Rising construction and labor costs are one of the biggest issues for affordable housing developers as they work out new deals.
Roughly 20% of developers recently surveyed by affordable housing finance named increasing development costs as their top concern going into this year, trailing only the availability and price of low-income housing tax credit equity as the No. 1 issue.
The concern is well placed. Overall, national average construction costs increased approximately 4.22% between October 2016 and October 2017, according to a report by Rider Levett Bucknall. The management and consultancy firm, which tracked different construction sectors, found that many markets experienced an even larger jump, with Los Angeles seeing a 7.59% hike.
The increase in both materials and labor is forcing developers and their partners to trim costs, seek additional subsidies, and evaluate different options even when it comes to usually routine construction loans.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch has been working with its clients on interest-rate protection, whether it’s getting the best permanent loan product or finding the best option for construction loans.
In the recent low-interest rate environment, developers have leaned toward adjustable-rate construction loans, but with rates inching up, the bank has begun talking with more clients about using a fixed-rate option, says Maria Barry, national community development executive at the bank.
Bank leaders are also keeping an eye on the size of deals. With the industry focused on being more efficient, there’s a push to build larger developments when possible. That’s meant construction loans ranging from 24 to 36 months.
“Planning [for larger projects] is important because of all the pieces that need to be lined up,” Barry says. “The construction/lease-up schedule needs to be realistic and aligned with the placed-in service date. Also, the equity provider has priced the deal assuming an agreed-upon schedule, so it’s important to try to stay in line with the original plan as much as possible. Additionally, the permanent debt should be lined up for the right timing to ensure a smooth conversion.”
Cindy Colvin, senior vice president at SunTrust Community Capital, has been seeing larger developments recently as developers try to meet the demand for affordable housing while capturing some of the efficiencies that come with scale. This has resulted in some deals with construction periods longer than the traditional 24 months seen in many loans.
“You’ve got a bigger project that needs to get built and needs to be absorbed by the market, so you might see a construction loan with a time line of 36 months and maybe an extension option to provide sufficient time to complete construction and reach stabilization,” Colvin says. “It’s based market by market.”
Developers should scrutinize their construction budgets.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in construction costs, both materials and labor,” Colvin says. “Be very diligent with your budget, get a fixed contract, and make sure you have adequate contingencies.”
Other bank leaders also agree that developers are looking for more certainty.
“We’re starting to receive requests for fixed-rate construction loans,” says David Walsh, executive director of community development banking at Chase. “We’re working closely with our clients to meet those needs, and we expect to see more of those requests in the near term.”
KeyBank teams with Albany Housing Authority
KeyBank Community Development Lending and Investment (CDLI) recently provided $38.5 million to help build the 76-unit Ida Yarbrough Homes in Albany, N.Y. The financing includes an $18.1 million low-income housing tax credit equity (LIHTC) investment, a $17.2 million construction loan, and a $3.2 million Freddie Mac first mortgage loan.
The Albany Housing Authority (AHA) will set aside 12 units for households at risk of homelessness.
New York State Homes and Community Renewal led the transaction by providing access to federal and state LIHTC allocations. Additional sources of financing were provided by the state Housing Trust Fund Corp., Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, Local Initiatives Support Corp., the city of Albany, and AHA.
“In New York, construction terms need to allow time for the state to close permanent Housing Trust Fund Corp. financing and other state-initiated long-term mortgage financing products,” says Joe Eicheldinger, senior relationship manager and vice president at KeyBank CDLI. “The conversion from the construction period to the permanent financing requires a lot of staging time—approximately six months. This means construction-loan terms need to be 24 months, most with a six-month option.”
Borrowers should be looking for an optimum-rate or fixed-rate option with a forward-rate lock commitment feature, according to bankers. Securing a full financing solution with direct LIHTC, construction lending, and permanent mortgage financing is possible from one source, and it minimizes legal and third-party costs, according to Eicheldinger.
“Developers also must look at their absorption rates to ensure they have a strong appraisal,” he says. “Developers should ask themselves, “How many units do I have to rent, and how many tenants are income- or age-qualified that don’t have housing?’ ”