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DENVER-It’s a near certainty that occupancy and rental rates, along with values, for most multifamily properties across the country will continue to dip as the economic downturn puts further pressure on property owners, operators and tenants. This is bad news for lenders and equity players who provided capital to projects and properties in the past several years; with little to no income coming in from the assets, an increasing number of cash-strapped borrowers may have no choice but to default on debt.

For the capital provider, this means either working out a deal with the borrower in question, or foreclosing on the asset. Recently, two industry experts have formed a new company that will provide the services needed to help capital players make these difficult decisions. Based here and in Atlanta, Caldera Asset Management is a national consulting firm focused on the multifamily industry. Its founders, Mike Kelly, president, and Bill Leseman, who will serve as chairman, bring decades of asset management experience, during which they closed more than $5 billion in transactions.

According to Kelly, he and Leseman had been providing services to lenders and equity providers for several months before they decided to formalize the offering. “It became very evident a few months ago when the calls kept coming in that different clients were having different issues regarding their apartment needs,” he explains. “A lot of them weren’t immediate; they were trying to figure out how to address problems, how to refinance the deal, how to address the equity partner, etc. We figured we should formalize the company and go out there and try to solve client problems they have ahead of them, and most certainly will be ahead of them in the next couple of years.”

The firm works both sides of the table. Their typical clients include equity providers and/or lenders that are having issues with either their construction borrowers, or the servicers that are taking back product from fixed-rate financing deals that have not gone according to plan.

These days, relates Kelly, there are two types of situations that stand out among the firm’s clients. One relates to equity players in distressed situations who have been getting inundated with capital calls on deals they’ve done with various sponsors. “The equity provider wants to know that if they do honor these capital calls, they’re getting the right money back,” Kelly states. “Is this is right thing to do? Is the sponsor an appropriate person to do business with and associated with going forward? In a lot of situations, there are deals done in 2005 and 2007 that looked good back then, but don’t look too good now. Some people are just better at buying, renovating and selling, whereas others are better at rolling up their sleeves and managing a property strategically.”

The other issue, impacting lenders in value-add plays, involves valuing projects that may be in the middle of construction, or have finished construction and are having a hard time leasing up units. “The loan may be coming due and the borrower has already gone through all of its extension options,” he says. “For lenders, this is not their expertise. It’s easier and more efficient to outsource it and gauge, ‘what is our real loss today? What happens if we manage this process better, stronger, faster or more efficiently? What is our loss going to be in the next 12 to 18 months?’”

There are some $41 billion in multifamily loans set to mature per year, on average, over the next nine years. And if the property isn’t producing revenue, obtaining refinancing will be particularly tough–especially now that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the longtime go-to capital sources in the industry, just aren’t financing those types of deals like they used to a few years ago.

In helping lenders, the main thing is to determine whether the property has any possibility of turning around, and that’s a case-by-case basis. “In some situations, the market has run against [the property] so badly that it’s not going to recover, so we help some of our clients take an aggressive approach,” says Kelly. On the other hand, we understand that the borrower may be doing everything humanly possible and he just needs a little more time.” Or, he adds, the property itself could be a prime piece of real estate in a good market. Kelly said it’s better to bet on that strength than on a bad piece of real estate that’s capital intensive and located in a poorly performing market.

“Some lenders put their heads in the sand and decide to extend everything, whereas others say they’re going to foreclose on everything,” he relates. “Our job is to quickly and efficiently provide them with the proper ammo to make a decision, and then tell them it may be a bad one, or a good one.”

If the decision is to do a workout, Caldera–in the case of an equity provider–will help renegotiate the loan with the lender so the asset never enters foreclosure. For a lender, the firm may help to anticipate the problems that may come about when the borrowers do eventually default. Even being 60 to 90 days late on a loan can result in a good amount of damage being done to the property. “We’ll shadow the deal and keep the current management’s toes to the fire, and help the existing lender understand what the problems are when they take it over, rather than suddenly taking it over and trying to figure it out 30 to 60 days late,” he says. “The damage is already done at that point.”

There’s also what Kelly calls “crisis management.” Say the property hasn’t had a minimum of 70% occupancy for some time, the firm could help turn it around. “If you’re not 90% from 90 days, no matter what you price it at, the buyer can’t finance it,” he explains. The firm works with RAM Partners LLC, an apartment property management firm that manages some 29,000 units across the country.

No matter the situation, the key is to treat it early and aggressively, maintains Kelly, since the turmoil in the market will no doubt impact all product types and geographic markets–albeit at different times and varying degrees of severity. “The more aggressive that clients get with their problems, the better off they’ll be. Putting your head in the sand and pushing the problem down the road isn’t going to help anyone because the rent market and occupancy is not going to bail them out,” he stresses. “The problem is going to be ahead of us for the next three to five years.”

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