PhillyDeals: Morgan Properties finds market 'sweet spot'

A view of Timberlake Apartments in East Norriton, Pa., which is owned by Morgan Properties.
A view of Timberlake Apartments in East Norriton, Pa., which is owned by Morgan Properties.
Posted: June 04, 2014

The slow residential real estate market isn't bad news for everyone.

"Our tenants are a captive audience: They are not moving out to buy homes," says Jonathan Morgan, the 29-year-old acquisitions and capital markets chief at King of Prussia-based Morgan Properties.

So landlords like Morgan, which owns more than 30,000 apartments, can boost rents by 3 or 4 percent a year, even without improvements.

And by updating apartments - rebuilding maybe 1,000 kitchens this year, at $6,000 or $7,000 each - Morgan figures he can charge an extra $100 a month (the typical Morgan apartment rents for around $1,100 per month), earning back the investment over several years.

The company, headed by his father, Mitchell Morgan, best known locally as a donor to Temple University and a fund-raiser and host for George H.W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and other Republicans, presciently sold its Florida properties at the top of the real estate bubble in 2005.

Now, Morgan Properties is heading south again: Last week, the company joined the Saudi Arabia-based, multinational Olayan Group in a deal to pay $309 million for 2,671 apartments in nine communities in Washington's Maryland suburbs and the Newport News, Va., area from Berkshire Property Advisors of Dallas.

With national landlords mostly focused on luxury properties, and small, local apartment investors still unable to raise cheap cash from community banks, established operators such as Morgan are in a sweet spot, where they can raise tens of millions from investment partners like Olayan and swing low-single-digit financing from the federal housing agencies ( Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) or deal-hungry regional lenders like M&T Bank to finance deals.

For the Morgans, "There's tons of capital available," Mitchell Morgan told me. "Rates are still low. We'll see how long this lasts."

Warehouse robots

Measured by jobs, is one of the bright spots in the long, slow hiring recovery from the 2008 recession: The online retail giant employs 110,000 - more than Chrysler or DuPont - many of them low-wage warehouse workers at 96 Amazon "fulfillment centers" in places such as the Lehigh Valley and northern Delaware.

But Amazon boss Jeff Bezos' comment at his company's recent annual meeting that Amazon plans to deploy 10,000 robots by the end of this year - up from 1,382 at just three of its warehouses as of mid-2013 - will replace enough workers to save up to $900 million a year, estimates analyst Shawn Milne, in a report to clients of Janney Capital Markets.

That will enable Amazon to do without, or not hire, 25,000 workers, at $14 an hour plus benefits, the report said.

Milne traces Amazon's reliance on robots to its 2010 $500 million-plus purchase of Quidsi and its affiliate, the automated retail group set up by Bucknell University graduate Mark Lore. Quidsi used robots from Kiva Systems Inc., which Bezos liked and Amazon purchased for $775 million in 2012.

Amazon has been slowing down its new warehouse construction, and testing robots carefully, Milne notes. There are limits to what robots can do. They cost around $25,000 apiece, or $1 million to $20 million depending on the size and needs of the warehouse.

But for high-volume, all-year items, robots can save 20 to 40 percent of the cost of humans handling the same boxes, Milne adds, citing industry sources.



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