Saturday 18 November 2017

When vulture funds swoop, the homes of tenants become assets for sale

Twinlite was reported to be set to “evict” dozens of residents from as many as 208 homes at the Cruisepark development in Tyrrelstown. Pictured are some of the tenants of the development. Photo:
Twinlite was reported to be set to “evict” dozens of residents from as many as 208 homes at the Cruisepark development in Tyrrelstown. Pictured are some of the tenants of the development. Photo:
Stock image
Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanagan

Tyrrelstown in west Dublin was supposed to be a shining example of the Celtic Tiger when the huge development was built over a decade ago.

Well built family homes with good amenities - it was what could be achieved in the new Ireland.

Cut to today and Tyrrelstown now stands for something very different.

After the events of the past week, the Cruise Park estate in Tyrrelstown now suggests that when overseas investors become involved, it can be to the detriment of the country and the normal people who are caught in the crosshairs.

The details of the Tyrrelstown debacle are clear enough at this point.

Twinlite, a company controlled by the Larkin family (who developed Tyrrelstown), informed 40 tenants their leases would not be renewed when they expire. Twinlite managed the homes on behalf of European Property Fund (EPF) - another company of which the Larkins were the main shareholders - and EPF's loans had been bought by Goldman Sachs from Ulster Bank.

The outcry was immediate. Goldman Sachs were the evil vultures kicking poor people out of their houses. But soon things became a little but murkier. Goldman apparently knew nothing about what was happening in Tyrrelstown. Other than being the new banker for EPF, Goldman wasn't involved at all. The Larkins meanwhile made clear the tenants would be given first refusal to buy their homes or could stay in them until their lease expires in several months' time.

Separately, a similar situation seemed to be talking place at the Eden complex in Cork, where tenants were told to move out by the end of this week.

What the Tyrrelstown and Cork sagas have done, however, is force the issue of investment funds taking over huge swathes of Irish property to the top of the political agenda.

Since the crash, Nama, Ulster Bank and others have been steadily selling off toxic loans tied to Irish property and the like. They have consolidated hundreds of loans into massive portfolios and sold them to the highest bidder - usually a US private equity firm or vulture funds.

Many of those loans have been tied to residential property. Nama controls thousands of apartments, mostly around Dublin. For a time, Ulster Bank did as well.

Both firms have been trying to manage their asset sales in order to get the most money possible for them. Nama, for example, was specifically not given a social mandate to require any company buying loans to look after its new tenants beyond the letter of their leases.

And because of that, there is a real expectation that Tyrrelstown and Cork are the first in a wave of similar moves that will see companies that bought loans from the likes of Nama and UIster Bank start evicting tenants and then selling the properties or renting them out for much higher prices.

The fear is real but as things stand there is no way this can be prevented.

The terms of the loan sales were clear. The big funds took over the loans with no strings attached.

Nama and the Government have no legal way of preventing tenants being booted out at the end of their lease if everything is done by the book.

Environment Minister Alan Kelly may feel it is "quite harsh to chuck this amount of people out at one time" at Tyrrelstown but can do little to prevent it.

The fact that so many of these big loan books have been bought by overseas buyers has not helped the sense that Ireland is being cleaned out by foreigners.

But what is the difference between a private equity firm evicting its tenants from an apartment block and a family who buys a big house that is in bedsits, evicts the tenants, and turns the house into a family home? Apart from much bigger numbers, are they any different?

Put it another way: would we be as harsh on these funds if they were Irish?

Like it or not, the likes of Kennedy Wilson, Blackstone, Lone Star, and all the other US firms that bought here in the depths of the crash put a floor on the property market when it was in freefall.

The market desperately needed buyers when there were none, and the overseas funds did that. The fact that they are sitting on huge profits is beside the point at this stage.

How could we avoid having these funds owning all these assets in Ireland? By not having a crash in the first place.

In any case, it may not matter at this point. Nama has nearly finished selling off its loans and property. Specialist bank Investec reckons Nama only has about €5bn worth of assets left on its books. That compares to the more than €30bn worth it took on when it was set up back in 2010. In other words, most of its selling is already done. There is little point in bringing in a change to give it a social mandate at this late point.

Last Tuesday Nama launched the sale of two huge loan portfolios known as Projects Emerald and Ruby. These portfolios contain loans secured against commercial and residential property - mostly apartments. Whoever buys them will be free to do what they want with the property.

Tyrrelstown was the first indication that there may be a wave of people having to leave their rented homes this year. With rents in Dublin now higher than at the peak of the boom, it will surely not be the last time tenants are told it's time to move on.

Lord Mayor of Cork Chris O'Leary says the Tyrellstown crisis will be replicated in other cities and towns as property prices continue to spiral.

In the Eden complex in Blackrock in Cork, tenants also have to leave their homes as they are being sold off.

Some 15 residents are being allowed additional time to find alternative accommodation, after 35 Eden tenants were told by a receiver to vacate their rented properties by yesterday's deadline.

Twenty tenants already quit the luxury apartment complex between January and March.

The majority of tenants are single professionals, many from overseas, who are working in technology and service firms in the Blackrock and Mahon areas.

O'Leary says Eden is only "the tip of the iceberg" in the eviction crisis.

"I know there are between 100 and 120 tenants in various other developments around Cork that are facing eviction over the coming months."

The Eden complex was developed on the site of the former Ursuline Convent in Blackrock.

The 22 -acre site was originally purchased for €13m in 2001 but was later sold to Pierce Construction for €30m and was the focus of plans to develop 550 high-end housing units.

A receiver was appointed to portions of the complex in 2010 on behalf of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC).

The receiver said the unit sales will be used to fund further development of new residential housing on the Eden site.

The undeveloped site has capacity to facilitate more than 100 new dwellings.

A spokesperson said no further tenancy notices will be issued in 2016.

Additional reporting from Ralph Riegel in Cork

Irish Independent

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