I have been a lender to community associations for more than 20 years and I suspect that some of my banking colleagues are going to string me up after reading this article. When I started lending to this market, there were very few banks that were providing such a lending instrument. That is to say very few had a defined program with a marketing effort. There were very few community association managers who thought that getting a loan was a possibility. Equally, few associations had an interest in obtaining a loan. Associations were either building appropriate levels of reserves or resigned to levying special assessments as their only other option of raising capital. It is my understanding that banks providing loans to associations may date back at least 30 years in states like California and Florida. Largely, banks that have programs to provide loans to community associations are relatively new phenomena of the past 15 years.
I am a perpetual student at heart so I have been spending my more than 20 years of involvement in the industry quizzing other banks on their views to providing such loans. I looked to appreciate differing points of view. I wanted to expand my knowledge of unique methods that successful lenders have engaged in to keep themselves safe. I became a member of a community association banking professionals networking group whose primary goal has been self education. A group first started under the auspices of Community Association Institute later spun off as a separate group. With all this open-minded investigation over many years, I have seen “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” when it comes to community association lending practices.
People need to keep in mind that there is nothing holy about the lending philosophies of banks. Just because you can obtain financing from a bank does not mean that you should have been given the money or that the borrowing was in any way a smart step. As we have seen through this current horrible recession, it has been the poor lending practices of financial institutions and unconstrained borrowing attitudes of governments that have collapsed our nation’s economy. It is excesses in sovereign borrowing that is threatening the financial stability of several countries around the world.
A community association must always first keep in mind that the correct step to take in paying for capital maintenance improvements is to build adequate reserves based on a professionally prepared reserve study that is updated periodically. If the association has not taken that basic step, what is left are only painful and more costly options: special assessments and long term financing. I have yet to hear a valid argument as to why building a proper level of reserves over time is not the least cost option or the fairest option spread across all unit owners that enjoy use of the building common elements for varying periods of time.
Needless to say, building appropriate levels of reserves has been the exception versus the rule. Enter the financiers. A very important lesson to appreciate in obtaining a loan for a capital maintenance project is that the loan is not to fund the project. The loan is in reality replacing the lack of reserves that should have been in place so the association could self fund the project.
The next unfortunate mistake that a community association makes is trying to take the loan out for as long a possible because of the desire to keep assessment dues low. The real result of that desire is the cost of the project is increased via higher total loan interest costs. This issue is turning out to the most dangerous problem that the banks are creating for themselves and the associations they have stepped forward to help. The variations of this unfortunate evolution have been the advent of interest only loan, loans that amortized over 25 or 30 years and balloon payment structures. One of the worst financing tools that has been brought forth in recent years is the idea of a bond structure. Such a structure allows for interest only payment for 20 years with the principal coming due in full at maturity. If you appreciate the nature of community associations, it is highly unlikely that the association will create what is referred to as a sinking fund that accumulates the cash needed to pay off the bond after 20 years. It is far more likely that the debt will be refinanced by some willing banker over some long term. The end result really is a seemingly never ending life of paying interest on a debt that financed a common element replaced that has expired and needs to be replaced again.
This is the crux of why poorly provided financing tools are not a help to a community association that truly wants to keep its budgetary costs low. Keeping budgetary costs low should not be viewed a circumstance of the moment. It should be viewed as a series of steps that keep costs low over the long term. As a loan is to replenish reserves that should have been organically grown, there needs to be an appreciation that there are multiple common elements that are in varying stages of deterioration. The loan needs to be paid off as soon as possible in order for the association to recapture its cash flow. That debt service needs to disappear so that the association can use that cash flow for self funding future projects or perhaps to support a new loan for the next cycle of common elements that need to be upgraded. The intrinsic failure of loan structures that are too long, that have balloon payments or are interest only is that they do not recognize that the many common elements are at varying stages of needing be replaced and that the common elements upgraded with the provided financing will once again need to be replaced. A loan that outlives the lifecycle of the common element that it was put in to replace is dangerous. The association is going to have to come up with new money to replace that once again worn our common element. The cash flow strain on the unit owners may put the bank at risk for having the original loan repaid. After all, the life, safety and enhancement of property values are the first priority of the association. Servicing a debt that no one remembers what it was originally provided for is going fall into question as capacity to perform becomes strained.