Urban Investing Challenges Create Upside

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Brian D. Milovich

Managing Principal, Calvera Partners

I’m an urban guy at heart. I enjoy walking everywhere–to the cafe, grocery store, restaurants, gym, church, and parks. I don’t even mind public transportation so that I can continue walking somewhere else. This was easy to do when I lived and worked in San Francisco during the 2000s. Now, I enjoy annual visits to places like Boston, where I can act like an urbanite once again. But despite those moments of joy, I’m tired of owning apartment properties in urban areas. Misguided governments, certain property characteristics, and supply concentrations are three key concerns.

Urban investing has always been challenging. Usually, it involves investing in an up-and-coming city pocket. Developers work in tandem to create new neighborhoods. Restaurants, bars, and retail shops open as new amenities. Adventurous people move into apartments and condos to give the neighborhood a soul. Everything feeds off of one another to generate a palpable energy. This is what makes urban areas great.

But when any one piece of an urban neighborhood starts to crumble, the energy changes. Anyone who has lived in an urban setting has put up with some level of discomfort. In San Francisco, widespread homelessness, visible drug use, car break-ins, and unclean public transit was (still is) the norm. A baseline level of this activity was simply part of the experience. Unfortunately, a pandemic-induced spike in this activity hasn’t dissipated and drives people away.

How a city government functions is one way to assess downtowns. This is particularly true for investment. Is the city government more interested in re-naming schools than improving public safety? Is rent control a hot topic around City Hall rather than solutions for more apartment supply? Is a landlord persona non grata or can she operate under common sense policies? City and state government policies do impact a property’s bottom line.

Another factor–more prevalent in urban areas–is a property’s physical characteristics. Urban apartment properties are generally one building and not multiple buildings spread out. Depending on its age, it could have common mechanical systems. So, if the heat goes out, it goes out for everybody. Same with the hot water system. Instead of one angry tenant, you can have an entire building waiting for you with pitchforks in the lobby.

From a cost standpoint, central heating and hot water are expensive to replace when they fail. It’s much easier to plan and pay for one-off unit replacements of water heaters and HVAC units. Even with preventative maintenance, issues with central mechanical systems are expensive to replace. On the plus side, roof coverage is much smaller compared to garden style properties. Depending on the building’s height, it may be cheaper to replace. There are different considerations in urban mid- and high-rise buildings.

Then, supply always seems concentrated in urban areas. Those downtown parking lots make for great development pads. New supply is both good and bad. It’s positive when you and others commit big dollars to a particular part of town. That investment is what makes neighborhoods desirable. Though when the new supply comes all at once, rents suffer and concessions rise. There’s more rental volatility in the densest parts of town. This makes your investment timing critically important.

We began as urban investors at Calvera, and it remains in our DNA. My personal fatigue is due to the cities that seemingly disregard the efforts of good owners. I can deal with the idiosyncrasies of urban assets and pay close attention to new supply trends. I can’t quantify the wildcard of increasing regulations, landlord hostility, or crime. We own in markets like this currently, and it’s not for the faint of heart. The funny thing is, if you believe the state or city won’t hurt your investment, these markets have tremendous upside. If we had the stomach for more of it, we’d consider it.

Instead, I’d rather find suburban locations with urban-like amenities. There isn’t a long list of these markets, but we own in some of them and are targeting more for future investment. To me, this is the best of both worlds. As far as buying more properties in places like Oakland or Minneapolis–I’m out for now. I’m reminded of a saying from a long-time investor of ours, “is the juice worth the squeeze?” Not for me. Not right now.

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