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Originally published Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Storage-space mogul Hughes now targeting rental homes

B. Wayne Hughes, backed by institutional investors such as the Alaska Permanent Fund, has bought about 10,000 homes to rent to those who find ownership out of reach.

Bloomberg News

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B. Wayne Hughes, a sharecropper’s son who became a billionaire pioneering warehouses for Americans needing storage space, is buying thousands of houses to rent as more people find homeownership out of reach.

Hughes, 79, has purchased about 10,000 properties through his American Homes 4 Rent, making the Malibu, Calif.-based firm the second-biggest owner of single-family rentals. Hughes is using $600 million from the Alaska Permanent Fund and other fundraising to buy real estate, mostly at foreclosure auctions, according to Paul Saylor, chairman of CS Capital Management, who advises the Alaska fund.

Hughes founded Public Storage 40 years ago and turned it into the biggest storage-rental company in the world. Now he’s competing with an expanding pool of institutional buyers and individuals seeking low-priced properties in regions hardest hit by the housing crash.

The firms are helping to drive the recovery, with home prices rising in December by the most since 2005, even after a record level of foreclosures makes it harder for millions of Americans to qualify for a mortgage.

“Wayne founded Public Storage at a time when the industry was run by Moms and Pops out of their garages, and it’s kind of the same pattern,” said Saylor, whose Atlanta-based firm manages $1.4 billion and advises institutions with $4.3 billion in real-estate assets. Buying “single-family homes has been dominated until very recently by small investors across the country doing it locally.”

The Alaska Permanent Fund’s joint venture with American Homes 4 Rent has spent $750 million to purchase about 4,500 of Hughes’ 10,000 single-family houses, according to Michael Burns, chief executive officer of the $44.8 billion Alaska fund, which invests state oil royalties that have financed annual dividends for Alaska residents since 1982.

Alaska picked Hughes for the venture even though his background was largely storage, because “nobody has a track record in this space,” Burns said in a telephone interview from Juneau. “Public Storage’s assets seemed to be the closest.”

Hughes stepped down as Public Storage chairman in 2011 and retired from the board last year to become chairman emeritus. He and other executives at American Homes 4 Rent didn’t respond to repeated requests for interviews.

Born in Gotebo, Okla., Hughes was the son of a sharecropper or tenant farmer, he told GQ magazine in a rare interview last year.

Prairie dust storms drove his family to Los Angeles with the wave of poor migrants who inspired Woody Guthrie’s folk songs and John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

He graduated in 1957 with a degree in business from the University of Southern California, becoming an enthusiast of the school’s football program.

Hughes’ foray in the storage business began when he noticed a self-storage warehouse while driving down a Texas road in 1972. Stopping to take a look, he saw it was filled to capacity and figured it’d be a good investment.

Public Storage, based in Glendale, Calif., operates more than 2,200 locations in the U.S. and Europe and has a market capitalization of $28 billion.

Since retiring from Public Storage, Hughes spends about half the year living at Spendthrift, the Thoroughbred stud farm outside of Lexington, Ky., he bought in 2004.

He reduced his ownership of Public Storage to 1.37 percent as of May, worth about $370 million, according to Bloomberg data.

Hughes incorporated American Homes 4 Rent last year as a nonpublic REIT with a team of executives who had worked at Public Storage.

The firm mostly buys houses built in the last 20 years with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, often in homeowner associations where the properties are likely to have been maintained, Alaska fund CEO Burns said. They try to avoid jurisdictions where tenant-rights regulations make it hard to evict residents or raise rents, he said.

“We aren’t in the fixer-upper business,” Burns said. “If a place is toxic for landlords, we don’t go there.”

The rental properties are in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Texas, Illinois and Indiana, according to American Homes 4 Rent’s website.

The company also bought houses in Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and California last year, according to Irvine, Calif.-based data firm RealtyTrac.

The majority of homes it bought in 2012 were through foreclosure auctions.

Hughes’ sponsorship makes American Homes 4 Rent attractive to financiers, according to Rod Petrik, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore.

“Hughes built a phenomenal company in Public Storage under a simple concept that we rent garages,” Petrik said. “He is very smart at understanding the cost of capital, both from his partnership days and in the public REIT days.”

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