets. One MSA showed net year-over-year PPSF appreciation, one was neutral, and 23 declined.
  • The Manhattan Condo market showed a 3.6% increase in PPSF year-over-year coupled with an increase in recent transactions despite a modest decline of 0.7% in month-over-month prices.
  • Charlotte’s increase of 1.5% in year-over-year PPSF moved its rank among the 25 MSAs to number 1. This represents an increase over the 0.1% year-over-year PPSF appreciation last month.
  • Columbus showed year-over-year PPSF appreciation of 0.2% for April 2008, which is an increase from last month’s year-over-year decline of 4.3%.
  • New York declined 3.0% year-over-year in April 2008, its second decline in Radar Logic’s published history (beginning in 2000).
  • Sacramento, the lowest-ranking MSA, showed a 31.7% decline from April 2007, which is consistent with last month’s decline of 30.6%.

 The ten biggest declines in per-square-foot values from last year were in these markets:

Sacramento (-31.7%)

Las Vegas (-29.9%),

San Diego (-28.1%)

Phoenix (-25.6%).

Los Angeles/Orange County (-23.4%).

Miami (-22.4%).

St. Louis (-19.8%).

San Francisco (-19.7%).

Tampa (-16.6%).

Detroit (-16.1%).

You can read the full Radar Logic report here.

Major Law Firm Creates “Distressed Real Estate” Section as Crisis Deepens

In what could be a new and significant trend in American legal practice — and a sign that the real estate crisis is expanding — the prestigious Philadelphia-based law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP has announced that it is establishing a “distressed real estate” section. 

The firm’s “Distressed Real Estate Initiative” will involve at least 16 core lawyers in ten offices throughout the country, including those in Mid-Atlantic and Western locations hardest hit by the housing bust and the mortgage crisis, including Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

The purpose of the section, according to the firm, will be “to provide representation in acquisition, restructuring and bankruptcy matters.”

 “In this period of turmoil in the financial markets and economic uncertainty, new real estate opportunities and challenges present themselves,” said Michael Sklaroff, chair of Ballard’s Real Estate Department. “We stand ready to serve clients with respect to existing positions and also in assisting them in acquisitions and debt and equity investments in troubled projects.”

Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll was founded in 1886 and now employs more than 550 lawyers in twelve offices located throughout the mid-Atlantic corridor and the western United States.

When there is blood in the water, the sharks will appear.

What Property Qualifies for a 1031 Exchange? (Part Three)

This is Part Three of our series on what property qualifies for a 1031 exchange.  You can also see Part One and Part Two.

In deciding whether a particular property has been held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment, the IRS looks at how you have characterized that property on your tax returns. If you have historically taken depreciation on or reported rental income on a property, there should not be any problem with that property qualifying for a Section 1031 exchange.

In addition, it is important to note that the IRS has ruled that the Section 1031 requirement that property be “held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment” excludes primary residences, vacation homes (when they are not held for investment), and second homes. When a personal residence is exchanged for other property, the Section 121 exclusion rule applies (providing that up to $250,000 of capital gain, or up to $500,000 for a married couple, is not taxable), not Section 1031.

The burden of establishing that a property is held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment (and not for a non-qualifying use such as inventory for resale) is on the exchanger, not the government.

The “for investment” requirement is somewhat trickier than the requirement that the property be “held for productive use in a trade or business,” since all property could conceivably be considered an investment.

Each property must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. What the IRS looks at is the intent of the property owner and whether, on balance, the property is held for investment purposes or personal enjoyment.

If you want to do a Section 1031 exchange of property that you now use as your primary residence or as a second or vacation home, you must first turn it into qualifying property that is productively used in a trade or business or for investment. In other words, even property you have used as a primary residence, a second home, or primarily for personal enjoyment as a vacation home, may still qualify for an exchange under Section 1031 – if you re-characterize that property by using it for business purposes for a sufficient period of time.

The date the IRS uses to determine whether property has been held for a qualifying business use is the date of the transaction; any previous use is theoretically irrelevant. There is also no clear rule regarding how long a “holding period” is required in order to re characterize property and qualify for a Section 1031 exchange. Tax advisors recommend a period of one to two years (opinion is split on which time period is sufficient, but in no case less than 12 months) in the new use, and that you are able to report rental income and deduct depreciation and other business expenses regarding the property on your tax returns for that period of time.

It should also be noted that one can also exchange many types of non-real estate property that is held for investment or used in a business. For example, an airline can sell its airplanes as part of a like-kind exchange and avoid recapture of depreciation.

But the “like-kind” requirement is interpreted much more narrowly by the IRS for non-real property than for real property. While any real property held for trade or business use or for investment and located in the United States can be exchanged for any other real property held for trade or business use or for investment use and located in the United States, non-real estate properties exchanged under Section 1031 must be essentially the same type of asset.

Airplanes can be exchanged for airplanes, trucks for trucks, pizza ovens for pizza ovens, oil digging equipment for oil digging equipment; but airplanes cannot be exchanged for trucks, and oil digging equipment cannot be exchanged for pizza ovens. In addition, franchise rights and certain types of licenses can also be exchanged under Section 1031.

The replacement property, like the relinquished property, must meet certain requirements to be eligible for a Section 1031 exchange.

First, the replacement property, like the relinquished property, must be property, not securities or services, and it must be intended for “productive use in a trade or business or for investment.” 

Section 1031 applies only to “the exchange of property…for property.” For this reason, you cannot exchange property for securities or services. As with the relinquished property, this is a matter of the how the exchanger intends to use the property. The use of either property by the other party in the exchange is irrelevant.

Second, the replacement property must be of a “like-kind” to the relinquished property. What does “like-kind” property mean? In a typically obtuse ruling, the IRS has stated that:

“As used in IRC 1031(a), the words like-kind has reference to the nature or character of the property and not to its grade or quality. One kind or class of property may not, under that section, be exchanged for property of a different kind or class. The fact that any real estate involved is improved or unimproved is not material, for that fact relates only to the grade or quality of the property and not to its kind or class. Unproductive real estate held by one other than a dealer for future use or future realization of the increment in value is held for investment and not primarily for sale.”

Got it? Okay, now let’s unpack the “like-kind” requirement in language that makes sense.

As used in Section 1031, “like-kind” property does not mean property that is exactly alike – or even alike at all in any normal sense. Instead, the IRS interprets the “like-kind” requirement very broadly – so broadly that if two or more properties are located in the United States and are held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment, they are considered “like-kind” property under Section 1031.

In other words, all real property located in the United States is considered “like-kind” to all other real property located in the United States.

Conversely, foreign property such as property located in Canada or Mexico) or in overseas U.S. possessions, such as Guam or Puerto Rico, is not considered “like-kind” to any property located in the United States.

But urban real estate in Los Angeles can be exchanged for a ranch in Utah, a ranch in Utah can be exchanged for a factory in Delaware, a factory in Delaware can be exchanged for a gas station in Las Vegas, and a gas station in Las Vegas can be exchanged for a conservation easement in Seattle. The quality or type of the real property does not matter so long as each real property is located in the United States. Under Section 1031, an apartment building in Chicago can be exchanged for an office building in Los Angeles, an office building in New York can be exchanged for a car wash in Nashville, a car wash in Seattle can be exchanged for a tenancy-in-common ownership in a resort in San Diego, and a tenancy-in-common ownership in a mall in Arizona can be exchanged fortimberland in Oregon, a farm in Wisconsin, a factory in Pennsylvania, or a gas station in Louisiana.

The fact that one property is improved and the other property is unimproved, or that one property is in a run-down part of a city while the other property is located in an upscale neighborhood is irrelevant.  Moreover, even partially completed property can, if properly identified, qualify as “like-kind” property with completed property. The “like-kind” requirement refers to the nature or character of property, not to its grade or quality. As long as a property is located in the United States and is “held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment,” it is “like-kind” to every other property located in the United States that is “held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment.”

See also “What Property Qualifies for a 1031 Exchange?” Part One and Part Two.

To contact Melissa J. Fox for 1031 exchange or other real estate or legal services, send an email to strategicfox@gmail.com

State of Washington Fines Countrywide for $1 Million for Discriminatory Lending — Will Seek to Revoke Countrywide’s License to Do Business in State

Washington Governor Christine Gregoire today announced plans by her state to fine Countrywide Home Loans $1 million for discriminatory lending.

In addition, the company will be required to pay more than $5 million in back assessments the company failed to pay.

Gregoire also announced the state is seeking to revoke Countrywide’s license to do business in Washington for its alleged illegal activity.

Joining Gregoire at today’s announcement was Deb Bortner, director of consumer services at the Washington state Department of Financial Institutions (DFI), and James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

“The allegation that Countrywide preyed on minority borrowers is extremely troubling to me,” Gregoire said. “And I hope to learn eventually just how much this may have contributed to foreclosures in our state. The allegation offers evidence that Countrywide engaged in a pattern to target minority groups and engage in predatory practices.”

“That’s why we intend to bring the full weight of the state on Countrywide to rewrite home loans for minority borrowers who may have been misled into signing predatory mortgages,” the governor noted. “My job is to protect hard-working Washingtonians, and protect them we will.”

DFI is required to examine every home-lender licensed in the state of Washington. The agency conducted its fair lending examination of Countrywide last year. At that time, DFI looked at roughly 600 individual loan files and uncovered evidence that Countrywide engaged in discriminatory lending that targeted Washington’s minority communities. The agency also found significant underreporting of loans during its investigation.

“The Urban League is seeing far too many families caught up in the mortgage crisis who are being steered into bad loans,” stated James Kelly. “Today’s announcement from the governor is consistent with her message of protecting Washingtonians from national mortgage instability.”

DFI sent Countrywide a statement of charges on June 23, notifying the company of the fine and the back assessments the state plans to pursue.  Washington says that the investigation continues.

We have written on the disproportionate impact that the mortgage meltdown and housing crisis has had on minorities.

Washington’s action against Countrywide comes on the heels of lawsuits for fraud, deception, and unfair trade practices filed against Countrywide by the states of Illinois, California, and Florida.

 

More Housing Blues — U.S. Homeownership in Sharp Decline as Housing Crisis Forces More Families into Rentals

Even in the midst of the most serious housing and foreclosure crisis since the 1930s, the United States is still a nation of homeowners not renters. 

But recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau show that Americans are now renting their living spaces at the highest level since 2002, and the percentage of households headed by homeowners has suffered the sharpest decline in 20 years

Households headed by homeowners fell to 67.8 percent from 69.1 percent in 2005. By extension, the percentage of households headed by renters increased to 32.2 percent, from 30.9 percent.

According to the New York Times, these figures “while seemingly modest, reflect a significant shift in national housing trends, housing analysts say, with the notable gains in homeownership achieved under Mr. Bush all but vanishing over the last two years.” 

“Many of the new renters, meanwhile, are struggling to get into decent apartments as vacancies decline, rents rise and other renters increasingly stay put. Some renters who want to buy homes are unable to get mortgages as banks impose stricter standards. Others remain reluctant to buy, anxious that housing prices will continue to fall.”

“We’re not going to see homeownership rates like that (the 1990s and the early 2000s) for a generation,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com.

“The bloom is off of homeownership,” said William C. Apgar, a senior scholar at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University who ran the Federal Housing Administration from 1997 to 2001.  Apgar said the Joint Center had predicted an increase of 1.8 million renters from 2005 to 2015, given expected population trends. Instead, they saw a surge of 1.5 million renters from 2005 to 2007 alone. In the first quarter of this year, 35.7 million people were renting homes or apartments.

Zandi said minority and lower-income homeowners had been hardest hit. Nearly three million minority families took out mortgages from 2002 to the first quarter of this year. Since minority families were more likely to receive subprime loans, economists believe these families account for a disproportionate share of foreclosures.

As we’ve noted before, the collapse of the housing market and the rise in foreclosures have created an ideal market for apartment owners, especially in economically depressed regions.

As the demand for rental housing has increased, so has the cost of renting.  Nationally, rents are up about 11 percent from 2005.

Christopher E. Smythe, the president of the Northeast Ohio Apartment Association, which represents landlords in the Cleveland area, said the collapse of the housing market had improved the economic climate for apartment owners.

“Our apartment traffic is up, people are renting again and occupancies are up,” he said in a letter to members this year.

The Times also reports that in high-end markets like Los Angeles, the slump in the housing market has begun to push up vacancies as condominiums are converted into rentals.

On the other hand, “those new apartments are often out of reach of struggling families. And since many owners of rental properties are also going into default, the foreclosure wave has resulted in fierce competition for affordable apartments in some cities.”

In other words, the housing crisis is hitting the most economically vulnerable families the hardest. 

As we’ve discussed in an earlier post, minorities have been the most seriously affected by the subprime crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble.  Not surprisingly, the Census Bureau data shows that the percentage increase in renter households from 2005 to 2008 was nearly twice as high for Black families than for Whites.

We’re reminded of the old Billie Holiday song, God Bless the Child, written at the end of the Great Depression:

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

 

 

The Role of a Qualified Intermediary (QI) in a 1031 Exchange

Because you are absolutely not allowed to receive (or directly control) any of the proceeds from the transfer of your relinquished property in a 1031 exchange — if you do, you will instantly turn your tax-free Section 1031 exchange into a taxable sale — it is necessary to employ the services of a Qualified Intermediary (also sometimes called a QI or an exchange accomodator) in the 1031 exchange process.

A Qualified Intermediary is the person or business entity that holds the exchange proceeds and acts as a “safe harbor” or barrier between the taxpayer and the proceeds from the transfer of the exchange property, so that these proceeds never come into your actual or constructive possession, but at the same time can be used to obtain new property for you.

The sale proceeds go directly to the Qualified Intermediary, who holds them until they are needed to acquire the replacement property. The Qualified Intermediary then delivers the funds directly to the closing agent.

If the taxpayer meets the requirements of this safe harbor, the IRS will not consider the taxpayer to be in receipt of the funds.

The IRS originally refused to allow deferred exchanges under Section 1031 because the taxpayer received the proceeds from the transfer of the relinquished property before using these proceeds to obtain replacement property.  To the IRS, this receipt of funds in the period between the completion of the exchange made the transactions into a series of sales and purchases rather than a true exchange.

The current law allows the taxpayer a limited period of time after the transfer of relinquished property to identify and obtain title on replacement property, but also reflects the IRS’s concern over the taxpayer’s receipt of the proceeds in the interim by requiring that there be no receipt of cash or other non-qualified property by the taxpayer before both ends of the exchange have been completed.

As a result of this rule, a new professional came into being: the Qualified Intermediary.

Since the taxpayer can not receive the proceeds from the relinquished property until title to the replacement property is obtained, and these same proceeds are used to acquire that replacement property, someone needs to hold on to the funds, acquire the relinquished property from the taxpayer; transfer the relinquished property to another party, acquire the replacement property from another party, and then finally transfer the replacement property to the taxpayer. This is the job of the Qualified Intermediary.

Specifically, the Qualified Intermediary:

  • Enters into a written agreement (called an exchange agreement) that documents all important aspects of the exchange.
  • Acquires the relinquished property from the taxpayer.
  • Transfers the relinquished property to another party.
  • Acquires the replacement property from another party.
  • Transfers the replacement property to the taxpayer.

The properties are usually deeded directly between the parties, just as in a normal sale transaction. However, in a Section 1031 exchange, unlike an ordinary sale, the taxpayer’s interests in the property purchase and sale contracts are first assigned to the Qualified Intermediary. The Qualified Intermediary then instructs the property owner to deed the property directly to the appropriate party (for the relinquished property, its buyer; for the replacement property, the taxpayer).

Because the proceeds can never come into your actual or constructive possession before the completion of the exchange, there are limitations on who can serve as a Qualified Intermediary in a Section 1031 exchange.

Anyone who is an agent of the taxpayer at the time of the transaction, or has been an agent of the taxpayer within the past two years, is disqualified from being a Qualified Intermediary of the taxpayer.

This prohibition includes anyone who has been the taxpayer’s employee, attorney, accountant, investment banker or broker, real estate broker or agent within the past two years from the date of the transfer of the first of the relinquished properties.

In practical terms, this prohibition eliminates your present lawyer or accountant from serving as your Qualified Intermediary.

However, assuming there are no other disqualifying activities or relationships, you may use a real estate agent who has previously helped to put together a Section 1031 exchange for you, as well as a business entity or person who has performed routine financial, title insurance, escrow, or trust services for you.

Despite the importance of using a Qualified Intermediary in the Section 1031 exchange process, qualified intermediaries are generally not regulated (the single exception is in Nevada).

Remember that the Qualified Intermediary is an actual principal in the exchange transaction. You must assign to the Qualified Intermediary your interest as seller of the relinquished property and your interest as buyer of the replacement property. The Qualified Intermediary will be responsible for holding the proceeds of the transaction in a separate exchange account until the funds are used to obtain the replacement property.

For these reasons, your Qualified Intermediary must be someone you trust to hold your money or land and who has plenty of fidelity bond insurance in place.

You should also take special note of the Qualified Intermediary’s fund management program, asking in whose name the funds are held and where, and what the requirements are for deposits and withdrawals.

In addition, you should also make sure that your Qualified Intermediary is experienced in the Section 1031 exchange process.

Remember that the rules governing the use of the proceeds of the various transactions in Section 1031 exchanges can be complicated, and that a mistake by your Qualified Intermediary can result in you paying thousands of dollars in taxes that could, and should, be avoided.

Remember, too, that it is not the job of the Qualified Intermediary to provide legal or specific tax advice to the exchanger. On these critical matters, you must have expert and trustworthy advice from other professionals.

To contact Melissa J. Fox about serving as a qualified intermediary or for other 1031 exchange services, send an email to strategicfox@gmail.com

Who is Still Against Federal Foreclosure Legislation?

As the Congress comes closer to passing legislation to help homeowners facing foreclosure, it is worth taking a look at the opposition to federal foreclosure aid.

Of course, there are those who strictly oppose nearly all forms of government intervention in the economy.  Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul and his free market libertarian supporters would be among this group.

Then are those who are opposed to market interventions in general, but will support some government interventions when the stability of the market is at stake.  Most Republicans fit into this group — including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.

That’s why it was significant that it was Bernanke who last week made the most convincing argument from a free market perspective for federal aid to homeowners facing foreclosure.

As we noted in an earlier post, Bernanke told an audience at the Columbia Business School that the foreclosure crisis posed the clear and present danger of wreaking economic havoc far beyond the housing market. “High rates of delinquency and foreclosure,” Bernanke said, “can have substantial spillover effects on the housing market, the financial markets, and the broader economy.”

What is at stake, according to Bernanke, is not merely the homes and financial well-being of hundreds of thousands of borrowers, but “the stability of the financial system.”  In this extreme circumstance, even staunch free market advocates, such as Bernanke himself, recognize the need for the government to intervene in the market.

We think, then, that the overwhelming vote in the House of Representives in favor of government intervention to stop the rising tide of foreclosures — legislation that now has the support of many free market Republicans — was rooted at least as much in the economic reality of averting catastrophe as the political expediency of government largess in an election year.

Who then is still opposed to foreclosure aid?

The answer is the apartment owners.

Behind any legislative process is a power struggle of conflicting interests, and very often these interests are economic.  In the case of foreclosure aid, there this now a growing consensus that the foreclosure crisis threatens not merely the borrowers and the lenders, but the economy as a whole and hence the economic interests of almost every sector of the economy.

Except apartment owners.

The National Multi-Housing Council (NMHC) and the National Apartment Association (NAA) have consistently argued that the blame for the foreclosure crisis is what they have called the “misguided” national policy of “home ownership at any cost” and that “People were enticed into houses they could not afford and the rarely spoken truth that there is such a thing as too much homeownership was forgotten.”

The fact is that in sharp contrast to other sectors of the real estate market, the apartment industry has not suffered as a result of the current housing crisis.  Rather, as we’ve noted before, the real estate crisis is forcing the lower end of the single-family housing market back into multi-family rental apartments.  People have to live somewhere — if they can’t afford to live in a house that they own, they will be forced to live in a house that someone else owns, such as multi-family apartment units. As homeowners suffer, apartment owners benefit.

The apartment industry has some very powerful supporters in Congress, including Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.   Senator Shelby,  who has opposed federal intervention to stop foreclosures, has made millions as a landlord and is the owner of a 124-unit apartment complex in Tuscaloosa called the Yorktown Commons. 

“I want the market to work if it can, and most of the time it will, but not without some pain,”  Senator Shelby has said.

This time, the pain appears to be too great, too wide-spread, and too dangerous, for most other members of Congress, as well as most important players in the economy, to allow it to continue unabated.

Indeed, Shelby has already signaled that he would support a version of the legislation — and that the White House would sign the bill into law.

“I think if we reach a compromise,” Shelby said, “it would be acceptable to the White House because, as a Republican and former chairman of the committee, I’m going to do everything I can, work with the administration, to make sure that the program works for those it’s intended to do and make sure we can afford it as a nation.”

In this crisis, even Senator Shelby has other, larger, and more important economic interests at stake than helping the apartment industry.

 

 

Sam Zell Sees Little Damage, Quick Recovery, in Commercial Real Estate — with Mortgage Backed Securities Leading the Way

Billionaire real estate investor Sam Zell has never been shy about expressing his views or going against majority opinion. 

He has embraced the description of himself as a “contrarian” — and not only in regard to investment strategies.  

While just about everyone else has been publicly sympathetic to the many thousands of people who’ve been forced into or close to foreclosure, Zell told an audience last week at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles that “What this country needs is a cleansing” in the residential market. “We need to clear out all of those people who should never have been in houses in the first place and who for sure shouldn’t be getting sympathy,” Zell said.

The blame for the current housing slump, according to Zell, isn’t the financial industry’s subprime mortgage practices or overbuilding by contractors.  Rather, the blame belongs to the federal government’s policy of “encouraging homeownership at any cost.” The rise in the U.S. homeownership rate from 63% to 69% during the boom was totally unjustified, Zell said, other than by “the political impetus of, ‘Let’s put more people into homes they can’t afford.'”

Zell, of course, is perhaps the nation’s largest apartment owner. 

As Chairman of Equity Group Investments, Zell controls Equity Residential, the largest publicly traded owner, operator and developer of multifamily housing in the United States with nearly 160,000 apartments in 25 states and the District of Columbia.  And, as we’ve noted in an earlier post, the apartment industry has adamantly opposed federal aid to homeowners facing foreclosure and blamed the housing crisis on what it has called the “misguided” national policy of “home ownership at any cost.”

Zell also went against majority opinion this week when he asserted that the real estate crisis was just about ended, as least for commercial properties, and mortgage-backed securities would be leading the comeback. 

According to Zell, institutional investors are beginning to return to the market for mortgage-backed securities to finance commercial real estate deals and new construction. “I believe the overall market has already started to ease,” Zell said. “Is it in large volumes? No. Is it the first natural step in the evolution? Yes.”

In particular, Zell did not see real damage being done to office properties.  His former company, Equity Office, which he sold to The Blackstone Group in February 2007 for $39 billion, is the largest owner of office buildings in the United States. 

“I’m sure there’s going to be some casualties, particularly in what I would call ex-urban, the glass-block commodity office building,” he said. “I don’t think there is going to be any casualties in Manhattan. I don’t think there’s going to be any casualties in any of the first-class office space around the country. The commercial real estate market is going to do terrific no matter what the economy does, short of a depression.”

On this point, we think he’s probably right.

We wouldn’t want to argue with a real estate investor who has been smart enough to become number 164 on Forbes Magazine’s list of the richest people in the world.

On the other hand, Zell told an audience at the Wharton School last September that the turmoil in the financial markets was only an “emotional reaction” that would soon stabilize.

He was wrong on that one.

And he does own the Cubs.