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Rent Control in MHCs

September 4th, 2013 1 comment

Tony,

The phone rang one morning and a young man returned my call to him, we'd been playing phone tag. I had left a message with his wife in Oregon earlier, and he was calling about two Vermont MH communities I have listed for sale. From the voice of each, I guessed they were both far younger than I.

Speaking with him, as I answered his questions, it was obvious this was not his first call on LLCs for sale. In a knowledgeable way he wound thru the obvious questions, finally asking whether Vermont LLCs are rent controlled. Yes, I explained, they are. I went on to explain Vermont allows CPI, about 3% annually presently, without concern, and a big one, allows provable capital improvements in addition, annually. I told him that as a former VT LLC owner I had found the scheme fully workable, as do many of my contemporaries.

The next day I got an email message saying he and his partner/wife had decided not to invest in any locale where rent control is in force. OK, I get it, but that removes quite a swath of locales, many which are hot purchase markets. This philosophy allows investment in say Mississippi or Alabama, but negates purchases in Florida or much of California. Oh…

After that, my mind wondered over my experiences of the dangers of rent control and lack of it. Yes, I said the danger of the lack of it. I actually was pretty young once, had hundreds of apartments and almost 2000 MH/RV sites. With the exception of a Florida LLC, I was in no jurisdiction where rent control was in effect. And when rent control was threatened in a jurisdiction, I was the first to the battlements opposing its imposition. I was and am a capitalist, and rent control seemed an anathema to my beliefs. I'm not alone, right?

But time went by, slowly the days passed, and some of my beliefs at 40 years of age made transition to a more measured understanding as I aged and acquired experience I previously lacked. Let me be frank, I was an accomplished and notorious rent increaser, which in my twilight years brings me no acclaim by others, and more importantly, myself.

What I found was that in apartments, and we're not speaking of New York City here, the market rents in an area kinda act as rent control. You find yourself as the top dog in rent rate for your 1000 sq. ft three bedroom apartment in your area. What you are very likely to find, as I did, your apartment rents last and less, staying empty longer than it should. Recovering the lost time and money brings you back to Earth and unless your calqy is busted, your late debt payments slap Hai Karate hard. I found apartments very self correcting as to rents.

Now, on to LLCs. We all know the reasons we invest in communities; they own the dwelling unit, they can't move the house, etc. All good stuff, of course. So as I bought LLCs from original owner/developers, I found that as longtime owners they had allowed their rents to slip behind the market, keeping their management easy, with many long term residents.

Of course, the purchase price always reflected the oft unspoken premium of raising rents to market. "Hell, they can pay a lot more than that!" So I paid more than cash flow to get the community, not real unusual, right? Then the rent increases started. Often stiff and early increases happened shortly after closing.

The first few increases were swallowed, albeit with plenty of bitching by residents. We raised rents as much in two-three years as the former owner did in 10 years. Note that in some instances the increased rent still didn't pay for the capitalized investment costs. I knew that, they only knew and cared their rent had doubled in short order. No esoteric explanations of cap rates and other MH investor jargon seemed particularly persuasive to the LLC residents.

Who was it, Newton, who theorized every action has an equal and opposite reaction? I raised rents, they moved out. And I acquired a reputation in that community as a rapacious rent increaser. And these reputations are hard to escape. I wouldn't really care that much except the reputation had a very bad impact on homesite rentals. That, I did care about.

At first I did the calculation I see many others doing. Yah, I had 100 homes at $100 per month, and even though I'm quickly down to 90 homes at $111 per month, hey, I'm getting the same money with less work and expenses. And it keeps going this way as rents increase, residents fleeing like a torrent, out the MH Paradise Estates gates, which has turned into Hell Bent Acres.  And as vacancies mount, you lose control of the community, no longer able to count on the desire to live in your LLC to keep people in line. And that desire includes pricing.

Were I the only one to have followed the raise-rents protocols, then only I would have suffered the residue, but of course, such was not the case. The MH industry's then flawed model, subsidized for years by flawed lenders, finally collapsed, dropping from 373,000 shipments in 1998, then tantalizing us into believing the hurricane-inspired 135,000 shipments of the mid 2000s was the stopping point, to the grim reality of 50,000 homes in the 2010s. Yah, I hear 60,000 homes could happen any day now.

I sat in on some very contentious MHI committees in the late 2000s era trying to formulate a chattel long term lease the GSEs could swallow. In concert with this I reviewed many LLC profiles showing monthly rent and occupancy. It probably won't surprise you that the vacancy was truly scary, yet rents occurred steeply and frequently.  I had already tried that, and even with the generous retail financing by GreenTree, CIT, The Associates, Security Pacific, Chase and their ilk, it didn't work. Now we were dealing with the GSEs, who I did not find stupid, and we were trying to equate rents in LLCs to the capitalized valuation of single family conventional real estate lots. Any thought of sharply limiting rent increases to gain long term and low rate financing being the trade-off, got serious push back. Such was not to be and by then as the effort lost all bouyancy, the GSEs woke up to far bigger challenges.

As a post script I am the very first to admit that some major figures in that committee have since come far closer to the rent restraints advocated in the long term lease effort as their stated belief for industry resuscitation.  Will that be enough? I greatly doubt it, but I sure think it is an indisputable industry wide measure in the road back to something other than Warren Buffett's table scraps.

So to my young friend in Oregon, rent control, other then confiscatory NYC apartments or some California cities in MH, can be a useful LLC owner restraint, quieting some of the early animal spirits we can all exhibit before experience shackles us. Did I like going to the rent hearings in my community in Florida and taking phallus down the throat to the gag control center? Oh, I loved it.

Still, Florida LLCs are and have long been highly prized acquisitions, not greatly injured by the relatively manageable process for raising rents.  With the relatively benign rent control such as in Florida and Vermont, you and the industry are actually protected from many of the practices employed in the industry, leading to so much push back against us.

Before you believe I'm asking you to petition your jurisdiction for rent control, let me disabuse of that notion. Nothing could be further from the truth. I rail against governmental intrusion in to my affairs daily. Everyday the beast grows larger, only a financial collapse likely to abort its growth. The only point I am making is that one must practice rental increase restraint on your own. Sometimes laws can help a process.

The flip side is that lack of restraint causes lack of residents at a time LLC vacancy nationwide forebodes another step down in industry size. In places like Vermont and Florida and others, rent control, which one should practice on their own, is instilled by statute. Perhaps not the best solution, but the record says the world did not end there.

Yes, we tell a great story which seemingly has legs of truth about our affordable housing heritage. But for whatever reason, even though its great dog food, the dogs won't eat it. Perhaps a legacy of rapacious rent increases, closing parks, high default rates and high home value depreciation could be a good place to start the industry resurgence. We build great homes, but my friends, that, by itself is not enough. ##

marty-lavin-posted-on-mhpronews(MARTIN V. LAVIN
attorney, consultant & expert witness
350 Main Street Suite 100
BURLINGTON, VERMONT 05401-3413

802-660-8888 off / 802-238-7777 cell
marty@martylavin.com

(Editor's note: The hot link was added by us, not Marty, nor was the link requested in any way by Marty. We think it is good for others to realize that while Marty is 'retired,' he is still involved in this industry and clearly cares about manufactured housing deeply. That is why he sounds off on issues, because he cares enough to raise them for discussion, thought and action.

As always, letters and articles by you or your colleagues that may agree or take other perspectives are encouraged. Send them to latonyk@gmail.com with Industry Voices Guest Column in the subject line. )

George Allen Forecasts Manufactured Housing Industry Change and Future

April 6th, 2011 No comments

Part IV: Manufactured Housing Industry Change and Looking Forward

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a four-part series of the exclusive interview George F. Allen gave MHMSM.com Industry in Focus Reporter Matthew J. Silver.

MHMSM: What have been the major changes in the industry you have witnessed in your 25+ years in the business? 

GFA: We’ve covered some of it. But it goes back to some of the trends, mainly the consolidation trend. But you have to understand, before 1990 there was not even a dearth of knowledge about operating statistics, or occupancy percentages, or any kind of numbers – it just did not exist. And the prominent players at the time did not want it to exist. They may not say that, but it’s true.

When I hung out my shingle as a consultant, I thought of what kind of statistics would be helpful to the industry. But my detractors were the very people I was trying to help. The attitude back in the 90s was, “Why document this information, and publicize it; it’s only going to attract investors.” People are only going to want to compete for this limited number of properties. It wasn’t until Sam Zell took MHCs public, and the Wall Street analysts asked, “What’s your occupancy, what’s your operating expense ratios?” Basically, what the companies claimed to do did not make the Wall Street guys happy because they had no norms to compare them to.

Then the major guys came to me because they wanted to go public, and started supporting me as an independent third-party researcher and writer. That changed the whole landscape. Other investors started showing up, and that made it a whole different ball game.

Some of that same attitude exists today, and it works in two ways:

1. I guarantee you in the next few months, I will get calls from people who want to know the numbers in the Allen Report, but they are the same people who refused to give me numbers when I was putting it together.

2. The other is, there are still areas that are totally unexplored. How much do you pay a community manager? Is it based on the size of the community? What’s the nature of the manager’s duties? Nobody wants to share. We’ve tried several times through MHI to survey these 500 portfolio people at national meetings, and no one wants to participate. They don’t want to reveal what they are paying, and they don’t want their managers to hear what other people are paying their managers. We are notoriously low pay for what we require. But they don’t participate in the HR surveys that they claim to want.

MHMSM: What are you going to do after you semi-retire this year?

GFA: I have a number of personal and family projects I want to be engaged in and enjoy. Not that I don’t enjoy what I’m doing now. The problem is I’m so passionate about the industry that it’s hard for me to pigeonhole my time to enjoy these other areas. I don’t plan to disappear entirely.

MHMSM: Do you have other speakers lined up for the International Roundtable later this year? Are you locked in on a location for this year’s Roundtable?

GFA: I’m working on that right now. I’m working on my speaker list and the location. Sept. 14-16 is what I’m targeting now. I always try to come up with some sort of a theme. I think it’s going to be, “The Past, Present, and Future of Landlease Communities.” I normally have one or two keynote speakers. But this time, if the three different entities I’m in negotiations with right now to sell my report, step up to the plate and buy sections of what I’m doing, they will come together at the Roundtable. They are looking at my Report from three different perspectives. I’m not going to identify them, but one is a national not-for-profit that’s looking at using certain things I do to continue to serve the portfolio owners from coast to coast. That’s the big picture. The second group is a for-profit that wants to serve the 85 percent of the small ‘mom and pop’s’ across the country. The third part of the puzzle could very well be a first time ever academic presence that wants to better serve the research and statistic gathering and publication requirements of both the manufactured housing industry and the land lease community asset class. I’m in discussion with all three of these entities.

It’s not just the report they’re looking at – it’s my newsletter, my database, various other reports I do. I think they could pick up what I’m doing and move ahead in their specialty areas. Nothing would please me more. And I think the three organizations could do a better job than just one person. That’s my cautiously optimistic view of what I would like to be able to market at the Roundtable this fall as being a turning point in the history of the asset class.

Thirty years ago, none of this existed. Today it exists in a sole proprietor fashion, but going forward, in 2012, it could be more encompassing, more efficient, and better serve all the community owners across the country. So, the plan is to bring these three to the Roundtable. Two of them have been there before. And even if we weren’t negotiating now, they would be there anyhow, but representing only much smaller parts of what they have been doing up to now. What I’m hoping is that the Roundtable might represent the coming together of all three of these entities, giving them the opportunity from the bully platform to say, “This is what we’re picking up from where George is leaving off.” The only thing I might have a problem with, is all three want me to continue to be involved. That could be a greater time commitment than I have now.

MHMSM: Do you think the industry as a whole is on an upswing, or will it just maintain this somewhat tepid – bumping bottom – atmosphere, with new home shipments hovering around the 50,000 home mark annually?

GFA: The school book answer is, “Of course I’m looking for a bright future for manufactured housing.” But the truth of the matter is, there won’t be a bright future for that half of the industry until third-party chattel financing returns. If the retailer could take the buyer by the hand and lead them to a Green Tree, say, and tell the customer that they can have a 650 score and we will underwrite the loan for your new home. Until that happens, and it’s not even on the horizon yet, we will be at 50,000 homes a year.

But I call it the ‘double dual’ industry. You have the factory and distribution side of the house that’s on the ropes. Then you have the real estate investment and development side of the house, the communities, smiling all the way to the bank. Yes, we have to take risks to make it work, but it’s a seller’s market. This is the only type of real estate investment you can be involved in that, if you are willing to take an extra risk, you can add value by reselling your homes on site and carrying your own mortgages.

MHMSM: If you had to do it over again, what might you do differently?

GFA: That’s a broad question. I could have been a much wealthier person concentrating on buying and selling more properties, than concentrating my energies on creating and developing all the resources I am now selling. Even if I get my dream price for this, I will have made far less than if I had bought and sold manufactured home communities as an investment. I have been very happy on the consulting side. It’s been more personally fulfilling.

MHMSM: Anything you want to add?

GFA: What is not widely known is that through most of that 30-year period of time I have been involved in the industry, there have been individuals involved with portfolios of manufactured home communities who have contributed significant financial support to what I’ve accomplished, who have by choice remained unidentified to this day. I feel they deserve a lot of credit that they’ve not received, and probably will never receive, at their preference. I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished; I just regret that they’re unsung heroes, to whom individuals and companies who own a land lease community in this country and in Canada owe this debt of gratitude, but will never be able to express it. It bothers me, because they made it possible for me to do what I am doing, with money and otherwise. I keep the communities as a separate business, but it could never have supported me in doing what the individuals did quietly, behind the scenes. That may change later in the summer. Stay tuned.

MHMSM: Thank you for your time.

Reporters note: GFA could have retired 20 years ago, but found the consulting work more satisfying than even a zillion dollars. # #

Click here to read Part I

Click here to read Part II

Click here to read Part III

George Allen Sounds Off in Exclusive Interview on Key MHC and Industry Issues

March 15th, 2011 2 comments

Part I:  Are Manufactured Housing Communities (MHCs) a Good Investment?

Editor’s Note:  This is the first in a four-part series of the exclusive interview George F. Allen gave MHMSM.com Industry in Focus Reporter Matthew J. Silver.

MHMSM:  You’ve stated that an estimated 15 percent of all manufactured housing communities are in the hands of portfolio operators. What is your guesstimate of the total number of manufactured housing sites in the U.S.? Given this number, how many sites would be in the hands of portfolio operators and how many with independent ‘mom and pop’ owners?

George F. Allen (GFA):  The generally accepted number of manufactured home communities is 50,000. For several reasons we may never know the exact amount, mainly because that type of property is regulated in only about a dozen states. It goes back to the early days when bathrooms were not required to be in ‘trailers;’ therefore, if you were going to have a trailer park*, you would have to have a gang shower and a gang bathroom. The board of health would inspect to make sure these facilities existed for the general health of the public.

That is a law that’s been around for many years in these 12 states that’s never sunsetted [been taken off the books]. In other words, once they started these inspections, they didn’t want this source of revenue to dry up. But once manufactured homes started having bathrooms inside, the major need to inspect mobile homes* no longer existed.

The problem is, from state to state, the threshold, or what constitutes a mobile home park*, varies. It could be as few as three or four sites in Indiana, which is not really an investment size property, and a different threshold in Ohio or Illinois. So if you have a different baseline in every state, you are never going to know. And since 38 states don’t have a list of the communities, we’re never going to really know.

When I was writing my second textbook about the development, marketing and operation of manufactured home communities in 1992, I went to the state board of health to get their list of the 1100 manufactured home communities in Indiana. 

What I came up with was – and I compared it to other states – because of the extremely low number of sites that constituted a manufactured home community, 85 percent of the properties in most states were properties of 100 sites or smaller, with a few exceptions. And that’s important because those are referred to as ‘mom and pop’ operations, because they lack the economies of scale to be a really strong source of passive investment income. It’s not until you get to 150 or 200 sites or larger that the economies of scale will support a remote property management operation. The average size property in portfolios today is around 222 sites, because it takes that many to support a centrally located management operation. The exceptions I referred to earlier are Florida, Arizona and California, where the percentage is more like 78 percent, because there are a larger number of retirement properties in the Sunbelt states. So, of the remaining 15 percent in the other states, six and a half are over 200 sites. This remaining 15 percent is in the hands of 500 individuals, partnerships, and corporations.

According to the Allen Report, the average portfolio is estimated to be 24 properties for each player. Granted, you could have five little communities or one big 500 site community to get on my list. But at the other end of the spectrum is Sam Zell, who owns three or four hundred communities. He’s the biggest player in the world. When Buffett bought Clayton, he acquired 60 communities, but he owned them for only a couple of years and then sold them. They are now owned by a company called YES!  Any properties over 200 sites we call institutional or investment grade properties, because the return on the investment is so great, that’s what the big money goes after. The 100 to 200 site owners I call the young wealth builders. They want to play in this arena, and they are bigger than the ‘mom and pop’ operators, but they can’t compete in the same field as the Sam Zells of the world, so they content themselves with two properties, ideally in the same town, so they can have one management team look after them.

MHMSM:  You have a good idea of how many people it takes to manage and maintain a manufactured housing community (MHC). While it would certainly vary, based on the size of the community, based on your experience, from the community manager or owner, to maintenance, sales and support people who might work on an as-needed basis, what do you think a typical MHC employment would look like? Given this number, how many do you think are employed by MHCs nationwide when there are an estimated 50,000 MHCs in the U.S.?

GFA:  The answer to that is counter intuitive. If we were talking about apartment communities here, the more people living in the apartments, the larger the staff has to be. Statistics show there is a 60 percent turnover rate in apartments, which means you have to paint the rooms when someone moves out, clean the carpet, maintain the appliances and mechanical parts, have a leasing staff and maintenance. Plus you have to mow the grass. At an MHC, there’s only five to ten percent turnover every year. But people own their homes, they are responsible for taking care of everything in their house, inside and out, and they cut their own grass. That means a lot less staff. Proportionally, the larger a community gets, the fewer staff people necessary. I would say a 200 site community would require a full time manager, a part-time assistant, and one and a half guys working outside, mostly maintaining sites not occupied and policing the trash. It would take only half that many people to operate a 100 site community. I would estimate there are fewer than a thousand full time employees of manufactured housing communities.

MHMSM: How many people do you estimate live in MH Communities?

GFA:  Ask Thayer Long.

MHMSM:  How many vacancies do you estimate there are in MHCs?

GFA:  Just under ten percent vacancy.

MHMSM:  How difficult do you think it would be to mobilize these residents and employees of MHCs into following an agenda the “protects and promotes” regulations and laws that govern the purchasing, financing and overall well being of their communities?

GFA:  That’s a loaded question. It depends so much on whether or not they already have landlord-tenant legislation. In California and Florida, that bridge has already been crossed. But if you’re talking about the Midwest, the answer becomes more germane, because it depends on two things: How bad the abuses are by the landlords, and how intelligent, socially conscious and activist-oriented the tenants are in those properties. Those are two very subjective factors. Without an answer to those, I can’t give you an answer to your question.

MHMSM:  Some operators focus only on used and repossessed homes for their sales. Why is it important for community operators to sell new homes?

GFA:  Someone’s making an assumption. Some operators prefer to buy used and repossessed homes and I ‘m one of them. The reason is, there’s a greater margin for profit. If I can buy a slightly used home for five or ten thousand dollars, put in a couple of thousand dollars in new carpet, new appliances, and turn around and retail it for 18 or 20 thousand dollars, that’s a good return. Then I give the buyer terms they can afford so I make money on the interest and money on the ground rent as well. The main advantage to me of a new home is it upgrades the community. The biggest problem I have with buying new homes is, unless you buy a half dozen or a dozen at a time and get a significant discount on the price, you’re going to take a hit on the depreciation. It’s like an automobile. If it’s not attached to the ground, it loses its value instantly. We don’t like to talk about that in the industry, but that’s what happens. Over time, it will hold its value, and the community will look nice and be worth more. But the general trend is a new home will depreciate, because the homes are still considered ‘mobile.’

MHMSM:  What makes an MHC a good investment?

GFA:  Look at page nine of my Allen Report.

Number one is scarcity. There is no money available to develop new ones, there’s no money for third party financing for homes, and local planning commissions are beset by NIMBY – ‘not in my back yard.’
Stable occupancy. Thirty years ago you could back your pickup truck to your 12 x 40 factory-built home and move it out. Today it costs thousands to move your home from one side of town to the other.
Stability, competitive homesite rent.
Low operating expense.

Let me take you through an example. If you and I each had $75,000 to invest, we could either buy a 100 unit apartment building with that $150,000 or buy a three hundred homesite factory-built community. First of all, each one would return about the same amount of income. Secondly, 60 percent of the tenants in the apartment building won’t be there a year from now. In a landlease community, only ten percent of the residents will move in a typical year (five percent of the home). The consequences of people moving out of apartment communities is the manager has to repaint the unit, clean the carpets, service appliances, and advertise widely, to find and attract prospective tenants. Staff winds up working seven days a week. However, in a land lease community, when your occupancy rate reaches 90 percent or higher, it’s hardly necessary to advertise at all.

You may have to pick up some loose trash around a homesite, but the responsibility is a lot less. Now how does that translate into dollars? According to national averages, in an apartment community, 55 percent of all the rent that comes in has to go back out for operating expenses. Seven days a week, mowing the grass, extra maintenance guys painting the walls, cleaning the floors, advertising expense. If we leverage that apartment building and pay interest on the loan, 40 percent of that 45 percent left over goes for interest on the loan. That means we will split five cents of every dollar we take in. For the factory-built community, for every dollar we take in, 40 cents goes for operating expenses. That’s 15 cents more we make, and we don’t have to work seven days a week. But if we’re talking about the Sam Zells of the world who have 400 or 600 home site communities, that expense figure drops to about 20 cents. So if the 150 site community doubles to 300 sites, our expenses don’t really increase. So, on the bigger communities, if we have the same leverage of 40 percent, we would split 60 percent.

*Terms used by GFA.

Next week:  Part II:  The Allen Report on Manufactured Housing Community Portfolio Operators: Then, Now and Tomorrow #