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[1], 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.

Mini-Public Offering

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.

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 proprietary deals.

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).

Conclusion

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.

 

[1] 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.

On June 28, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a release amending the definition of “smaller reporting company” (“SRC”) to expand the number of reporting companies eligible for relaxed or scaled disclosure. The change is estimated to benefit nearly 1,000 additional small public companies currently outside the SRC definition. But equally noteworthy in the SRC release is that the Commission staff has been directed, and has begun, to formulate recommendations to the Commission for possible changes to another definition, that of “accelerated filer”, to reduce the number of companies that qualify as accelerated filers in order to further reduce compliance costs. That change would likely be more significant than expanding the SRC definition because “accelerated filer” status triggers the expensive requirement to obtain auditor attestation for management’s assessment of internal control over financial reporting.

Background

Smaller Reporting Company

The Commission established the SRC category in 2008 in an effort to provide general regulatory relief for smaller companies. SRCs are allowed to provide scaled disclosures under Regulation S-K and Regulation S-X. Under the previous SRC definition, SRCs generally were companies with less than $75 million in public float (i.e., aggregate market capitalization of a company’s shares held by non-affiliates). Companies with no public float − because they have no public equity outstanding or no market price for their public equity − were considered SRCs if they had less than $50 million in annual revenues.

Examples of scaled disclosure available to SRCs are two year management discussion and analysis comparisons rather than three years, no compensation discussion and analysis and no risk factor disclosure in Exchange Act filings. A table summarizing the scaled disclosure accommodations for SRCs can be found in the Annex at the bottom of this post.

Under previous rules, SRCs were also automatically excluded from being categorized as “accelerated filers” or “large accelerated filers”, the requirements of which are discussed below. As a result, existing public float thresholds in the accelerated filer definition aligned with the public float threshold in the SRC definition.

Accelerated Filer

In December 2005, the SEC voted to adopt amendments that redefined “accelerated filers” as companies that have at least $75 million, but less than $700 million, in public float, and created a new category of “large accelerated filers” that includes companies with a public float of $700 million or more. In addition to the requirement to file periodic reports on an accelerated basis, accelerated filers must also have their auditor provide an attestation report on management’s assessment of internal control over financial reporting under Section 404(b) of Sarbanes-Oxley.

The determinations of public float thresholds for SRC and accelerated filer status are both made as of the last business day of a registrant’s most recently completed second fiscal quarter for purposes of the following fiscal year.

Amendments to Smaller Reporting Company and Accelerated Filer Definitions

The new rules define SRCs as companies with less than $250 million of public float, as compared with the $75 million threshold under the previous definition. The final rules also expand the definition to include companies with less than $100 million in annual revenues if they have either no public float or a public float of less than $700 million. This reflects a change from the revenue test in the prior definition, under which a company would be categorized as an SRC only if it had no public float and less than $50 million in annual revenues.

The final rules will become effective September 10, 2018.

The amended SRC thresholds are summarized in the following chart:

Criterion

Current Definition

Revised Definition

Public Float Public float of less than $75 million Public float of less than $250 million
Revenue Less than $50 million of annual revenue and no public float Less than $100 million of annual revenues and:

  • no public float, or
  • public float of less than $700 million

The increase in SRC public float thresholds will lead to a dramatic expansion in companies eligible for scaled disclosure. The Commission estimates that 966 additional registrants will be eligible for SRC status in the first year under the new definition. These registrants estimated to be eligible in the first year comprise 779 registrants with a public float of $75 million or more and less than $250 million, 26 registrants with no public float and revenues of $50 million or more and less than $100 million, and 161 registrants with revenues below $100 million and a public float of $250 million or more and less than $700 million.

The SRC amendments also eliminate the automatic exclusion of SRCs from accelerated filer status. The definitions of accelerated filer and large accelerated filer are based on public float, but previously contained a provision excluding SRCs from accelerated filer status. As a result, raising the SRC public float threshold without eliminating that provision effectively would raise the accelerated filer public float threshold as well.

Accordingly, the Commission had also considered increasing the public float thresholds in the accelerated filer definition, consistent with the changes to the SRC definition, to reduce compliance costs and maintain uniformity across relevant rules. Opponents viewed a parallel increase in the accelerated filer thresholds as a weakening of investor protections. Some cited a 2011 Staff Section 404(b) Study finding that accelerated filers subject to Section 404(b)’s attestation requirement had a lower restatement rate compared to non-accelerated filers not subject to Section 404(b). But supporters argued that the attestation requirement is particularly costly for SRCs and that audit costs associated with Section 404(b) divert capital from core business needs. One maintained that a Section 404(b) audit represents over $1 million of capital diversion. Another cited the same 2011 Staff Section 404(b) Study which estimated that companies with a public float between $75 million and $250 million spend, on average, $840,276 to comply with Section 404(b). Interestingly, one commenter that stated that its public float was more than $75 million but less than $250 million estimated that relief from Section 404(b) would result in a 35% reduction in compliance costs whereas there would be no material change in such costs from the SRC amendments qualifying him for scaled disclosure as an SRC.

In the final rules release, the Commission determined to eliminate the exclusion of SRCs from accelerated filer status, effectively deciding not to increase the accelerated filer thresholds.

As indicated in the chart below, the increase in the SRC thresholds coupled with the elimination of the automatic exclusion of SRCs from accelerated filer status (i.e., no increase in the accelerated filer threshold) means good news/bad news for companies with a public float between $75 million and $250 million: they benefit from scaled disclosure (unlike under previous rules), but must continue to provide auditor attestations to management’s assessment of the effectiveness of internal control over financial reporting, an enormously expensive proposition.

 

But as I mentioned at the top of this post, auditor attestation relief may be on the way.  SEC Chairman Clayton has directed the Commission staff to formulate recommendations for possible changes to the accelerated filer definition to reduce the number of companies that fall under its requirements, including the auditor attestation requirement. Perhaps, the staff will recommend to increase the accelerated filer public float threshold to $250 million from its current $75 million. That would appear to bring far more practical regulatory relief than the expansion of the SRC definition.

 

Annex

Smaller Reporting Company Scaled Disclosure

 

Regulation S-K

Item Scaled Disclosure Accommodation
101 − Description of Business May satisfy disclosure obligations by describing the development of the registrant’s business during the last three years rather than five years. Business development description requirements are less detailed than disclosure requirements for non-SRCs.
201 − Market Price of and Dividends on the Registrant’s Common Equity and Related Stock performance graph not required.
301 – Selected Financial Data Not required.
302 – Supplementary Financial Information Not required.
303 – Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations (“MD&A”)

Two-year MD&A comparison rather than three-year comparison.

Two year discussion of impact of inflation and changes in prices rather than three years.

Tabular disclosure of contractual obligations not required.

305 – Quantitative and Qualitative Disclosures About Market Risk Not required.
402 – Executive Compensation

Three named executive officers rather than five.

Two years of summary compensation table information rather than three. Not required:

·      Compensation discussion and analysis.

·      Grants of plan-based awards table.

·      Option exercises and stock vested table.

·      Pension benefits table.

·      Nonqualified deferred compensation table.

·      Disclosure of compensation policies and practices related to risk management.

·      Pay ratio disclosure.

404 – Transactions With Related Persons, Promoters and Certain Control Persons Description of policies/procedures for the review, approval or ratification of related party transactions not required.
407 – Corporate Governance

Audit committee financial expert disclosure not required in first annual report

Compensation committee interlocks and insider participation disclosure not required.

Compensation committee report not required.

503 – Prospectus Summary, Risk Factors and Ratio of Earnings to Fixed Charges No ratio of earnings to fixed charges disclosure required. No risk factors required in Exchange Act filings.
601 – Exhibits Statements regarding computation of ratios not required.

Regulation S-X

Rule Scaled Disclosure
8-02 – Annual Financial Statements

Two years of income statements rather than three years. Two years of cash flow statements rather than three years.

Two years of changes in stockholders’ equity statements rather than three years.

8-03 – Interim Financial Statements Permits certain historical financial data in lieu of separate historical financial statements of equity investees.
8-04 – Financial Statements of Businesses Acquired or to Be Acquired Maximum of two years of acquiree financial statements rather than three years.
8-05 – Pro forma Financial Information Fewer circumstances under which pro forma financial statements are required.
8-06 – Real Estate Operations Acquired or to Be Acquired Maximum of two years of financial statements for acquisition of properties from related parties rather than three years.
8-08 – Age of Financial Statements Less stringent age of financial statements requirements.