I never cared much for Monopoly. As a kid, I preferred Pictionary and Scrabble (and as I got older, Trivial Pursuit and Taboo and Cranium). But Monopoly? That was a board game that always lasted far too long, with rules that were more like guidelines and an ethos that seemed to bring out the bossy, brash, ruthless sides of most people.
It was not for me.
A few weeks back, one of my colleagues forwarded me an NPR story, “Monopoly Game: Rules Made to Be Broken,” which suggested that the housing bubble was, in a small way, the result of bad lessons learned from “years of passing Go and collecting $200.” The journalist, Robert Smith, put this theory into action by playing Monopoly with two economics professors, one of whom thinks that the Parker Bros. game offers great lessons for children, and another who says Monopoly presents a warped view of capitalism with no innovation or mutual benefits.
Fascinating, I thought. Maybe there is something redeemable to be found in Monopoly after all.
“Looking at Monopoly in post-recession 2010,” Smith writes, “the rules seem like a sure way to crash an economy: The bank can never run out of money, mortgages are easy to get, and when you build houses the rent always goes up.” And when the money runs out, players start bending the rules, negotiating, bartering, and generally wheeling and dealing.
Sound familiar? At times during the Era of Excess (read: 2005 to 2007), the real estate industry certainly acted like it was playing a game without risk. A game with elements of no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em. Russian roulette. Monopoly on steroids.
But clearly, as time passed, we learned that there were indeed risks—very real ones—that came with running our businesses like Park Place and Broadway.
Now, I know plenty of people who would say that real estate is cyclical. The boom, and subsequent bust, were to be expected, and we will soon be on our way to recovery. That it will be game over, roll the dice, start over again. In fact, a number of industry observers say that recovery is already here—that it arrived with vigor in the second quarter of 2010. And in some respects, they’re right: Rent growth was positive for the first time since the third quarter of 2008; vacancies dropped; multifamily starts were projected to rise slightly.
But there’s still one factor at play that isn’t being addressed: Jobs. Nationally, unemployment still hovers above 9 percent. For the slowly progressing recovery, unemployment is “The X Factor”—that element that can undermine the fragile economy quickly and without forewarning, kind of like the “chance” cards in Monopoly. And it’s not the only X factor that multifamily players have to watch for. On the operational side, there are dozens of unknowns that can influence business, from legislative reforms to natural disasters. And for developers, the biggest problem may be their biggest legacy—those mega developments with their tens of thousands of units, rent and management woes, and delinquency concerns. We look at all of these factors, and more, this month. The coverage begins on page 25.
It’s hard to know whether the tides really are turning in the economy or whether those issues and situations outside of our day-to-day control may wreak havoc on our business. Yet it’s a risk that most in the industry willingly take—possible ruin for tremendous opportunity and great reward.
I guess that’s the way it is with any game worth playing. Even Monopoly.