The slowly recovering economy is revitalizing the multi-family market in Arizona, restoring the industry to robust health.
Rents are up, vacancies down, and, unlike most commercial real estate segments, any mid-level or upscale apartment property that hits the market attracts scores of investors hoping to make a deal.
After peaking at an alarming 15% in 2008, apartment unit vacancies in Metro Phoenix slipped to 9.7% at the end of 2010, says Marc Huisken, Cassidy Turley BRE Commercial senior vice president for the Multi Housing Investment Group.
And with no new supply in the pipeline, that trend will continue throughout 2011, regardless of any bumps or bruises to the overall economic recovery, he predicts.
In fact, the Valley’s apartment vacancy rate will dip to 7%, rental rates will soar 4% and another 11,000 units will fill up by year-end, says Brad Goff, Apartment Realty Advisors principal.
“Things are getting very healthy, very fast,” Goff says.
In Tucson, the supply of multi-family units remained low and demand high throughout the recession, according to Tim Prouty, managing director of CB Richard Ellis’ Tucson office.
“We have virtually no Class A rentals available,” Prouty says, a result of almost no construction for 10 years and a lack of in-fill space to build where the demand is strongest.
The rest of the state also escaped the volatility of Phoenix’s multi-family market because demand and supply, especially in areas with significant military or student populations, remained stable before and during the recession, says Arizona Multihousing Association CEO Tom Simplot.
Maricopa County accounts for about 80% of Arizona’s apartment inventory, Simplot says.
Multi-Family Market and Housing Shortage
So what’s driving all the demand that Goff says will lead to a “multi-family housing shortage until 2013” in Arizona?
According to Goff, four major factors are propelling the trend to rent: job growth, net in-migration to the state, decoupling of households and a major shift in the perceived value of home ownership. Virtually all of those factors were initiated or amplified by the recession or the just-starting recovery.
Job growth and in-migration were sluggish but positive in 2010, and are poised to pick up speed, according to Lee McPheters, director of the JP Morgan Chase Economic Outlook Center at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business. McPheters estimates the state will boost its population by 665,000 and add 300,000 jobs by 2015.
During the recession, many grown children moved in with parents or vice versa. With more jobs available and investments regaining value, those grown children and parents may be moving out now.
But the most important driver of the multi-housing boom is shifting priorities, fueled by the housing industry collapse.
“Buying a home used to be perceived as a vehicle for accumulating wealth, now young people see it as a vehicle for problems,” Goff says.
ST Residential CEO Wade Hundley agrees and says the trend to rent is a national phenomenon.
“It’s harder to get a loan to buy (a home),” he says. “But also, the younger generation is wondering ‘If real estate is where I want to invest.’ They are seeing a lot of people lose their wealth in their home.”
ST Residential, a Chicago-based public-private equity consortium, was founded in the middle of the housing collapse in order to rescue a portfolio of multi-housing assets from a failing bank.
That was in 2009, before a flood of would-be investors saw the value of doing the same. With rents rising and demand for rental units escalating, the scenario is enticing to investors willing to snag a bargain now but wait a while for a nearly guaranteed windfall, Goff says.
Since multi-housing is the only commercial real estate sector that can tap Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae funding, and lots more private money has been sitting out the recession on the sidelines, there is ample financing available, Goff says. Investors just waited until the bottom was well-defined to start shopping, he adds. That happened in 2Q 2010, when rents crept up a smidge for the first time in three years.
“Everybody believes in rent growth,” Goff says. “In summer 2010, the lights turned on. Optimism has returned, and right now, buyers want to be active.” Phoenix sales numbers paint the picture. There were
18 transactions of 100+ unit apartment complexes in 2008, 34 in 2009 and 80 in 2010, Huisken says.
However, rising rents are not yet high enough to justify a flurry of new construction, Huisken says, so supply is limited.
“Investors can still buy properties for significantly below construction costs,” he says. “New properties won’t come out of the ground until (developers) think they can get the higher rents.”
In 2007, average Metro Phoenix apartment rents in properties with 100 or more units peaked at $802, or 96 cents per SF, but slipped to $771 in 2009. Rents have risen to $783, or 93 cents per SF, this year. That scenario has spawned the frenzy of activity among the wannabe buyers for existing properties, especially distressed luxury digs.
“We get 15 to 20 offers on any Class A building,” Goff says.
Among the Class A distressed properties recently changing hands is the partially completed Centerpoint Condominiums in Tempe. The languishing condo project is under construction — with a new name (West 6th Tempe) and a new focus.
“It’s a fantastic project” that lost its lending in the Mortgages Ltd. mess and watched the market collapse while the situation was resolved, says Tyler Anderson, CB Richard Ellis vice chairman. Anderson, who specializes in the sale of multi-family assets, brokered the sale of the Tempe property.
Also picked up for a song by savvy investors was 44 Monroe, a 196-unit luxury condo complex in Downtown Phoenix. ST Residential snagged not only 44 Monroe, but also the 155-unit 3rd Avenue Palms in Phoenix, the 89-unit Safari Drive condos in Scottsdale and 98 more properties nationwide for $2.7B.
To take advantage of the huge demand for apartments, the new owners are now leasing unsold condos at 44 Monroe, Hundley says.
“This allowed us to take advantage of a (condo) market that’s a couple of years away, “ he adds. “We feel better about leasing at today’s rates, and renting allows us to mothball the project for a while.”
While some of the best bargains have been for the distressed lender-owned properties, the investor demand is pushing valuations up and luring more sellers into the market to pay off loans or balance their portfolios, CBRE’s Anderson says.
“Value has recovered so that core Class A products are selling at replacement cost,” he says. “A seller may not get all (its) equity back, but can at least pay off the loans.” Still, the picture is skewed.
“The Class A and B product market is recovering quickly, with rent increases of 8% to 10%,” Anderson says. “The Class C market is work force housing, and it is showing early signs of recovery.”
The class differences become apparent in analysis of the submarkets. According to Goff, the apartment vacancy rate is an enviable 5.12% in Chandler, but tops out at 24.14% in the central Black Canyon corridor.
Construction Cycle Starting
At least one major player in the national and local multi-housing business thinks the time is ripe to build — if you can get the right deal.
Alliance Residential bought the 4.7 acres housing the long-empty Hard Rock Café and Marco Polo restaurants near 26th Street and Camelback Road in Phoenix for $10.5M, about a third of its mid-2000s value. The company already owns or manages 49,000 apartment units nationwide, 8,000 in the Valley under the Broadstone banner, and plans to build 270 ultra-upscale units in the tony Biltmore location, says Bob Hutt, managing director for Southwest operations.
Construction of Broadstone Camelback (its proposed name) is slated to start in the fall, with the first units opening in 4Q 2012, and the development completed in 2013, he says. Hutt says Alliance was positioned well to take advantage of recession-starved land prices, low construction costs due to the lack of competition, and fearful lenders.
“Clearly we wouldn’t have been able to touch this property if it hadn’t been for the recession,” Hutt says.
And since Alliance emerged from the economic downturn in excellent financial shape, it easily landed construction financing from lenders with ample cash but fear of spending it.
“It’s nice to get in early in the cycle,” Hutt says. “It’s a unique time when rentals are dominant. The opportunities today are very strong, and the outlook very healthy going forward. There is a lot to look forward to in the multi-family sector.”
AZRE Magazine July/August 2011