Miami developer Armando Codina has made his mark building some of South Florida’s biggest industrial parks and office buildings.

Now he is turning his attention to developing rental apartments. Codina, who joined forces with a deep-pocket partner and hasn’t lost any project to foreclosure during the recession, is about to start two new ones: Toscana in Davie and Lakeside at Doral. Two more rental projects in Miami-Dade may follow.

Codina’s Coral Gables-based CC Residential is one of the first developers to begin construction of apartment buildings in the region as the nation recovers from its worst financial and housing crisis in decades.

Rentals in most desirable markets are going up, making developers feel optimistic about their future revenue growth.

“For the first time, going back as much as I can remember, it is more expensive to rent than it is to buy,” Codina said. “The numbers for rentals are very good.”

In Miami-Dade, the average rental price is $1,281, up from $1,206 a year ago, according to Reinhold P. Wolff Economic Research in Oakland Park. That is despite the vacancy rate climbing to 3.3 percent, up from 2.8 percent a year ago.

In Broward County, rental prices average $1,268, up from $1,245 a year ago. The vacancy rate is 4.8 percent, down slightly from 4.9 percent a year ago. In Palm Beach County, rentals average $1,227, up from $1,173 a year ago, and the vacancy rate is 5 percent, down from 5.3 percent last year.

“There are more renters out there than ever before,” said mortgage lender Adam Rosenblatt, whose company, New Penn Financial, makes loans to homebuyers.

“I see plenty of people every day who have good credit,” he said. “But, they are not looking to buy because they are not sure when their next paycheck is going to come, or if they are going to be fired the next day.”

Codina is joining a growing group of developers who are venturing into the rental housing market, currently one of the most active real estate sectors in South Florida. The trend is fueled in part by the sector’s easier access to capital at a time lenders are reluctant to finance most new commercial construction.

Yet the window of opportunity to build rentals may close before many of the planned projects become reality. Developers able to move quickly, like Codina, should be the ones to succeed, mortgage broker Howard Taft said.

His job with the Aztec Group in Miami is to find equity financing for developers. Taft, who is not involved with Codina’s projects, is in constant communication with hedge funds and institutional lenders looking to place equity with new developments.

“The projects that are further along in the permitting process and have committed equity and construction loans will be the ones that get built,” Taft said. “The ones where the land is being sold now are not late to the game, yet, but the window is closing. You should have your permitting and equity lined up in 2012.”

Codina’s plans

Codina acquired the sites in Davie and Doral last year. CC Residential’s affiliate CC Davie LLC paid $11.5 million cash for 17.2 acres on Davie Road, across the street from Broward College’s Davie Campus and a few blocks east of Nova Southeastern University’s main campus.

CC Davie is about to get city permits and plans to start construction of Toscana this month, said Andy Burham, CC Residential co-founder and COO. The estimated building cost is about $45 million, he said. On April 9, CC Davie obtained a $36.15 million construction loan from PNC Bank N.A., according to Broward County property records.

The 350-unit Toscana would have 17 low-rises and an average rental of about $1,500 for its one-, two- and three-bedroom units, Burham said.

The first units and the clubhouse could open in about eight months, with the rest of the apartments becoming available gradually over the next year-and-a-half, he added.

The Doral project, named Lakeside at Doral, is about a month behind the Davie project, he said.

A CC Residential affiliate, CC Doral Pebblewalk, paid $13.75 million cash for 16.4 acres north of Northwest 41st Street between 114th and 117th avenues in Doral.

Codina plans to build a 325-unit mid-rise apartment building and up to 52,000 square feet of commercial space. The permitting process is well under way, Burham said. The estimated cost of building Lakeside at Doral is about $53 million, and his company is negotiating with a lender to get construction financing, he said.

Two more such projects may be coming up. Another Codina affiliate owns 4.2 acres at the northeast corner of Northwest 87 Avenue and 41st Street in Doral. That project, White Course at Doral, would consist of an eight-story luxury mid-rise apartment building, according to CC Residential’s website.

Another Codina affiliate owns a 1.4-acre site on Salzedo Street between Navarre and Minorca avenues in Coral Gables. Codina said he is still analyzing whether to build apartments at that location.

Codina and Carr join forces

Codina jumped into the luxury apartment market to provide housing for people who are so nervous about the slow-recovering economy and worried about where their next job will be, they don’t want to buy, he said. He is also counting on people who have shed distressed homes.

“The demand for rentals, in part, is driven by people who were foreclosed and don’t qualify for buying at this moment,” Codina said. “It is also driven by the fact that there are a lot of people who have seen what happened and don’t want to get locked into homeownership.”

Codina began this new chapter of his professional life by partnering with residential developer Jim Carr. The founder of Westbrooke Communities, Carr built nearly 15,000 homes before he sold his company to Texas-based Pacific USA Holdings in 1998.

Both men emerged victorious from the housing crisis, unlike many other developers across South Florida.

At the height of the recession, Codina and Carr joined forces to buy defaulted community development district bonds and later take title to a 500-acre planned community called Monterra on Pine Island Road between Stirling Road and Sheridan Street in Cooper City.

Over the last two years, the partners have sold 371 single-family homes. They have about 104 under contract. The houses are selling at the affordable price of about $140 per square foot. When completed, Monterra will have a total of 657 homes.

Codina said he chose to get into the residential market, in part, so he wouldn’t have to compete with his former colleagues in the industrial and office sector.

For years Codina led Coral Gables-based Flagler Development Group, part of Florida East Coast Industries, and oversaw more than 12 million square feet of Class-A office and industrial space in Florida. In July 2007, FECI was sold to Fortress Investment Group and Codina eventually left the company to form Codina Partners in 2009.

“I did not want to compete with my people and the people at Fortress, who treated me fairly,” Codina said. “Plus, I had not seen any distressed industrial properties that were a good opportunity.”

Codina and Carr wield significant advantages when it comes to obtaining construction financing for new and future projects. Their business histories are free of foreclosures while their development track records make them solid candidates for financial support.

Money goes to the monied

“What you find is that the clients who don’t need the money have the most access to it,” said Charles Foschini, vice chairman of CBRE’s debt and equity finance division. “And the middle-market developer who may have the same quality of site and the same ability to build — but not the strength of balance sheet — has an extremely difficult time getting financed today.”

Foschini, who is not involved in the Codina projects, said the fact that Codina owns the development sites free and clear is a great advantage when seeking construction loans. “It is a very significant equity contribution to the deal.”

Foschini said he fears many of the apartment projects now in the permitting process won’t happen because of financing challenges.

Projections suggest the market may be heading toward overabundance now, but there could be a shortage after this year.

By the end of last year, there were 2,707 apartments under construction, according to CBRE Institutional Multi-Housing Group, which tracks Class A rental projects across South Florida.

There are at least 9,926 units planned to start construction in 2012, CBRE says. At least 4,797 are planned for construction in 2013, and an additional 8,450 units could begin construction in 2014 and beyond.

According to CBRE Econometrics Advisors, absorption for the entire South Florida market will be 9,483 units in 2012, 9,919 in 2013, 8,576 in 2014, and 9,415 in 2015.

One of the planned rental communities is on Davie Road, not too far from Codina’s. Fort Lauderdale-based Forman Industrial Land is proposing a 400 garden apartment community as part of the proposed College Crossings, which would also include 460,000 square feet of retail space.

Fear of saturated market

The projected demand could keep prying open the capital market, Foschini said.

“That will make banks feel comfortable enough to test the water and provide construction loans, if the borrower is strong, has a lot of experience, and very strong cash flow personally and corporately,” he said.

But if a massive number of rentals are built, they could saturate the market, causing rental prices to drop and vacancies to rise. For that reason, equity lenders are being cautious about committing capital for future projects, mortgage broker Taft said.

“When I call the equity funds, what I find is that those equity players have already committed money to developers over the past six months in this cycle,” he said. “Some are very skeptical of starting underwriting new deals that may take 90 to 100 days to get approvals when there are other deals ahead of them in the pipeline.”