2023 was a challenging year for Canadians and the broader markets. While inflation has slowed and interest rates appear to have stabilized, the overall economic picture continues to fluctuate.
“It’s been only one year, but we’ve seen changes that you don’t normally see within five,” says Gabriel Millard, Senior Vice President, Capital Markets – Equity and Research. “We’re still in the midst of digesting one of the fastest rate-hiking cycles in history, with a lot of variables in the macro environment.”
In light of this, investors have expressed increased interest in alternative investments for stability and returns that are non-correlated to public markets. Against that backdrop, we’ve continued to invest in the everyday, striking a balance between defensibility, growth, and sustainability across our strategies.
Multi-family and self-storage: from pause to growth
“During the first nine months of 2023, we took a deliberate pause on acquisitions within both our multi-family and self-storage strategies,” Millard says. “Over that time, we saw material net operating income (NOI) improvements from rent adjustments enabled by heightened service standards and introducing new operational cost-efficiency measures.”
Avenue Living shifted gears in the back half of the year, adding over 1,600 units to our multi-family residential footprint. In November, we finalized a deal with a large institutional investor for a 700-unit portfolio across five towers and a number of townhomes.
“We’re seeing opportunities to acquire higher-value properties from institutional players, including pension funds, which weren’t available even two years ago,” Millard says.
As borrowing costs accelerated, the importance of vertical integration, active property management, and managing rising costs in the real estate space became acutely clear. Across both the multi-family and self-storage markets, pure capital allocators struggled to sustain their investment returns, creating more acquisition opportunities.
“We’re exiting 2023 at just over 17,000 multi-family units,” Millard says. “The Mini Mall Storage Properties fund also grew quite rapidly to almost 8 million square feet — including the largest acquisition in its history of almost 900,000 square feet across 19 properties — making Mini Mall the top 21st largest self-storage operator in North America by rentable square footage.”
The multi-family Prairie markets are seeing growth from record net immigration, driven by households seeking affordability. A sizeable portion of these newcomers are coming from higher-growth markets like Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal where rent payments can take up 40% to 50% of households’ income.
Historically, self-storage has proven to be a resilient asset class and remained stable even in times like the 2008 North American real estate crash. Robust consumer-driven demand continues to propel the investment class, painting a constructive picture.
Strong tailwinds for Canadian farming
Avenue Living’s two Saskatchewan-focused agricultural strategies, the Avenue Living Agricultural Trust and Tract Farmland Partners LP (Tract), have also managed well amid persistent demand for farmland investment from across Canada.
In its mid-2023 report on farmland values, Farm Credit Canada saw Saskatchewan lead the nation with an average gain of 11.4%. Most locations in the province, the report said, saw increases between 7% and 11%. On the ground, Tract identified acquisition targets from word-of-mouth referrals within the farming community, a testament to its reputation as a trusted partner.
“It’s a consolidation play that’s still just in its early stages. An estimated 98% of transactions within the province remain outside of investment funds, and we’re continuing to acquire assets,” Millard says. “By the time we close a deal, we’re already seeing impressive appreciation.”
ESG efforts coming to fruition
Roughly two years after striking its partnership with the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), Avenue Living is moving forward on a number of energy retrofit projects across its multi-family residential portfolio, including work on large solar arrays, exterior renovations, and mechanical upgrades.
“A large portion of the acquisitions in our self-storage fund are within the Sun Belt region of the United States. Our portfolio is made up of assets that are wide, not high,” Millard says. “That offers an abundance of roofline where we’re able to implement solar projects.”
Avenue Living’s agricultural strategy also lends itself well to ESG, given Canada’s outsized role in producing staple grain products.
“The opportunity to help improve food security for Canadians and other nations is something we’re very proud to be a part of,” he says.
Avenue Living released its first full ESG report in 2023, with a second one set to come out this year. Beyond that, we’ve bolstered our commitment to responsible investing. In 2021, we became a signatory to the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and over the last year we furthered our commitment and became members of the Responsible Investment Association (RIA).
Avenue Living continued its annual Avenue Giving campaign, bringing together donations from residents and staff to support local food banks. We also launched an Employer-Supported Volunteerism program in the last quarter of 2023. In three months, employees volunteered for over 160 hours with 10 organizations including local food banks, Canadian Blood Services, veteran and seniors’ resource centres, community kitchens, and drop-in centres across the Prairies.
For 2024, a continued stewardship focus
From the beginning, Avenue Living’s growth has been inextricably tied to its commitment to the customer. Millard says that focus will continue in 2024, along with a focus on ensuring defensibility across the organization.
“Since 2020, it’s been a volatile period, and 2024 doesn’t appear to be any different,” he says. “As a responsible asset manager, we’re maintaining a leverage profile in the low 50%, and keeping over 10% of our NAV in liquidity to ensure defensibility.”
Last year, Avenue Living acquired over half a billion dollars in multi-family assets. With a large pipeline of acquisitions, it’s pressing its growth advantage in 2024, allowing improvement of margins by spreading fixed head-office costs over a larger number of units.
“We don’t grow for the sake of growth, but to improve our overall operations through accretive transactions,” Millard says. “Through technology and operational improvements, our focus is to continually level up our operations for the benefit of our residents, customers, and investors.”
This commentary and the information contained herein are for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute an offer to sell, or a solicitation of an offer to buy, any securities or related financial instruments. This article may contain forward-looking statements. Readers should refer to information contained on our website at https://avenuelivingam.wpenginepowered.com/forward-looking-statements for additional information regarding forward-looking statements and certain risks associated with them.