In the mid-2000s, doctors, dentists and people of all backgrounds were flocking to develop multifamily projects – mainly condos – in South Florida. After the market crashed at the end of the decade, many of those individuals were never heard from again in the real estate business.
But one of those newcomers is still developing multifamily buildings. Lissette Calderon built her first project, the Neo Lofts on the Miami River, at 28. Almost 20 years later, she’s still revitalizing overlooked areas of Miami — this time in Allapattah.
“I consider myself very, very lucky that we've had this longevity and have been able to prove ourselves through the highs and lows and everything in between as an organization, as a developer and as a person,” Calderon told Multifamily Dive.
Calderon has remained active in the business over the years and is now tightening her focus on the Allapattah section of Miami. In May 2021, Calderon’s Neology Life Development Group opened the 192-unit No. 17 Residences in the area. Now, the firm is building the 323-unit The Julia, named after Miami’s founder Julia DeForest Tuttle. This week, Neology also broke ground on its latest project — Fourteen Residences Allapattah, a two-tower, 237-unit apartment community.
Here, Calderon talks with Multifamily Dive about her career path, today’s difficult financing market and the attraction of Miami.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
MULTIFAMILY DIVE: You started on your own in a very male-dominated field at a young age. What was that like?
LISSETTE CALDERON: Whenever you walk into a room, you usually look different and sound different. If you can command the room in a certain way, I think you often catch people off guard, and then they have different expectations of what you are. And I think there's great respect that comes as a result of that element of surprise.
I have also been very lucky to have worked alongside contractors, subcontractors, partners and lenders — wonderful men that have been and continue to be great friends. When you look different in whatever industry you are in, and you're the only woman sitting at the table, you can look at it as a disadvantage. But I've always seen it as an opportunity to stand out. Physically I already stand out. And once I say what I need, I stand out even more.
How hard is it to finance new development projects right now?
We're lucky that we just closed the construction loan for our Fourteen Residences Allapattah. While we closed it in a short amount of time, that's not to say that there haven’t been more complications than we had seen in the past. You're seeing some lenders change their ratios in terms of leverage. Their costs are going up and it's being passed through to the developer.
At the end of the day, it's really about if you’re comfortable with the terms that you're looking at. The deal has to make a lot of sense. You have to have been able to buy right and you have to be able to build right. And the pro forma has to make sense. I think lenders are definitely delving more into the details. They're looking at sponsors that have done it in the past and have a proven track record.
You're seeing some lenders that are stepping away from the market. But with every lender that steps away, there's an opportunity to build a new relationship. The good, solid deals that have strong fundamentals and strong backing are going to continue to get done.
Has the labor and supply chain situation improved?
It continues to be a tight labor market. We continue to see the ramifications of inflation. When you look at where the numbers are, you're not seeing the skyrocketing increases that you saw in 2021 and you're not seeing the supply chain issues that we experienced in 2020. [But] I wouldn't say It's smooth sailing by any stretch of the imagination.
South Florida has seen a lot of booms and busts over the years. Although we probably won’t continue to see rent increases of more than 20%, do you think the demand is durable in the market?
It's sustainable for the long term. I'm not certain we’re going to continue to see the exponential rent increases that we've seen.
Developers are looking to make sure that their numbers make sense. So not every project that is announced is going to get off the ground, whether it's as a result of the pressure on the cost of borrowing money, the cost of construction or just timing,
I think it’s a very different market today than it was in the last cycle. I think both lenders and developers are far more conservative. They're really making sure that what they're doing and what they're developing is long-term and sustainable.
In terms of Miami being on fire, it's no surprise to me that the entire world wants to come and live in Miami. And they will continue to want to come and live in Miami. In what other city in the world, not just in the United States, does a young Latina — the first person in her family to go to college and the first person in her family to be American — have the ability to build her own high rise at the age of 28? That’s only in Miami. It’s the world's greatest city.
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