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Shortages, high rents attract LI apartment building investors

The Devonshire Hills apartment complex in Hauppauge Saturday,

The Devonshire Hills apartment complex in Hauppauge Saturday, June 25, 2016, was recently sold to new owners for $171 million. Photo Credit: David L. Pokress

Apartment complexes on Long Island are attracting deep-pocketed investors from as far away as China because of high rents and strong demand by renters.

In June, the 434-unit Hawthorne Court complex in Central Islip fetched $80.5 million from Post Road Properties, a Connecticut-based real estate investor, and Spruce Capital Partners, a developer based in Manhattan, according to Meridian Capital Group, the Manhattan debt broker that arranged financing for the purchase.

A nearby 656-unit complex in Hauppauge called Devonshire Hills sold for $171 million when Florida-based developer Bainbridge Cos. and a Chinese financial services company, China Orient Asset Management, purchased it in March, according to Meridian Capital.

Both complexes were previously owned by Rochester-based Home Properties, which was purchased last year by Lone Star Funds, a private equity firm in Texas. A Lone Star spokesman declined to comment.

Last year, the market for Long Island apartment complexes exploded, with about $1.2 billion in purchases, compared with amounts ranging from $33 million to $207 million in each of the previous four years, an analysis by national data company CoStar Group Inc. shows.

In the first half of this year, investors have spent $266 million on local apartment complexes, more than in any full year from 2011 through 2014, according to CoStar figures.

At some Long Island complexes, new owners have begun hiring workers to spiff up decades-old buildings, add new landscaping, and upgrade parking lots and other features. In at least one case, residents say fees are on the rise.

“Investors are looking for yield anywhere they can find it, and they can get a little bit higher yield out on Long Island than in Manhattan,” said Steve Hovland, manager of research services for HomeUnion, an online real estate investment management firm based in California.

Higher returns on LI

For apartment buildings with five or more units, investors earn average annual returns of 5.9 percent in Suffolk County and 6.3 percent in Nassau County, outstripping Manhattan’s 4.2 percent return on investment, an analysis by HomeUnion shows. The returns also compare favorably with other investments, such as stocks, bonds and commodities, experts said.

Driving those yields are high rents, compared to other New York suburbs. People living in one-bedroom apartments paid a median monthly rent of $1,709 in Nassau County and $1,470 in Suffolk County last year, compared with $1,180 in northern New Jersey and $1,376 in Westchester, according to a recent report by the Garden City-based Long Island Index.

Apartment owners on the Island have “leverage in terms of negotiating rents” because of the scarcity of apartments here, said Joseph Sollazzo, real estate economist at CoStar.

Rentals make up about 20 percent of Long Island’s housing stock, far less than northern New Jersey’s 37 percent and Westchester’s 34 percent, the Index report showed.

Long Island had a rental vacancy rate of 3.3 percent in the first quarter of 2016, lower than the national average of 4.4 percent, real estate information company REIS Inc. reported.

The sharp rise in Manhattan real estate prices in recent years has driven price-conscious investors to explore Long Island and other suburban markets, said David Pennetta, a Melville-based executive director for brokerage Cushman & Wakefield.

“There’s a bit of a bubble in Manhattan,” Pennetta said. Investors, he said, “are now looking into the suburbs to try to bolster some of their returns.”

Long Island is “a steady Eddie” for real estate investors, said Joe Cosenza, a vice chairman of Inland Real Estate Group of Cos., an Illinois business that in December bought AvalonBay Communities’ 200-unit complex in Coram. Manhattan-based real estate data company Real Capital Analytics reported the price of the deal was $51 million.

On the Island, “you’re not going to have the big upswings, but mostly you’re not going to have a big downside either, and there’s not a whole lot of new construction going on,” Cosenza said.

The recent sale prices break down to about $185,000 per unit in Central Islip, $255,000 per unit in Coram and nearly $261,000 per unit in Hauppauge, according to Real Capital Analytics. All three complexes feature pools and other amenities.

Higher prices in Nassau

Those prices, calculated per unit, are dwarfed by the amount paid for two complexes in Nassau County.

In 2014, Texas-based developer Mill Creek Residential Trust sold its 150-unit West 130 complex in West Hempstead for $70.25 million and its 166-unit Metro 303 complex in Hempstead for $73.75 million, public records show. That works out to $468,000 for each unit in West Hempstead. Those complexes are near Long Island Rail Road stations and feature amenities such as fitness studios, pools and social gathering spaces. The buyer of both complexes was an investment fund advised by Swiss financial services company UBS, a UBS spokeswoman said.

Last year’s high sales volume on the Island was due primarily to Lone Star Funds’ $7.6 billion acquisition of Home Properties, which owned suburban apartment complexes in seven states and Washington, D.C., and whose 15 Long Island complexes were valued at about $1.2 billion, according to CoStar and public records.

Analysts said apartment investments could cool this year from last year’s torrid pace, here and around the nation, due to worries about an economic slowdown in China, the upcoming U.S. presidential election and other sources of volatility, such as Britain’s recent vote to exit the European Union.

Despite those concerns, many investors remain bullish on Island rental properties.

Long Island, said Kevin Davis, founder of Post Road Properties, “is a market we’ve been looking at for a long time. There are great dynamics on Long Island.”

As for future purchases, he said, Post Road is “actively looking for new opportunities across Long Island.”

The Inland Group’s Cosenza said his company also intends to add to its Long Island portfolio.

Investors and commercial real estate brokers do not seem worried about competition from the new, mostly high-end rentals that have opened in recent years.

3,000 to 4,000 new units

Developers have built about 1,500 new apartments in the past three years, and another 3,000 to 4,000 are coming in the next two years or so, predicted Mitchell Pally, chief executive of the Long Island Builders Institute, a trade group. That does not include the proposed Heartland Town Square complex in Islip, which could eventually include 9,000 apartments, Pally said.

It would take roughly 100,000 new apartments to meet the demand, Pennetta said.

At some of the newly purchased complexes, owners are making upgrades, and that could lead to more jobs for local contractors, as well as higher living costs for tenants, Pally said.

“If you want 2016 rents, you’ve got to have 2016 apartments, regardless of the fact that the apartments were built 10, 20 or 30 years ago,” Pally said.

At Devonshire Hills, tenants say the new owners are making cosmetic and safety upgrades, including new landscaping, parking lot improvements and new smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

The garden apartment complex, built in the late 1960s, includes a swimming pool, tennis court, fitness center and two playgrounds, according to brokerage CBRE Inc., which listed it for sale. In the listing, CBRE said the underserved rental market makes Devonshire Hills “a prime candidate for a modernization program.”

Some residents welcome the changes.

“There are certain changes which they’re bringing, the new owners,” said Ritika Singh, 30, who worked as a physician in her native India and has lived at Devonshire for about a year. “Like yesterday they sent us a notice, ‘Keep your patio and your balcony clean.’ I think they are going to look into this, [making sure] everything is clean.”

Others object to the new rules, including a ban on folding chairs and barbecue grills outside, and to new charges such as a $500 fee for moving to a new unit.

Bainbridge did not respond to calls to its corporate office seeking comment.

The reason some investors prefer to purchase and upgrade existing properties rather than build new ones is that it takes so long to get approvals for new projects on Long Island, developers said.

“Long Island, I am positive, would be a very good place to build, but it takes too much effort and too much time,” Cosenza said. “I’m happy with that. Because my place will keep rented.”

Recent sales

Name LocationUnitsPriceYear

Hawthorne Court Central Islip434$80.5 million2016

Devonshire HillsHauppauge656$171 million2016

Avalon Charles Pond*Coram 200$51 million2015

*Now called Enclave at Charles Pond

Sources: Real Capital Analytics, Meridian Capital Group

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