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Pension fund becomes home builder in Pasco

You'll never guess the latest builder to wade into the troubled Tampa Bay housing market: Los Angeles firefighters, teachers, cops and trash collectors.

Fishing around for places to park its money three years ago, the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association invested $35 million in the Lakeshore Ranch subdivision on U.S. 41 in Pasco County.

LACERA is the largest county retirement system in the United States. It covers 158,000 current and former employees and holds assets of $35 billion.

When the housing collapse forced Lakeshore builder K. Hovnanian Homes to renege on buying hundreds of lots, the pension fund was backed into a corner: liquidate the land for pennies on the dollar or pump in more money.

It chose to pump. LACERA has become a home builder in all but name. Not only is it bankrolling model homes using designs from Fort Lauderdale builder Home Dynamics, but LACERA also has hired a semi-retired executive from defunct builder TOUSA. The initial outlay: $2 million.

"LACERA's overall dollar return to its pension program will be maximized since it pays out a fixed-fee to its home builder partners and retains all home building profits," said Michael Zarola with TriPacific Capital Advisors, a consultant for the pension fund.

Lakeshore Ranch opened in 2006 on the west side of U.S. 41 in a semirural section of Land O'Lakes that includes well-regarded but financially jinxed housing developments such as Connerton.

At build-out, Lakeshore is supposed to have 671 homes, but K. Hovnanian sold about 70 houses before realizing sales were too tepid to close on hundreds of lots it had contracted for. LACERA stepped in. Starting in January, the pension fund's contractors will build homes ranging from 1,678 to 3,374 square feet with prices starting at about $150,000.

"We've been left holding the bag, if you will," Zarola said. "What we have done, and what the pension fund agreed to, is to retool the community."

It's rare for public employee pension funds to take a direct role in from-the-ground-up residential construction. They build and buy office buildings in places such as downtown Tampa.

Lakeshore isn't the only under-performing housing development LACERA has taken over. The retirement fund is also becoming the de facto builder of subdivisions it owns in Orlando, Melbourne, Arizona, California and Nevada.

Battered by downturns in the real estate and stock markets, the pension fund lost 21 percent of its value in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Bob Meadows, the former TOUSA executive who's working for LACERA, has set a modest sales target of two to three sales a month at Lakeshore. Eventually, when K. Hovnanian's fortunes improve, LACERA hopes to reduce its role.

"Rather than let their money sit and do nothing, they decided to recoup some of that," Meadows said. "And maybe they'll even turn a little profit."

James Thorner can be reached at jthorner@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3313.

Pension fund becomes home builder in Pasco 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 10:58pm]
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