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Blackstone real estate chief says L.A. is a tough market

April 18, 2013|By Alejandro Lazo
  • Jon Gray, left, global head of real estate for Blackstone Group, poses at the Barker Block condominium project with CityView Chairman Henry Cisneros, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and CityView President Sean Burton.
Jon Gray, left, global head of real estate for Blackstone Group, poses at… (Alejandro Lazo / Los Angeles…)

You know Los Angeles has become a tough real estate market when it’s hard for even Jon Gray to find a bargain.

“It’s become harder, because the pricing has moved up,” said Gray, the global head of real estate for private equity firm Blackstone Group. “L.A. is probably the toughest market.”

As chief of one of the world’s largest real estate investment funds, with $60 billion in assets, Gray is the walking embodiment of the term “smart money.” To put it succinctly, he is “the man with the bank account,” which was how Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa introduced him Thursday at a chummy ceremony in downtown's Arts District.

“Blackstone is a very, very important entity in this world, and they fund great real estate projects, hedge funds, private equity -- they do a lot of stuff,” Villaraigosa went on to say. “One of the important things they are doing is investing in L.A. real estate.”

Gray was in town from New York to celebrate the construction of the final phase of a fancy condominium project Blackstone invested in. His company also has made headlines lately for becoming one of the biggest bulk buyers of foreclosed homes in the United States, including in Southern California. Blackstone -- and a handful of other Wall Street firms -- have been racing to snap up single-family homes to rent out for profit and long-term gains.

According to recent reports by The Times, Blackstone has poured close to $740 million into California real estate through January. But with the sharp recovery in home values, finding deals on properties these days is not easy, Gray said.

That’s a lament many hopeful, home-shopping families in the region can relate to. As The Times recently reported, real estate has gone from recovery to frenzy in recent months. Even buying a home in the hard-hit Inland Empire is tough.

Nevertheless, Blackstone has bought up enough homes in the Southland to get the kind of scale it was hoping for, Gray said. And its rental price per square foot remains about 34% less than the average rent in the region, he added, making the company’s product attractive. Nationwide, the company has had success in leasing out about 80% of its renovated homes, meaning demand is strong.

Although Blackstone rarely funds new projects, Gray said, it also saw an opportunity in the Barker Block condominium project downtown.

The condo project is across the street from the perpetually packed and trendy Urth Caffe on South Hewitt Street. It will boast a total of 310 units when complete. The latest phase, being celebrated Thursday, includes 68 units that will begin selling for about $400,000.

“We saw an opportunity to create value for our investors, and in doing so we are doing something good for the local community by helping to revive one of the city’s most historic neighborhoods,” Gray said during a speech at the construction party Thursday. “The Barker Block ... will develop some of the first for-sale homes in downtown Los Angeles since the crisis, and it will be done in a style that will preserve the character of the Arts District.”

Gray was joined by Villaraigosa and Henry Cisneros, a former Clinton administration housing official who is now chairman of the project’s developer, CityView. Guests munched on fancy hors d'oeuvres and took tours of the under-construction and completed portions of the condominium project, which boasted sweeping views of downtown Los Angeles from its rooftop gym.

Overall, Gray thinks it’s good time to be in the real estate business. The housing market is improving. That's not because firms like his are snapping up every cheap home in sight, he said, but because so few homes were built during the recession. And people still need a place to live.

“It’s simply supply and demand,” he said.

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