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CRE Opportunities and Pitfalls in a K-Shaped COVID Recovery

K- Recovery
“Silver capital letter K, isolated on white background.”

Solid investments are out there. Finding them depends on assessing the changing demand.

In the rush to predict how an economy crippled by COVID will look, many experts have tossed around the shapes of letters to illustrate how an economic recovery will look. There is the gradual but steady upturn of a U, a V’s immediacy, and the yo-yo effect of a W. 

The newest letter to be added to the alphabet soup is K. While it assumes that everyone starts at the same point, it depicts what has taken shape since the virus reached the United States—different trajectories traveling away from each other. 

K represents the differences between Wall Street and Main Street, people who can work from home and many of those who can’t, and individuals with the liquid assets to survive or thrive in a recession and those without them. 

CRE and the upward K

The K-model can also be applied to commercial real estate, where each sector faces its own unique challenges and opportunities. Some will move upward while others will face a greater struggle during recovery—if they recover at all. 

For example, here are a few sectors seen as winners:

  • Perhaps the strongest sector is warehouses. These facilities were already robust before the pandemic, as the growth of e-commerce required more localized hubs for speedy delivery. But lockdowns plus the public’s reluctance to return to enclosed spaces even after re-opening have resulted in a far greater demand for efficient online delivery services.
  • Data centers have also thrived since the start of the pandemic. In early spring, millions of workers and students learned to work remotely for the first time. That trend remained strong over the summer as surges continued to erupt across the country. With re-opening parameters and continued preventative measures, as well as an erratic positivity rate, many companies and schools across the country will remain remote for months to come. And a portion of this shift is permanent.
  • During the lockdown, grocery stores filled the void of closed restaurants—and continue to do so, as millions of people find it more cost-effective to prepare meals at home or are reluctant to return to dining out.
  • People still need medical care. Despite some practices having to close until they could get preventative protocols in place, and others feeling the pinch as demand for elective procedures dropped, medical office buildings remain open for business. 

CRE and the downward spokes of the K

Sadly, COVID has had a more substantial negative impact on some sectors. These areas look to have a tougher time bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels:

  • Many pundits argue that the pandemic highlighted fundamental weaknesses in our society, from underlying health conditions to wage inequality to a lack of access to quality Wi-Fi. In CRE, perhaps there’s no better example than the venerable mall. For years, these mega shopping centers have battled the growth of e-commerce and the loss of major retail anchors through endless re-inventions, including housing fitness centers, entertainment venues, spas and salons, and restaurants. But all of these tenants have not only suffered under COVID but will have a more difficult time attracting consumers to return to indoor experiences.
  • While the Great Recession introduced the staycation into the American vernacular, COVID made the phrase feel like a life sentence—especially for any facility associated with the travel industry. The cancellation of large-scale events, conferences, and pleasure travel—as well as physical distance mandates—have had a tremendously negative impact on hotels. While the sector is expected to bounce back, the timeline for that rebound depends upon a vaccine and Americans returning to work. Even so, many companies will hesitate to spend on business travel and large conferences like they have in the past.
  • Restaurants and bars are arguably the primary faces of our derailed economy. Deeply impacted by the lockdown and subsequent virus-prevention measures, many owners and operators have fought to survive by increasing take-out services and turning parking lots and streets into outdoor dining spaces. This may continue to work in warmer areas of the country, but cold weather and predictions of a second surge will complicate recovery.
  • Not too long ago, co-work facilities were seen as a hot new wave in CRE. But the pandemic has changed the equation. Until a viable vaccine is created and distributed, the industry will have to convince workers that shared desks and offices are a safe alternative to working from home—and likely make significant property improvements to make these spaces safer. 

Where the two trajectories begin

When looking at the K recovery model, there’s that point where the two trajectories begin their outward journeys. It’s here that some sectors may linger for the foreseeable future before picking a definitive course.

  • The office sector was especially hard hit due to the virus as workers were sent home and doors locked. And many large-footprint office spaces are on a downward trajectory. But the American office should not be discounted, according to economists. Instead, the sector will need time to re-find its place in a world where remote work and physical distance are the norm. This evolution will likely include fewer open floor plans, flexible spaces and work shifts, and smaller footprints.
  • Multifamily property owners quickly felt the COVID pinch in the first months of the pandemic. The lockdown and loss of employment among many residents resulted in missed rents. Although government efforts provided some relief, months of lingering unemployment continued the late- or missed-rent cycles. Some of these losses may ease with the economy’s slow re-opening and the addition of foreclosed homeowners in need of housing.
  • As colleges and universities shut down to opt for online courses and students packed up to quarantine at home during the spring semester, many student housing operators found themselves having to re-negotiate rent agreements. With the fall semester, there was an expectation that student housing would bounce back via campus re-openings. As of this writing, the sector remains a rollercoaster ride as many college students fail to observe social distancing recommendations and requirements. The result has been localized spikes and quarantines, as well as some universities quickly returning to online study.

These examples, of course, are far from exhaustive. The crucial lesson of a K-shaped recovery and its impact on CRE is that different properties will have significantly different trajectories. Investors must closely evaluate an investment’s potential in the new environment.

Finding your place in a K-recovery

More than likely, the economy will recover in phases. And there may be setbacks (depending on a future surge) and lags (especially in sectors that cater to underprivileged socio-economic communities). At the same time, other factors—consumer confidence, virus positivity rate, cost-control efforts from the corporate sector, the arrival of a vaccine, and a Presidential election—are influencing not only the speed and scope of the recovery but also the exact shape of the K. 

As an investor, the reality is that any rebound, regardless of the letter, will take time. Therefore, it’s essential to diligently assess investments and property improvements and choose those that make sense. A regional mall project or an office skyscraper that requires significant capital investment, for example, likely wouldn’t be wise choices.  

For assistance in determining how to proceed with an investment or to find the right property for your needs, please call Morris Southeast Group at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly at 954.240.4400 or via email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com.

Are Big Cities a COVID Casualty?

Looking into the rising sun up a deserted Brooklyn, DUMBO, backstreet at dawn.

Or has the pandemic merely spurred the need for a new beginning?

Consider it the essay that was heard ‘round the world. James Altucher, a former hedge-fund manager, author, and comedy club owner, penned his opinion that New York City was dead because of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the piece, he laments the loss of business opportunities, cultural venues, and restaurants. 

Naturally, that propelled a series of opposing opinions—most notably, from Jerry Seinfeld. Many of the rebuttals predicted a rosier future for NYC with a nod toward residents’ grit and determination. But these pieces seem to overlook some real-world economic problems. And many of these have been bubbling under the surface for decades.

Before we engrave the tombstone or send out re-birth announcements for New York, it may be wise to answer a basic question: If it can happen there, can it happen anywhere?

What COVID did to NYC

In many ways, COVID-19 decimated NYC. With one of the densest and largest urban populations in the world, the virus spread quickly and efficiently—and it was deadly. There were 19,000+ confirmed deaths, 4,400+ probable deaths, and thousands more in the boroughs and counties surrounding Manhattan. 

Shutdown measures were swift and severe, and many—such as a darkened Broadway—have lingered despite lower case counts. Simultaneously, residents, reminiscent of those battling plagues of the past, fled the city to their Hamptons homes or their parent’s suburban tract houses. The rest of the nation followed NYC’s lead—and the longer the shutdown continued, the louder the non-virus-related questions became.

A look at some of the issues

Some of what NYC is experiencing may have been inevitable; COVID just exacerbated some long-simmering crises and accelerated their impacts:

  • As residents fled NY to work remotely from their childhood bedrooms, or simply lost their jobs due to the shutdown, millions realized how cost-burdened they were when it came to rent. And if people can now work anywhere, why should businesses and workers continue to pay it?
  • Similarly, many NYC commercial spaces were also struggling long before COVID. According to a pre-pandemic January 2020 article, the combination of overhead costs—labor, benefits, rising taxes, rent increases, and city fees—meant hundreds of NYC restaurants and bars were already perched on the ledge of financial collapse, while other commercial properties just joined a growing list of vacancies.
  • In the years leading up to the pandemic, there was also a shift in population. For example, downstate New York led the state’s population loss for two consecutive years. Similar stats can be found in Los Angeles and Chicago, while smaller cities, such as Denver, Washington, DC, and Miami, all experienced slower growth. At the same time, millennials—the generation that pioneered remote work—have spent years flocking to smaller cities and suburbs in search of affordability, opportunity, and space for their young families. 

Living in an experiment

The problem with the current state of city affairs is there’s no rulebook. Because of the pandemic, people are behaving differently—and much of their new behavior does not reflect how they wish to live their lives. As a result, it’s difficult to predict how NYC and other cities can respond. 

Until there’s a vaccine, it’s impossible to estimate a timeline of when business will get back to normal—or if it ever will. For example, the virus and remote working have forced office tenants to re-examine just how much space they actually need.

The closest example we have to an experiment in progress is Detroit. Perhaps no other city in the country exemplifies urban failure better than the Motor City. Once the crown jewel of American industry, Detroit has for years suffered under the weight of rampant unemployment, poverty, and enormous debt. In the five years after filing for bankruptcy, millennials moved in, investors took notice, and the downtown area boomed, earning the city a new nickname: “Comeback Capital of Urban America.”

Things, though, didn’t go according to plan. With development came higher rents for residential and office spaces, higher construction costs, and gentrification—all of which steered millennials away from the city while driving impoverished residents into greater despair. Then, COVID arrived. Just as in NYC, the virus capitalized on Detroit’s weaknesses. 

The view from South Florida

Perhaps it has to do with the sunshine and palm trees, but South Florida cities and COVID are an anomaly. Despite being a COVID hotspot for the state since March, new construction and leases in South Florida have continued to move forward. In addition, the region has also seen its share of New Yorkers and other northern urban snow birders relocating to Florida’s warmer climate for the duration of their home states’ lockdowns, as well as millennials flocking to the suburbs. 

This doesn’t mean, though, the region is not without its share of problems. Like other large metropolitan areas, South Florida has its own affordable housing crisis. Additionally, in 2017, Miami had the second-lowest median household income in the United States, as well as the second-highest percentage of people living in poverty.  

Although these numbers improved slightly in 2018, COVID-related unemployment has undoubtedly made the numbers skyrocket. Complicating this is the Florida economy’s heavy reliance on tourism, which has caused some experts to predict the job market may suffer into late 2021 and beyond.  

South Florida businesses and real estate may have been less impacted by the pandemic than NYC, but they share many fundamental challenges. A new way of working and evolving COVID measures and restrictions are changing priorities. Commercial properties such as office high-rises with a large footprint, for example, will have to adapt to the new normal—and some investments may not make it. 

Are cities dead? 

While COVID has clearly placed extreme burdens on large metropolitan areas, is it time to ring their death knell? Probably not. 

There is a good reason to believe that cities will recover, although it remains unclear just how that recovery will actually look. Most certainly, things will be different. Technology will undoubtedly play a role, as will smaller office footprints.

A recovery for New York (and other major metropolises) will take leadership, vision, and work. At the same time, there is a need to address the underlying economic issues that made so many of our cities and people vulnerable, including wages, population density during a pandemic, and affordability. 

For assistance determining how to proceed with an investment or to find the right investment property for your needs, please call Morris Southeast Group at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly at 954.240.4400 or via email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com.

What is Going to Happen with Rent Payments?

CRE rental payments - Retail space available sign in a commercial real estate building
Commercial retail space available sign.

Commercial real estate landlords are understandably nervous about the future 

The economic impacts of COVID-19 won’t be fully measured for quite some time, but one thing is clear:  many commercial real estate owners aren’t receiving rental payments from tenants. 

Even as communities reopen, numerous restaurants, personal-service providers, and retailers don’t do enough business to pay their bills. Restaurants operating at 25% of capacity, for example, are seeing revenues well below normal, even though they are now technically open for business. In March, industry experts predicted that 2020 would see a loss of up to 75% of independent restaurants in the United States, representing five to seven million lost jobs and $225 billion in revenue. 

Small businesses are unable to pay their bills across the country, leaving commercial real estate landlords to ask, “What about the rent?” 

In the spring, as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the federal government imposed a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, keeping both homeowners and small businesses in their properties during the initial shutdown. But that moratorium expired in July. 

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis extended the statewide moratorium to September 1st. But that extension only applied to residential tenants who have been “adversely affected by the COVID-19 emergency”—the order did not affect CRE rental payments.

Then, on August 8th, 2020, President Donald Trump signed four executive orders for coronavirus relief, including one that was positioned as preventing evictions. That executive order is widely seen as having no legal teeth, however. It merely recommends that federal agencies consider whether a moratorium on residential evictions is needed—it doesn’t actually prevent evictions of any kind.

And while Florida currently has no statewide order preventing commercial real estate evictions, both Miami-Dade and Broward Counties have enacted some moratoriums

Broward’s “order prohibits the issuance of any writs of possession until normal court operations resume,” and “the sheriff’s office has suspended serving eviction notices during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Miami-Dade has “suspended [police department] enforcement of any eviction orders until the COVID-19 emergency expires.”

Broward County’s order is in place “until further notice,” and Miami-Dade County’s directive is in effect until “expiration of the emergency period”—which was extended on March 18th and remains ongoing.

What does all this mean for CRE rental payments and contracts? 

All rental agreements are contracts, of course. And when contracts lose meaning, much of the foundation of our economy and society unravels. 

Landlords are caught in the middle—between compassion for their tenants and the need to make their own mortgage, insurance, and property tax payments. While almost everyone in the CRE equation understands and empathizes with the unique economic burden COVID-19 has placed on businesses, it’s vital that contracts become enforceable again—and that evictions happen when they are absolutely necessary.

In the meantime, is it fair if landlords lose their investments? And what about tenants who may be experiencing temporary economic hardship? 

The current situation calls for flexibility and a diligent eye on the longer-term implications of each tenant-landlord relationship. Landlords and tenants should keep open communication lines and review leases to see if any necessary accommodations can be reached as the economy reopens. 

Some high-profile tenants are pushing back on terms

Starbucks, for example, has reached out to all of its commercial landlords to renegotiate rental payments. 

“Effective June 1st and for at least a period of 12 consecutive months, Starbucks will require concessions to support modified operations and adjustments to lease terms and base rent structures,” said the letter distributed [in May] signed by Starbucks Chief Operating Officer Roz Brewer. 

Chipotle Mexican Grill and Shake Shack have followed suit. Dunkin’ Donuts, Applebee’s, and Yum Brands, which includes Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell, are undertaking similar efforts, including tying terms to lease extensions.

It’s not out of the question to expect this trend to continue as various businesses—large and small—operate under government capacity restrictions and other limitations. 

Should landlords forgive or renegotiate CRE rental payments? 

Many landlords hesitate to drop the amount for rental payments to accommodate tenants because “accounting rules still allow them to book income if rent is deferred, as long as it isn’t reduced. Temporary rent forgiveness or discounts would also reduce their property valuations, which could hurt an owner’s ability to get a loan.”

That said, landlords may be able to work out temporary deferments or other measures to keep some income flowing, tenants in business, and property values stable. 

Again, landlords and tenants should keep the lines of communication open. If you are a landlord, tell your tenants not just to go dark and stop paying: “Keep us in the loop so we can help, and let us know what’s going on with your income stream.” Having those numbers will make it easier to approach your commercial lenders with renegotiations or forbearance requests. 

Also, keep in mind: While landlords might work something out with bank lenders and insurance companies, commercial-backed mortgage securities (CMBS) are another matter. CMBS are a type of financing with no single “entity”—investors pull together into a security instrument, so there is no one to speak with about renegotiating terms.

Thus, if you have CMBS financing, tenants stop paying, and you can’t pay, there’s little you can do. The moment you are late with a payment, the financing goes into special servicing, and the property is in immediate jeopardy. 

This creates a unique problem for CRE investors with this type of financing—and getting overdue rent payments or being able to evict non-paying tenants becomes even more critical. 

Keeping an eye on the CRE situation

The pandemic continues to contribute to disrupted business and high unemployment, which snowballs into even lower business revenues, among other consequences. All of these factors are affecting the ability of many commercial real estate tenants to pay their rent. The federal government is still working on a follow-up to the CARES Act that may provide some relief, but government assistance can only do so much. And it’s essential for CRE investors to closely monitor the national and local economic outlooks and stay adaptable.

In these most uncertain of times, a trusted advisor and property manager can be a valuable resource. At Morris Southeast Group, we’re closely watching how all of this plays out, and we’ll be sure to keep our readers and clients informed as the situation changes. 

If you have questions about CRE investing strategies, property leasing needs, or property management services, call us at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly at 954.240.4400 or via email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com.

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