During the real estate boom, Miami developer Jorge Pérez hit on an international strategy that fed right into Americans’ love affair with real estate: building second-home communities in sunny spots in Latin America.
Pérez’s The Related Group bought property in Panama, Uruguay’s Punta del Este, the Bahamas and Mexico, and in Cartagena along the Colombian coast. “We went to the areas where we thought international buyers would go,’’ said Pérez, whose company has developed more than 80,000 condominium and apartment units and is credited with transforming Miami’s skyline with its condo towers.
At first the concept held promise. Then came the U.S. housing crash and the second-home market for American buyers dried up as well. Related scrambled to save its U.S. condo empire and after two years negotiations with lenders on dozens of troubled projects in the United States, it emerged debt-free last year.
But Pérez, chairman and chief executive of Related, didn’t give up on going international. He just shifted gears and began exploring parts of the world that were still growing briskly: India and Brazil.
Related in the process of selling two middle-income projects in India, Panipat and Amritsar, and is in various stages on four other Indian projects but where it is really poised to take a big leap is Brazil.
Earlier this year Pérez, business associate Stephen Ross, president of New York-based Related Companies, and Daniel Citron, a Brazilian real estate executive, launched Related Brasil.
If all goes as planned, Pérez said Related Brasil hopes to announce its first Brazilian development — a 5-million-square-foot mixed use project with high-rise residential towers, office and retail space and a hotel in Sao Paulo — before the end of the year.
“It will require an equity investment of hundreds of millions of dollars and will be much bigger than anything that we’ve done as a single project in Miami,’’ said Pérez.
The sweet spot for Related has been luxury mixed used projects and that is how it wants to position itself in Brazil where it has been prospecting for sites in Rio de Janeiro, including in Barra da Tijuca and in Porto Maravilha — the port redevelopment area — Sao Paulo and in cities in Brazil’s Northeast such as Recife, Fortaleza and Salvador.
“Our focus for the foreseeable future is upper middle-income and above — the upwardly mobile, management and professional class that is growing tremendously in Brazil,’’ said Pérez.
The company will concentrate on developing condominium units that start at $300,000 and above, he said.
Related Brazil is also talking with major Brazilian construction and development companies about possible joint ventures and also studying opportunities for hotels and infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The Indian residential projects have done well, said Pérez, but it is Brazil that really attracts him.
“Brazil is very interesting, very big and very serious about trying to join the developed countries. Right now I’ve reached a point where I want to do things that are very pleasurable to me and I enjoy going to Brazil very much,’’ said Pérez as he sat in his art-filled Miami office.
Much of the work will be going to the new Miami art museum now under construction that will bear his name. “They had a choice of anything in my collection,’’ he said. He concedes the museum selected all his favorites but said he looks forward to building a new art collection — one that is more contemporary and that features younger artists.
Although Related has new U.S. condo projects in the works, including the 42-story 1100 Millicento Residences in Miami, Pérez said he is devoting 10 to 20 percent of his time to Brazilian business.
Senior members of his staff are spending considerably more time on it, he said. “Sometimes I have 30 emails a day on Brazil,’’ Pérez said, “and we have a formal staff call-in once a week.’’
Brazil, Pérez said, is complicated with red tape and its own idiosyncrasies for acquiring land and getting projects built.
“There is a saying ‘Brazil is for the Brazilians,’ ” said Pérez, and that was instrumental in the decision to work with a very experienced Brazilian partner. “We wanted to work with the most successful real estate guy in Brazil,’’ said Pérez.
Citron, chief executive of Related Brasil, most recently headed up Brazilian operation for Tishman Speyer.
Prices in the residential real estate market are somewhat frothy. “Price per pound for office and apartment condos actually exceeds New York and Washington, D.C.,’’ said PwC, the accounting and professional services firm, and the Urban Land Institute in their “Emerging Trends in Real Estate” report, and acquisition opportunities are scarce.
Pérez concedes that prices have gone up tremendously in the last six months. But he said demand is also high and residential real estate isn’t as highly leveraged as it was in the United States when the real estate bubble burst.
“The possibility of the bubble bursting in Brazil is much lower,’’ he said. Still, Pérez said he sees prices in the Brazilian market softening somewhat in the next year. And that, he said, should result in better buying opportunities for Related.
“We’re going to take our time because we want the best locations, the best sites and we don’t want to overpay,’’ said Pérez. “We think the opportunities are very exciting in Brazil and we’re careful to look at market statistics so we don’t get caught in disequilibrium between supply and demand.’’
Even though the Brazilian economy is only expected to grow by about 2 to 2.5 percent this year, Pérez said he still foresees growth rates will be higher than in the United States and Europe.
Related’s first foray into the international market was in 2004 when it began buying land abroad. The company purchased 1,000 acres in Punta del Este, two sites in Panama, four sites in Mexico and one in Cartagena, said Pérez.
Three luxury towers were built at Icon Vallarta, a project designed by Miami’s Arquitectonica in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Not only does the Mexican project share a name with Related’s Icon Brickell — the Miami project that ran into financing problems, resulting in two towers being turned back to the lenders — but a similar design aesthetic with large Easter Island-inspired columns by designer Philippe Starck marching into a huge infinity pool.
Icon Vallarta is about 80 percent sold and units are fetching about $350 per square foot with balcony space included in the calculation, said Pérez.
Two projects were completed in Punta del Este, Uruguay, and Related continues to sell lots there.
But a planned project in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, was shelved both because of the recession and drug trafficking problems in the area, and Related sold its property in Colombia.
Zoning is in place for a future project in Panama, and the company has preliminary government approvals for a Bahamian beachfront project with an 18-hole golf course on Eleuthera. But for now Related is biding its time on those second-home projects, waiting for the economy to rebound.
“Now is not the time,’’ Pérez said. “You have to follow the market.’’