Should Private Equity Invest in Residential Real Estate?

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Sylwia Kapuscinski / Getty

Five-year-old Sawyer Huang, right, feeds the pigeons at Stuyvesant Town in New York City

When new owners took over an apartment building in the New York City borough of Queens, they promptly set about filing eviction notices, suing nearly half of the building's tenants — some of them multiple times — within the first 16 months. That amounted to 965 court proceedings against 2,124 apartments, compared with just 50 court proceedings in the final year of the previous owner. The complaints alleged that the tenants were subletting illegally or had not paid their rent or security deposits, even though the tenants often had records proving otherwise. To the tenants, it seemed as though every possible legal vulnerability was being sought out in an effort to force them out.

This kind of activity — flushing out low-rent tenants and replacing them with wealthier new renters — has been a staple of strong real estate markets for years. What was different over the past few years was how widespread this Dickensian business model had become, largely fueled by Wall Street money seeking high rates of return. Another difference was how much the general investing public — through university endowments and pension funds — became party to such morally dubious schemes. Consider it another footnote to the Gilded Age we just passed through.

This investment trend, which flourished from 2005 until the financial crisis hit in 2008, threatened a cherished pillar of urban policy — affordable housing, which has long been regarded as essential for maintaining vibrant diversity in our cities. The victims are among the huge numbers of Americans (estimated at close to 100 million before the latest housing boom promoting homeownership) who rent their primary residences — poor, working-class and even middle-class folks — who have been overshadowed in the deluge of media coverage of the debacle in single-family housing. (Affordable housing refers to that costing no more than a third of a family's income.)

But as private equity funds seized on the rental market in major cities in recent years, all this was jeopardized by the need to generate fat returns of 15%-20% per annum. Worse, this business model was based on a dirty secret — expelling as many existing tenants as possible. This is the thuggish reality behind otherwise respectable-sounding prospectuses offered to investors to explain how they could service high debt on mortgage-backed securities. "The borrower anticipates to recapture approximately 20%-30% of the units [roughly within the first year] and 10% a year thereafter," explained a prospectus for a portfolio of buildings in upper Manhattan being bought by Apollo Real Estate Advisers (now AREA Property Partners), with a primary mortgage from a Credit Suisse subsidiary. The normal turnover rate in cheap or moderate rent-regulated apartments in New York City is 5.6%, according to data from the New York City Rent Guidelines Board.

"From a public policy standpoint, you can make a strong case that it is not desirable [for Wall Street money to be in this market], and equally strong you can say that housing regulators or authorities in New York and most other cities have been asleep at the wheel for the last five and 10 years — this stuff is going on everywhere," says Guy Cecala, CEO of Inside Mortgage Finance Publications, a stable of industry newsletters, who worries that the very idea of affordable housing is under threat.

But these securitized transactions were considered a legitimate business strategy by investors, who typically focus on the cash flow from these deals, not the fine points on how cash is generated. "These could have all been brothels or sweatshops underlying them, and nobody would know that either," says Cecala, who notes that "one of the reasons for buying securities ... is supposedly you don't have to worry about any of that; someone else is supposed to have signed off on the legality of the transactions, the business practices, everything."

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