One of the biggest problems facing low-income families in the U.S. today is a lack of affordable housing.
According to a recent report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, more than 7 million low-income households now spend more than half of their income for rent, which leaves little money for anything else. And the situation is expected to get worse.
Now, a coalition of nonprofit groups is trying to turn things around with a new, more business-like approach to buying real estate. They hope to preserve housing units that low- and moderate-income families can afford.
Christopher LoPiano is senior vice president for real estate at Community Preservation and Development Corp., a nonprofit that develops, owns and operates affordable housing in the Washington, D.C., area and Virginia.
LoPiano says it was frustrating when his group made offers to buy eight properties in Virginia over the past few years and got the same answer every time.
" 'No, thank you.' That's what kept happening to us," he says. " 'No thank you.' "
It wasn't the price. LoPiano says his group was competitive with other buyers when it came to price.
"What we're not competitive on is closing quickly," he says, "because we're dependent upon public financing, and public financing just takes longer."
LoPiano says such real estate deals often involve government bond issues and housing tax breaks, which can take months, even a year, to be approved.
"And sellers in today's market are not willing to wait that," he says.
So LoPiano's group and a coalition of other housing nonprofits, called the Housing Partnership Network, decided it was time to get creative to do what private investors have done for decades. They became the first nonprofits to form what's called a real estate investment trust, or REIT. It allows investors to pool their funds to buy property and collect dividends and involves no public financing.
The nonprofit groups figured they could offer potential investors a modest return on their money about 5 to 7 percent. It's less than what they'd get from a private-sector REIT, but the groups also appealed to investors' desire to preserve affordable housing. And they got several big ones Prudential, Morgan Stanley, Citibank and the Ford and MacArthur foundations to chip in an initial $100 million.
LoPiano says the nonprofits' new REIT has been a "game changer."
Late last year, the Housing Partnership Equity Trust successfully closed on a 300-unit garden apartment complex in Norfolk, Va., called Woodmere Trace. It's tucked away in a wooded area, not far from the Norfolk airport and two military bases, and is one of the more affordable places in the working-class neighborhood.
Right now, the new owners are busy fixing things up. Property manager Georgia Pitrone says things were in pretty bad shape when they took over the 40-year-old apartments.
"We found when we took everything out, that there was a lot of dry-rotted wood. And a lot of issues from poor repairs. So we're addressing all of that before they put anything back," she says, as she shows off one unit where the old kitchen has been replaced with new appliances, cabinets, counters and floors.
Most of the units will also get new bathrooms and decks, she says.
And that's what the housing partnership hopes to do here and elsewhere fix up moderately priced apartments that might otherwise fall into disrepair or be purchased by developers who jack up the rents, forcing existing tenants to move.
Drew Ades, who runs the House Partnership Equity Trust, says his group is here for the long haul, unlike some other investors whose primary goal is making a big profit.
"What we're trying to do is keep rents affordable, but also really invest in the property, really invest in the community and really invest in the residents," he says.
Ades notes that most are low-income working families or retirees. Many have jobs at the nearby military bases or retail stores, and make as little as $30,000 a year. He says they're just the kind of people being squeezed out of today's rental market, and who might be forced to leave their community or even become homeless.
Frank Spicer is one of those residents who's glad that he can stay at Woodmere Trace. The 80-year-old retiree moved there two years ago after selling his house in nearby Newport News. He says he looked at other apartments in the area where he's lived and worked most of his life but other places were too expensive.
"Everything was $1,000 or $1,200 if I wanted to move in. I just couldn't really afford to do that," he says. Now, he pays about $800 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.
Spicer says if this apartment wasn't available, he'd probably have to go to live with his daughter, but that he wants to live on his own.
So far, the Housing Partnership trust has purchased three properties like this in Virginia, Illinois and California. Ades says the trust is looking at other apartments and making plans to raise an additional $250 million.
Keven Lindemann is director of real estate at SNL Financial, a company that analyzes the market for investors. He thinks the new housing REIT shows promise, but says the challenge for the nonprofits will be to attract new investors.
"I would guess that their ability to do that on an ongoing basis will be determined by how successful they are with this first $100 million," Lindemann says.
By "successful" he means balancing competing demands keeping rents low and the property in good shape, while also satisfying investors who could be making more money elsewhere. Lindeman thinks the housing groups might have to rely on investors' desire to do something with their money that has a positive social impact.