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Multifamily Investors See Spread Of Rent Control As 'The Biggest Risk To Our Industry'

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Local governments from New York to California have moved forward with new rent control laws this year in an attempt to address the housing affordability crisis. But multifamily investors say the laws are pushing them away from those markets, and they fear the trend could spread to other cities.

Harbor Group International's Matt Jones, TrueAmerica Multifamily's Matt Ferrari and Aion Partners' Sean Belfi
Harbor Group International's Matt Jones, TruAmerica Multifamily's Matt Ferrari and Aion Partners' Sean Belfi

New York in June passed a law expanding rent regulations that affect nearly 1 million apartments in New York City, which was widely condemned in the commercial real estate industry. Oregon in February passed the nation's first statewide rent control bill and California followed suit last month with passage of its own statewide rent control law. 

TruAmerica Multifamily co-Chief Investment Officer Matt Ferrari, whose firm has over 40,000 units under management across 11 U.S. states, including California and Oregon, said the new laws are hurting those markets. He said they disincentivize owners from renovating properties, depress property values and decrease investment. He said he already sees capital fleeing those markets, and he is worried about more markets expanding rent control.

"It's probably the biggest risk to our industry is this having a contagion effect from these deep blue states, New York and California, and eventually spreading across the country," Ferrari said Thursday at Bisnow's Multifamily Annual Conference East in D.C. "It could really impact our business long term."

D.C. is currently considering expanding its rent regulations. The District has a law in place that passed in the 1980s and regulates rent for about 80,000 apartments built before 1975. But that is down significantly from a peak of 130,000 rent-controlled units, and the remaining 80,000 could become market-rate units next year if the D.C. Council doesn't extend the law. 

Council Member Anita Bonds, who chairs the D.C. Council's housing committee, introduced a bill to extend the rent regulations to 2030 and is scheduled to hold a hearing on it Wednesday. In addition to expanding the program, activists are calling for the D.C. Council to adopt more aggressive rent control measures that would lower the rent increase cap, cover all buildings constructed before 2005 and make all new units subject to rent control after 15 years. 

The D.C. Building Industry Association has come out against these proposals, arguing it would make it harder for the city to reach Mayor Muriel Bowser's goal of building 36,000 new housing units by 2025. 

"Rent control exacerbates the housing shortage because it does not do anything to address why rents are rising," DCBIA CEO Lisa Maria Mallory wrote in a Washington Business Journal op-ed last week. "The one issue that nearly every economist agrees is that rent control just makes housing worse."

Cherry Bekaert's Bruce Buchanan, Transwestern's Dean Sigmon, Stonebridge's Doug Firstenberg, Cooper Carry's Alysha Buck, Melnick Real Estate Advisors' Scott Melnick and Neighborhood Development Co.'s Adrian Washington
Cherry Bekaert's Bruce Buchanan, Transwestern's Dean Sigmon, Stonebridge's Doug Firstenberg, Cooper Carry's Alysha Buck, Melnick Real Estate Advisors' Scott Melnick and Neighborhood Development Co.'s Adrian Washington

Some investors are already shying away from the D.C. area for fear of new rent control laws, Melnick Real Estate Advisors founder Scott Melnick said. He said he recently had a buyer seeking to invest $110M as part of a 1031 exchange deal, and they limited their search to less-regulated states like Georgia, Texas and Florida.

"We're seeing people want to skip over this region because they know it's coming," Melnick said of rent control. "Investors now are not just looking at the House and the Senate, they're looking at the county council and how it's made up to see what's coming."

Harbor Group International Director of Acquisitions Matt Jones, whose firm has a nationwide portfolio of 33,000 multifamily units, also said he expects stronger rent control laws to be enacted in the D.C. area. 

"We're definitely seeing capital that used to be New York City multifamily-focused fleeing that regulatory environment," Jones said. "My view is that regulatory environment is following them down I-95, and we're not a decade away from those concerns in many of the markets down here."

CBRE's David Webb, The Donaldson Group's Carlton Einsel, Harbor Group International's Matt Jones, TrueAmerica Multifamily's Matt Ferrari, Aion Partners' Sean Belfi and FCP's Jason Bonderenko
CBRE's David Webb, The Donaldson Group's Carlton Einsel, Harbor Group International's Matt Jones, TrueAmerica Multifamily's Matt Ferrari, Aion Partners' Sean Belfi and FCP's Jason Bonderenko

FCP principal Jason Bonderenko said several of his recent deals have involved buyers fleeing the New York City market, likely because of rent control.

"I can tell you we recently sold properties in Philadelphia, [D.C.], Atlanta, the Carolinas, and it was all New York buyers on all those deals," Bonderenko said. "That trend is happening in a very big way." 

The Donaldson Group CEO Carlton Einsel, whose portfolio is largely concentrated in the D.C. area, said politicians support rent control because they want to appear to be tackling the affordable housing issue, even if most economists agree it is not an effective solution. He said it is up to commercial real estate leaders to come up with better solutions to the problem before more governments enact rent control. 

"There is an affordable housing issue, and as an industry we have to do something to help solve it, because if we can't, it will be solved for us by politicians that are going to do rent control," Einsel said.

Jefferson Apartment Group's Jim Butz, Pender's Zach Murphy, Morgan Properties' Jonathan Morgan, Continental Realty Corp.'s JM Schapiro, CoStar's Michael Cohen and CohnReznick's Emily Butler
Jefferson Apartment Group's Jim Butz, Pender's Zach Murphy, Morgan Properties' Jonathan Morgan, Continental Realty Corp.'s JM Schapiro, CoStar's Michael Cohen and CohnReznick's Emily Butler

Jefferson Apartment Group CEO Jim Butz said he sees housing affordability and rising rents in major cities as an important issue, but he said cities trying to address it with rent control laws are only creating new problems. He is worried about the increased regulations spreading across the East Coast. 

"One of the bigger trends we have to be careful about in Washington, in Philly, obviously in New York, and a little bit in Boston, is rent control," Butz said. "That would potentially shut down the market and really put a chill on institutional investment."

Pender's Zach Murphy, Morgan Properties' Jonathan Morgan and Continental Realty Corp.'s JM Schapiro
Pender's Zach Murphy, Morgan Properties' Jonathan Morgan and Continental Realty Corp.'s JM Schapiro

Morgan Properties President Jonathan Morgan, one of the region's most active multifamily buyers in recent years, said rent control measures are forcing investment firms like his to expand to less-regulated markets. 

"We're concerned about rent control as well," Morgan said, after hearing several other investors express their concerns. "The affordability issue in this country is not going away any time soon, but rent control I think is the wrong solution ... it's making a lot of the owners like us and others invest in new markets."

The criticism of rent control at Thursday's event was not limited to investors that own apartments — a federal government official also referred to the local laws as having harmful consequences.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Sen. Todd Young, HUD's Alfonso Costa and NMHC's Doug Bibby
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Sen. Todd Young, HUD's Alfonso Costa Jr. and NMHC's Doug Bibby

Department of Housing and Urban Development Deputy Chief of Staff Alfonso Costa Jr. cited reports from the National Multifamily Housing Council and Stanford University that detail the negative impacts of rent control. 

"Although rent control in the short-term might reduce displacement, it can have a very deleterious impact on housing supply and prices," Costa said. "You have landlords that are going to be less likely to address capital repair needs, that will defer maintenance and will turn their rental units into owner-occupied units and sell them. Ultimately it can have a very adverse impact and unintended consequences."

Costa joined NHMC CEO Doug Bibby and U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Todd Young (R-IN) on the event's keynote panel. The senators did not discuss rent control, but stay tuned for more coverage on the ideas they raised to address housing affordability.