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 December 19, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued final rules to permit reporting companies under the Securities Exchange Act to offer securities under Regulation A (affectionately referred to often as Regulation A+), as mandated by the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act of 2018.  The rule amendments also provide that so long as an issuer is current in its Exchange Act reporting, its periodic Regulation A reporting obligation will be deemed to be met. I previously blogged here about the SEC’s statutory mandate to make Exchange Act reporting companies Regulation A eligible.  The rule amendments are effective upon publication in the Federal Register.  This post will identify particular features that would make Regulation A attractive for Exchange Act reporting companies.

The amendments will likely impact U.S. and Canadian reporting companies seeking to conduct public offerings within the Regulation A offering limit of $50 million, particularly offerings of non-exchange-listed-securities. That’s because blue sky preemption is available for Tier 2 of Regulation A, but is generally not available for non-exchange-listed securities sold in registered offerings. During 2017, there were approximately 584 reporting companies with registered securities offerings of up to $50 million that would now be eligible for Regulation A, including approximately 267 offerings of non-exchange-listed securities.

The amendments may also benefit previous Regulation A issuers that became Exchange Act reporting companies and that may seek to engage in follow-on Regulation A offerings.

Exchange Act reporting companies may also be attracted to Regulation A’s more flexible “test-the-waters” communication rules for soliciting investor interest as compared with registered offerings. Although companies qualifying as “emerging growth companies” are also permitted to test the waters in registered offerings, such solicitations are limited to qualified institutional buyers and institutional accredited investors and exclude individuals. Regulation A’s test-the-water rules permit issuers to solicit all prospective investors, including individuals, and without a requirement to file test-the-waters materials (as is the case with registered offerings).

Regulation A also contains a safe harbor from integration of Regulation A offerings with prior offers or sales of securities, as well as with subsequent offers or sales of securities registered under the Securities Act. The flexibility to alternate between Regulation A and registered offerings may be particularly valuable for Exchange Act reporting companies, particularly those that are uncertain about whether their future funding strategy will rely on Regulation A or registered offerings.

Finally, the conditional exemption for Tier 2 securities from the shareholders of record threshold for Section 12(g) registration purposes would be attractive for Exchange Act reporting issuers because maintaining a lower number of shareholders of record would make it easier to deregister and suspend Exchange Act reporting in the future.

On the flip side, one disadvantage worth noting is that Regulation A does not permit at-the-market offerings, which may limit the attractiveness of Regulation A for some Exchange Act reporting companies seeking the flexibility of at-the-market offerings.

Beginning on May 16, issuers for the first time will be able to offer and sell securities online to anyone, not just accredited investors, withoutTitle III Crowdfunding registering with the SEC. The potential here is breathtaking.  Some $30 trillion dollars are said to be stashed away in long-term investment accounts of non-accredited investors; if only 1% of that gets allocated to crowdfunding, the resulting $300 billion would be ten times bigger than the VC industry.   But the onerous rules baked into JOBS Act Title III and the SEC’s Regulation Crowdfunding (the statutory and regulatory basis, respectively, for public equity crowdfunding), leave many wondering if Title III crowdfunding will prove to be an unattractive alternative to other existing exemptions and become a largely underutilized capital raising pathway – a giant missed opportunity.

Patrick_McHenry_OfficialBut help may be on the way. Congressman Patrick McHenry recently introduced new legislation to address certain defects in Title III.  The Fix Crowdfunding Act (H.R. 4855)  would seek to improve the utility of Title III crowdfunding by raising the issuer dollar limit, simplifying the Section 12(g)(6) exemption, clarifying portal liability, permitting special purpose entities to engage in Title III offerings and allowing issuers to “test the waters”.  The House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Capital Markets recently held hearings on the Fix Crowdfunding Act labeled “The JOBS Act at Four: Examining Its Impact and Proposals to Further Enhance Capital Formation”, with witnesses such as Kevin Laws (Chief Operating Officer of AngelList) and The Honorable Paul S. Atkins (Chief Executive Officer of Patomak Global Partners) testifying.  Congress should pass this proposed legislation, and the sooner the better.

Here’s a summary of the proposed legislation, identifying the defect in the original Title III and the proposed fix.

Issuer Cap                                                                                     

Title III limits issuers to raising not more than $1 million in crowdfunding offerings in any rolling 12 month period. By comparison, Regulation A+ allows up to $50 million and Rule 506 of Regulation D has no cap whatsoever.

The new legislation would increase the issuer cap from $1 million to $5 million in any rolling 12 month period.

Portal Liability

Title III imposes liability for misstatements or omissions on an “issuer” (as defined) that is unable to sustain the burden of showing that it could not have known of the untruth or omission even if it had exercised reasonable care. By comparison, a plaintiff in a Rule 506 offering must allege not just a material misstatement or omission but that the issuer either knew or should have known if it made a reasonable inquiry.  Title III defines “issuer” to include “any person who offers or sells the security in such offering.”  In its final rules release, the SEC considered but refused to clarify that intermediaries were not issuers for purposes of the liability provision.  As it currently stands, Title III exposes intermediaries (i.e., funding portals and broker-dealer platforms) to possible liability if issuers commit material inaccuracies or omissions in their disclosures on crowdfunding sites.  It is over this very concern over liability that some of the largest non-equity crowdfunding sites that have otherwise signaled interest in equity crowdfunding, including Indiegogo and EarlyShares, have expressed reluctance to get into the Title III intermediary business.

The Fix Crowdfunding Act would make clear that an intermediary will not be considered an issuer for liability purposes unless it knowingly makes any material misstatements or omissions or knowingly engages in any fraudulent act. Presumably then, as proposed, a plaintiff would have the burden of proving not just the fraud, misstatement or omission but that the intermediary knew at the time.

Section 12(g) Registration Exemption

The JOBS Act raised from 500 shareholders to 2000 (or 500 non-accredited investors) the threshold under Section 12(g) that triggers Exchange Act registration. It also instructed the SEC to exempt, conditionally or unconditionally, shares issued in Title III crowdfunding transactions.  In its final rules, the SEC exempted crowdfunded shares from the shareholder calculation under Section 12(g), but conditioned the exemption on, among other things, the issuer having total assets of no more than $25 million.  The $25 million limit on total assets may have the perverse effect of deterring growth companies from utilizing crowdfunding and/or prompting such companies to issue redeemable shares to avoid the obligation to register with the SEC if they cross the shareholder threshold because of a crowdfunded offering.

The new legislation would remove from the 12(g) exemption the condition that an issuer not have $25 million or more in assets.

Special Purpose Vehicles

Several portals such as AngelList and OurCroud utilize a fund business model (rather than a broker-dealer model) for Rule 506 offerings in SPVwhich investors invest into an SPV which in turn makes the investment into the company as one shareholder. Because of the SPV exclusion, many growth-oriented startups might avoid Title III crowdfunding if they expect to raise venture capital in the future, as VC firms don’t like congested cap tables.

The proposed legislation would make “any issuer that holds, for the purpose of making an offering pursuant to [Title III], the securities of not more than one issuer eligible to offer securities pursuant to [Title III]” eligible for Title III offerings.

Testing the Waters

testing the watersSecurities offerings are expensive and risky with no guaranty that they will generate enough investor interest. Congress and the SEC chose not to allow Title III issuers to “test-the-waters”, i.e., solicit indications of interest from potential investors prior to filing the mandated disclosure document with the SEC.  The concern is that allowing issuers to do so would enable unscrupulous companies to prime the market before any disclosure became publicly available. Without the protection of public disclosure, issuers may be able to use selective disclosures or overly enthusiastic language to generate investor interest.

The Fix Crowdfunding Act would specifically allow Title III issuers to test the waters by permitting them to solicit non-binding indications of interest from potential investors so long as no investor funds are accepted by the issuer during the initial solicitation period and any material change in the information provided in the actual offering from the information provided in the solicitation of interest are highlighted to potential investors in the information filed with the SEC.