Real estate developers should seriously consider equity crowdfunding to fund development projects for two major reasons, one of which has little or nothing to do with money. The first reason is that new securities offering legislation enacted in 2012 creates new legal capital raising pathways which allow developers for the first time to use the internet to find investors, and also to raise money from non-accredited investors. The second reason is that a crowdfunding campaign can be a potent weapon in overcoming political and neighborhood opposition to a development project.
Pre-2012 Impediments to Capital Formation
Before 2012, real estate developers seeking to finance projects from private investors were faced with three major legal impediments. First, they could only accept investment from accredited investors, a legal designation for institutions with assets of at least $5 million or individuals meeting either an income test ($200,000 in each of the last two years, or $300,000 combined with one’s spouse) or a net worth test ($1 million without including one’s primary residence). This meant that real estate entrepreneurs were excluded from roughly 93% of the U.S. population that did not qualify as accredited investors and the $30 trillion that is estimated to be socked away in their savings accounts. Second, as if the first wasn’t limiting enough, the accredited investor had to be someone with whom the developer had a preexisting relationship. And not just any relationship; it had to be of the sort that would enable the developer to assess whether the investment was appropriate for the investor. And third, and perhaps most limiting, the developer was prohibited from engaging in any general solicitation or advertising: no ads, no mass mailings, no e-blasts and, most notably, no internet.
JOBS Act of 2012: Three Crowdfunding Alternatives
In 2012, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Jumpstart Our Business Startup Act, better known as the JOBS Act, a major piece of rare bipartisan legislation intended to make it easier for entrepreneurs to raise capital. In the U.S., any offering of securities must either be registered with the SEC (enormously expensive and time consuming, and triggers ongoing SEC reporting and other regulatory burdens as an SEC reporting company), or satisfy the requirements of an exemption from registration. Among other capital markets reforms, the JOBS Act created three crowdfunding exemptions from registration, divided into Titles II, III and IV, each with its own dollar limitations and other myriad rules.
Accredited Investor Crowdfunding
Title II of the JOBS Act and the SEC’s related Rule 506(c) provide for what many refer to as “accredited investor crowdfunding”. It allows developers to use the internet and other methods of general solicitation and advertising to raise an unlimited amount of capital, but with two strings attached. One, sales of securities may only be made to accredited investors. And two, the issuer must use reasonable methods to verify accredited investor status. The requirement to reasonably verify status means the old check-the-box on the one-page investor questionnaire doesn’t fly here; one would need to dig deeper and request such evidence as brokerage statements or tax returns (which investors are loathe to produce) or lawyer or accountant certifications (good luck getting those). Despite the advantage of being allowed to use the internet to reach accredited investors, however, only four percent of the capital raised in Regulation D offerings since Rule 506(c) went live in September 2013 was raised in offerings conducted pursuant to Rule 506(c), according to the SEC. It stands to reason that the culprit is the enhanced verification requirement, which is now the target for reform among capital markets reform advocates.
Non-Accredited Investor Crowdfunding
Under Title III of the JOBS Act and the SEC’s Regulation Crowdfunding, an issuer may offer and sell securities over the internet to anyone, not just accredited investors, without registering with the SEC. There are many limitations and restrictions, foremost of which is that an issuer may raise no more than $1,070,000 per year using this method. Investors in Title III deals are also capped based on their income and net worth. Issuers must sell through a third-party funding portal (only one), and there are disclosure and SEC filing requirements. Title III was the section of the JOBS Act that received the most buzz, largely because of the disruptive nature of allowing companies to raise capital from non-accredited investors, using the internet and without registering with the SEC and giving ordinary people the chance to invest in startups and other private investment opportunities they were previously shut out of, but also because of the controversy it created among those who believed that this new opportunity would be a recipe for massive fraud. To date, thankfully, there’s been virtually no fraud reported in Title III deals.
The third crowdfunding exemption allows companies to raise up to $50 million from the general public in a mini-public offering over the internet under Title IV of the JOBS Act and Regulation A+ promulgated by the SEC thereunder. A Regulation A+ offering is similar to a traditional registered public offering except that the disclosure statement is scaled down and the whole process far less expensive and time consuming. Regulation A+ has several distinct advantages: It generally preempts the states, meaning that issuers need only go through a review process at the Federal level with the SEC (the predecessor rule required issuers to get clearance from each state in which investors were solicited). Shares sold in a Regulation A+ offering are freely tradable and may be resold right away. And issuers may “test the waters” and gauge investor interest before committing to launch an offering. For these and other reasons, real estate developers and funds have been the most active users of Regulation A+.
Real Estate Crowdfunding
Real estate crowdfunding has rapidly grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry since the passage of the JOBS Act in 2012. It is leveling the real estate investment playing field, providing access both for ordinary individuals to an asset class they were previously shut out of, and for real estate entrepreneurs to a universe of previously forbidden but low hanging investor fruit, particularly in the form of people living in the communities where projects are being proposed for development. Through equity crowdfunding, high quality real estate investment opportunities are no longer offered strictly on a “who-you-know” basis. It replaces the hand-to-hand combat of raising capital in the old school, country club network way. What used to be multiple phone calls one investor at a time, is now a tweet that potentially reaches millions of people. With equity crowdfunding, a real estate entrepreneur can post a deal on a single portal and reach thousands of potential investors at once with the portal handling the subscription process and fund transfers electronically. Another positive aspect of real estate crowdfunding is that it has the potential to attract funding to emerging neighborhoods where traditional funding sources rarely go. Furthermore, most crowdfunding portals pool investors into a single purpose entity that acts as the investor of record, so that the pooled investors are only treated as one owner on the issuer’s cap table for accounting and corporate governance purposes.
Regulation A+ has proven to be an enormously popular capital raising pathway for diversified REIT-like real property investment vehicles because of the ability to raise up to $50 million from the general public (not just accredit investors) in a streamlined mini-public offering process and then invest those proceeds in several projects. Like conventional real estate funds, these investment vehicles generally conduct their capital raises prior to identifying specific projects. Other real estate professionals using crowdfunding are using the Rule 506(c) model, allowing them to raise an unlimited amount over the internet albeit only from accredited investors. Under this model, the real estate entrepreneur typically first identifies a project and then offers the investment to prospective investors under offering materials that describe the particular project.
Some real estate institutions have taken the crowdfunding plunge and launched crowdfunding platforms of their own, with Arbor Realty Trust/AMAC claiming to be the first institution to do so with its ArborCrowd platform. ArborCrowd markets one deal at a time and writes a check upfront, which allows a property’s sponsor to close quickly on its acquisition. ArborCrowd then offers interests in the investment vehicle through its platform to accredited investors under Rule 506(c), with minimum individual investments of $25,000. I checked on SEC’s EDGAR site and saw that ArborCrowd has done seven deals thus far, aptly named ArborCrowd Investment I-VII, respectively, which average approximately $3 million each.
Real estate funding portals come in two general varieties: those that act as matchmaking sites between real estate entrepreneurs seeking funding and investors seeking real estate investment opportunities, and others operated by real estate firms offering investment opportunities in their own proprietary deals. There are currently over 100 real estate crowdfunding platforms; some of the more established include Fundrise, RealtyMogul, CrowdStreet, Patch of Land and RealCrowd.
In My Backyard
And now we get to the more intriguing use of equity crowdfunding by real estate entrepreneurs: giving community residents skin in the game and incentivizing them to support a local development project. Most major development projects are likely to be challenged by the not-in-my-backyard phenomenon, and such opposition can derail, delay or increase project costs dramatically. Whether the project is affordable housing, a power plant or a sewage treatment facility, the developer can expect opposition from a vocal NIMBY minority, irrespective of how much the proposed project is needed by the community at large. An equity crowdfunding campaign could be a powerful tool to convert opponents and mobilize pro-project allies. One approach could be for sponsors to allocate some percentage, e.g., 10%, of a crowdfunding offering for investors residing within some given mile radius of the project. Another approach might be to conduct simultaneous offerings, one under Title III within the $1,070,000 cap with the hope of attracting local residents to invest, and a larger parallel offering to accredited investors under Rule 506(c).
Real estate crowdfunding is still in its nascent stages. But as awareness grows, smart reforms are implemented to improve the rules and the market matures, I believe real estate developers will embrace equity crowdfunding as both a way to fund projects that are neglected by traditional funding sources and as a strategic tool to enlist community support and overcome opposition.
 Technically, the most popular private offering method (Rule 506(b) of Regulation D) actually allows investment from up to 35 non-accredited investors (and an unlimited number of accredited investors). But nearly all such offerings have historically been made only to accredited investors because doing so makes the specific disclosure requirements in the Rule inapplicable.