For the Capitalized, Now Is the Time to Move on Build-to-Rent Projects

The supply side of the purpose-built, single-family rental housing market is being pummeled. Multifamily, including build-to-rent (BTR), starts are way down from last year, with recent surveys reporting that 40% of project delays are due to availability of financing.

Why? You’ve seen the headlines—the regional banking sector, which accounts for most commercial real estate (CRE) loans, is under stress. Consequently, many operators will tell you that CRE lending is in the middle of a full-blown credit crisis.

The first signs of brewing liquidity problems arose late last year, shortly after interest rates rapidly increased. Many banks that planned to move 2021 and early 2022 loans off their books found that those lower-rate loans had devalued. Thus, fewer dollars than planned flowed back into the banks’ vaults.

Also in late 2022, regulators showed up at the proverbial (or actual) door of many CRE lenders, telling the banks that they needed to increase the reserve holdings that backstop many of their development and construction loans, further restraining liquidity.

Then earlier this year, CRE lenders experienced more blows. Silicon Valley Bank collapsed, along with several others, and deposit outflows from regional lenders to either G-SIBS or Treasuries became an ongoing, sectorwide concern.

Alongside that, more and more borrowers with loans maturing began asking for extensions instead of repaying their loans. And finally, lenders with significant office exposure began taking an extremely conservative approach to liquidity management given the likelihood that they will need to cover losses.

Frozen Pipeline

In the absence of a robust, liquid senior debt market, new project starts have cratered. Operators are canvassing potential debt partners, frequently with grim results. Banks that were previously closing double-digit loans per month are now lucky if they close one or two.

Further, banks have dramatically lowered their acceptable loan-to-cost thresholds, often by up to 10 to 15 percentage points, leading to unexpected gaps in capital stacks that developers now need to cover with more equity (severely impacting cash-on-cash returns) or gap capital (dramatically increasing the overall cost of capital and adding another stakeholder into the mix).

Private lenders have become more active, but they lack the capacity, infrastructure, and, at times, the know-how required to cover the gap created by the traditional banking sector’s pullback. A massive reallocation of capital in the private markets to debt vehicles is underway, but it will take some time to have an impact: New markets must be underwritten, deployment opportunities must be sourced, deals must be closed, and transaction and servicing teams must be hired.

Relatedly, and despite continued reports of an abundance of dry powder, institutional common equity markets are not too far behind the traditional senior debt markets in their inaction, though as much by choice as by a lack of liquidity.

Unfortunately, today’s conditions still have an overwhelming anchoring effect on underwriting, even though no one can confidently predict market conditions more than 12 months out (or less). And in an industry where the reputational (and fiduciary) consequences of being wrong are understandably perceived to outweigh the upside of being right, the result is higher hesitancy among capital allocators, leading to fewer deals.

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