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WASHINGTON, DC-After focusing for some time on helping the single-family sector in its recovery, Fannie Mae has now turned its attention to the multifamily market. The mortgage giant plans to expand liquidity, stability and affordability by increasing its participating in key segments of the multifamily segment. The locally based firm also announced its multifamily investment total for the first half of the year, $20 billion.

The increased focus on apartments is part of Fannie’s Keys to Recovery initiative, which has so far been serving single-family homeownership. “With the turmoil being what it was, we decided as a company that we would want to do things that are positive steps in trying to help the market recover,” said Jeff Hayward, Fannie’s SVP of community lending and development, in a conference call announcing the initiative. “Our decision was whether to sit back and watch it, or try to do things to help the market move forward.”

As the largest multifamily investor, Fannie’s new focus on the segment will be concentrated in four key areas: small loans up to $3 million, or $5 million in high-cost markets; seniors housing; military housing; and increasing investment in the affordable segment, particularly bond credit enhancement. While those are near-term goals–specifically, for the second half and into 2009–the firm is committed to the apartment sector, says Phil Weber, SVP of multifamily. “Our overall view of the multifamily business is that the fundamentals remain solid,” he relates. “The $20 billion we invested in the first half of the year is, for the most part, in increase across the board in almost all of our business, especially the DUS and small loan business.”

By midyear 2007, Fannie’s overall multifamily investment was $27.2 billion, consisting of both debt and CMBS purchases. The firm’s executives attribute the decrease to the fall of the CMBS market. “Overall, from a debt perspective, our volumes are up year-over-year,” noted Manny Menendez, VP of multifamily product development and business management. “The market is smaller than it was at this time last year and there’s less activity than the first six months of last year.”

In terms of whole loan originations, the firm pointed out that the market has declined in general, from a range of $115 billion to $120 billion last year to $65 billion or $70 billion this year. “If you look at our market share this year, the multifamily CMBS component is basically nonexistent,” says Weber. “Therefore, it’s fair for us to say that our share of the multifamily market has increased significantly in the first half of this year. Longer term, we see huge demand for multifamily housing at significantly high levels.”

The executive cited a recently released study from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies that found household growth of 12.6 million between 1995 and 2005, and expects a 14.4 million increase between 2010 and 2020. Fannie Mae’s projections have about half of those new households in the rental pool.

“The same study says that from 1995 to 2005, we added a million net units to inventory,” says Weber. “If you just do the math, you can see there’s tremendous need to increase the supply of affordable rental properties over the next 10 years.” With lending standards tightening for the construction of rental housing in most of the market, Fannie “is very committed to providing the multifamily capital investment that’s going to be necessary to meet the significant rental housing need over the next 10 years.”

The firm’s small loan business has ramped up and increased production a great deal this year, said Michelle Evans, VP of multifamily corporate affairs. That segment has become a critical component of the recovery and restoring liquidity to the market, she maintained. Fannie’s done a good job for larger loans, but in the past three years, it’s “been trying to perfect our small loan program–the way we can capture the small loans that are coming in from banks across the country, and looking at our guidelines to make some streamlined changes to the approach to the way we handle the underwriting of these loans.”

The company rewrote its small loan guide and restructured its multifamily business to improve execution. Among the changes are streamlining its underwriting guidelines so it could work more closely with local banks; streamlining the appraisals process, the underwriting of the cash flow and the other third-party reports, such as environmental and engineering studies; and cutting down the cost of doing business. Earlier this year, it also introduced the Micro Loan product, which increases liquidity for small-balance multifamily properties with mortgages of up to $750,000.

All these changes allowed Fannie to increase its business in the first half; the firm bought about $5 billion in small loans between January and June, in both pool purchases and flow business. That’s compared to about $3 billion during the same period last year. “The key to the small loan business is if you look at the small loan asset, it’s really properties that tend to be extremely affordable in most of the urban areas” close to public transportation, noted Evans. “A lot of times, they’re owned by individuals and basically serve working families of the community. It’s a really important asset that speaks to our mission.”

In terms of seniors housing, Fannie sees demand skyrocketing in this area in the next several years. Although credit conditions have made investment in this segment more difficult, the firm provided $1 billion in financing during the first half and has added more resources and staff to its seniors housing business. Market shifts have also reduced the number of transactions in the military housing space this year. The company reports that it intends to buy as much as $1 billion in military housing bonds, the proceeds of which are used to renovate existing on-base housing and build new units. Last year, the firm invested $773 million in military housing bonds.Lastly, the “affordable housing space is an area that continues to be in great need of financing,” said Menendez. The Joint Center study found that while the national median gross rent went up 2.7% from 2001 to 2006, the median renter income fell by 8.4%. Under its Multifamily Affordable Housing initiative, Fannie’s team will work with its lenders to provide financing for properties that also benefit from state and federal subsidies, including low-income housing tax credits, tax abatements and rental subsidies. The firm will also continue to offer its Bond Credit Enhancement product, which provides credit enhancement for tax-exempt bonds issued by state and local housing finance agencies, typically for LIHTC properties and older HUD assets.

Still, the firm has decreased its direct investment in tax credits, mainly because its level of taxable income has decreased due to the decline in general financing activity. However, as that income grows, the executives stated the firm will increase its buying of credits. And while the executives stated that the firm, like just about every other participant in the capital markets, has tightened its underwriting standards, it’s not a complete retraction. “When we say we tightened our underwriting, we mean we brought it back to more traditional standards, as opposed to the aggressive approach of prior years,” says Menendez.

“We are restoring and returning to solid lending fundamentals,” adds Weber. “If you look at the multifamily business overall, the fundamentals of our business are very solid. Owners are still putting substantial equity into the property, so the LTV fundamentals are solid, if you look at debt service ratios, they are solid, the REIS report came out last week that showed rent growth in virtually all markets, and the demographic trends are positive.”

This spring, noted Evans, the firm made some changes to its underwriting guidelines to strengthen its position in the market, including increasing its debt service. “We’re also doing a lot less interest-only lending, which we were doing a lot of last year since that’s where the market was,” she said. “And in markets that are being challenged right now, we’re looking at those loans very closely to make sure we’re taking the right risks.” The firm intends to release more details on its multifamily focus by the end of this month.

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