Coming out of the recession, getting construction deals to make financial sense wasn’t easy. It never is. But for established developers, it wasn’t as hard as it is today either. As lenders tighten requirements, construction costs continue to rise, and rents start to flatten, making financial sense of new-apartment construction is growing increasingly difficult.
In this uncertain environment, experience matters. In core markets, companies with the right pedigree have been able to work the best projects and enjoy enough rent growth to offset rising construction costs. In the 2016 NMHC Top 25 Developers list, the names might seem reordered a bit from last year, but they’re essentially the same. As the development cycle continues to mature this year, expect to see the same names again a year from now.
Here are how two of the biggest names on the conventional and affordable sides of the development business, respectively, grew in 2015.
Alliance Residential Co.
2015 Units Started: 7,7652016 Developers Rank: 1
Of the 7,765 units started by Alliance Residential last year, two projects stand out to the firm’s president and COO, Jay Hiemenz: the 24-story Broadstone at Brickell in downtown Miami and the three-phase, 1,200-unit Broadstone Heritage build-out in Orange County, Calif.
Topping out on March 21, 2016, at 253 feet, Broadstone at Brickell features 372 studio, one-, and two-bedroom apartments and amenities aplenty. It also could be one of the last large-scale, luxury rental high-rises to develop in Miami.
“We’re happy to be coming out with that now,” Hiemenz says. “The condo guys are rushing back into that market, and as that tends to drive development and land prices upward, Broadstone at Brickell could be the last rentals we do there for a while.”
In Orange County, meanwhile, Alliance will spend the next few years building out a $400 million community across three phases. “At 1,200 units, [Broadstone Heritage] represents the single-largest project we’ve ever worked on,” Hiemenz says. “That’s a testament to where we feel the strength of the market is over the next three to four years.”
Strong lease-up velocity, steady absorption, and “barbell” demand from millennials and boomers are powering demand across most of Alliance’s portfolio. In fact, boomer demand may see the company shift away from the smaller-unit trend, perhaps across entire assets.
“Boomer demand seems to be stickier, and I don’t think urbanization has been a fickle experiment in that regard,” Hiemenz says. “We’re designing larger units for them in certain locations, and there are two or three projects on the books where we might be able to tailor almost entirely to that demographic.”
While Hiemenz says 2016 starts will likely be on par with, or slightly down from, 2015’s numbers, he expects established players to increase their relative share of market as lending requirements and construction costs squeeze the development community at the margins.
“If construction costs keep increasing in the absence of corresponding rent growth, it’s going to knock a lot of projects out,” Hiemenz says. “We see the lending requirements tightening enough to push marginal borrowers out to the sidelines and position established developers for more than their fair share. It’s a financing headwind we expect to benefit from.”
The Michaels Organization
2015 Units Started: 2,880 2016 Developers Rank: 13
A dramatic YouTube video on The Michaels Organization’s website shows a time-lapsed implosion of three obsolete apartment buildings at the Montgomery Gardens community in Jersey City, N.J., last August. The destruction of the 62-year-old brick, public housing towers is emblematic of the changing face of affordable housing in the United States—away from blighted, characterless properties and toward well-designed communities that are walkable, transit-oriented, and located near job-growth centers in both urban and suburban submarkets.
The Michaels Organization, with 2,880 starts in 2015, the most of any affordable housing firm, is leading the way during this transformative era. And an important legal decision from last year clears the path for more growth for the developer.
“The Supreme Court upholding of disparate impact under the Fair Housing Act last year really gives a greater opportunity to locate affordable housing in great neighborhoods … ,” says Michaels president Gary Buechler.
With former Michaels president Ava Goldman transitioning into a consultative role, Buechler takes over the reins this year of a $1 billion development pipeline at Michaels that also includes military, workforce, and student housing. In September 2015, the company also formed a new division to handle the management of its 3,313-unit, 8,019-bed student housing portfolio.
“Affordable housing has always been the bread and butter at Michaels, but student housing has become a great platform for us,” says Buechler.
The development challenge for affordable will be the flip side of the disparate-impact opportunity, Buechler says. “As we move into more suburban areas, the challenge will become obtaining land where we’re competing with market-rate and luxury developers,” he notes.
“We’re very optimistic [about] the traditional drivers of jobs, household formation, and population growth,” Buechler says. “But housing affordability is a significant issue for the country, for the real estate market, and for developers, too.”