Three 5-Star hotels and a convention center on a 2.8-acre site next to Hooters?
It's been a while now that this blog has been cautioning real estate investors of the world, whether North American, European or Chinese, to exercise due diligence in making real estate investments in other countries. Foreign investors are always at an informational disadvantage and can be exploited by the unscrupulous. I also promote my own valuation and due diligence services with this blog and do not have a conflict of interest by receiving sales commissions or advertising dollars or operating as a subsidiary of an international brokerage operation. Objective information on international real estate investment is in short supply.
The EB-5 Visa program and the real estate development it is spawning
The Appraisal Institute recently held a local luncheon program that spoke of new opportunities coming to appraisers as a result of the EB-5 Visa Program, a program that grants U.S. residency to foreign nationals who invest at least $1 million (or just $500,000 in “targeted” areas of high unemployment, 50% above the national average) in an enterprise that creates or preserves at least 10 full-time permanent jobs for Americans other than the immigrant’s family members, for at least two years.
Some EB-5 applicants are seasoned entrepreneurs who come here with a business plan, but there are others, many of whom are from China, who seem to have more money than ideas and pool their money into "regional center" EB-5 schemes which operate much like private real estate syndications. USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) recently reported that over 90% of EB-5 visa applicants are choosing the regional center route, and by far the largest number of applications come from China. Many of the new millionaires from China made their wealth through real estate flipping and are attracted to real estate schemes created by "regional centers". Not every regional center is well-conceived or honest, though, as the example below illustrates:
$156 million EB-5 fraud in Chicago
In February, the U.S. SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) filed suit against A Chicago Convention Center, LLC and 29-year-old Anshoo Sethi, its managing partner, in an effort to protect more investors from fraud. In the Offering Memorandum supplied to investors were counterfeit documents and misrepresentations, including a bogus franchise agreement with Hyatt Hotels and a counterfeit letter from the Qatar Investment Authority promising $340 million in funding. The defendants are also accused of misrepresentation of franchise agreements with Starwood Hotels and Intercontinental Hotels, permits from the city of Chicago, and an appraisal of the 2.8-acre site near the airport for $177 million.
The site, seen in the above photo, lies between a Hooters restaurant and a Spring Hill Suites hotel along the Kennedy Expressway leading to Chicago's O'Hare airport. My first reaction in visiting this site was how was the developer going to fit a convention center and 3 hotels on a 2.8-acre site? Would 5-star hotels want to be located next to a Hooters (a restaurant chain known mainly for its buxom waitresses)?
Mr. Sethi's appearance on CCTV (China Central Television)
Mr. Sethi also claimed to have 15 years of real estate development experience, which means he would have started developing real estate at the age of 14. He has also spent several years working as a pharmacy technician. There is no record that he or his family has ever developed anything. They simply owned the hotel that previously occupied the proposed construction site.
Each investor supplied $500,000 plus a $41,500 administrative fee which was purportedly placed in escrow to reimburse unsuccessful visa applicants, but more than 90% of these administrative funds have been taken out already, including $2.5 million transferred to Sethi's private Hong Kong bank account.
Willfully Blind Accomplices
The problem with many of the real estate development projects being promoted in this industry is that they are usually located in less desirable areas so as to lessen the required EB-5 investment from $1 million to just $500,000. These "targeted employment areas" must have unemployment at least 50% above average, or populations less than 20,000 residents, yet many EB-5 project advertisements I've seen boast construction of "5-star hotels" in these areas. Building a 5-star hotel in an economically distressed area leaves some questions about economic feasibility, although the USCIS has been criticized in not guarding against the gerrymandering of census tracts to collectively meet the target unemployment rate even if the proposed property is in a good area.
Investors need to realize, too, that promoters of such schemes, whether American or Chinese, receive large sales commissions, and the dodgier the investment, the higher the commissions. Chinese migration agencies have been offered up to $125,000 per customer, an obvious conflict of interest in advising would-be immigrant-investors, leading to serious competition among finders to reel in the Big Kahunas. Many are failing to register with the SEC as broker-advisors.
There is a lot of money to be made in misleading Chinese investors, but who is there in China to protect them? Likewise, when they arrive in the U.S., they are heavily influenced by their handlers, and who is there to caution then?
Independent inquiries need to be made before making such investment decisions. Some of the real estate projects spawned by this visa program seem ill-conceived, and immigrants would be better off starting businesses that create needed things or services rather than unneeded buildings. If immigrants feel that they must invest in real estate development, they should get a second opinion from an objective advisor, such as American Property Research, for instance.
Update 2/22/17: Anjoo Sethi has received a 3-year prison sentence for his fraud.