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Commercial Real Estate’s Winners and Losers in the COVID-19 Economy

December 23, 2020

Although the pandemic is creating economic challenges worldwide, some industries are faring better than others and thriving because of the shift in consumer behavior.

COVID-19 has done a number on the American economy, with unemployment rates reaching 14.4% in April. By November, that number had dropped to 6.7%, but we’re still seeing fallout because consumers now aren’t using certain businesses in the same way.

In Florida, a shift in consumer behavior is driving much of this downturn rather than government-mandated restrictions. For example, people aren’t traveling as frequently as in pre-pandemic days, leaving much of the state’s hospitality industry in a difficult position. 

However, it isn’t all bad news, as some businesses are thriving in this economy. Here’s a look at how COVID affects various industries throughout the country and what it may mean for commercial real estate:

Struggling industries

Perhaps no sector has experienced more significant COVID challenges than the hotel industry, which has seen occupancy and revenue decrease at record levels. 

In Q2 2020, overall occupancy fell by over 60% from the previous year, despite the average daily rate (ADR) falling by over 37%. Rooms were cheaper, but people still weren’t renting them. The result: revenue per available room (RevPAR) is down by 75%. 

The Royalton Hotel NYC, once considered one of the city’s most exclusive properties for the rich and famous, sold to investors for $41 million in September. This price tag is a 25% reduction from its selling price in 2017. People simply aren’t visiting hotels as much during the pandemic, and it’s causing issues for investors.

Another industry that’s struggling is retail, which saw total sales decrease by 8.1% in Q2 of 2020. This decline is the most significant since the recession of 2009. 

However, it’s worth noting that some retailers are thriving in this economy, particularly e-commerce outlets and those that sell essential goods. It’s the smaller stores, certain big-box retailers, and shopping malls are struggling, although some of these spaces were being repurposed, even before COVID.

With the pandemic forcing employees to work from home, the office sector is experiencing some challenges keeping spaces occupied. The second quarter of 2020 saw leasing activity fall by 44% from the previous year, and the national office vacancy rate increased to 13%. 

Demand for downtown office space is decreasing at a more rapid rate than suburban real estate. This trend suggests that offices will still have plenty of value in the future, even if space in prestigious high-rises remains in less demand. 

Businesses benefiting from the shift

Again, it isn’t all bad news—some industries are actually reaping rewards from the change in consumer behavior. 

Amazon’s e-commerce successes are well-documented, with the company posting a record-level revenue increase of 37% during the second quarter of 2020. 

This trend isn’t exclusive to Amazon or online retail, though another windfall is related to the fortunes of e-commerce. The industrial and warehouse sector is seeing a bump due to the shift away from brick-and-mortar stores. Warehouses and distribution sites are in high demand, and these properties are experiencing low vacancy rates and asking for record-high rents as a result. 

Distributors are also relying less on China and other overseas entities because of the logistical issues with shipping goods right now. Keeping the supply chain moving involves ordering more products at once and storing them until needed, which is good news for industrial property owners. 

Also, since we’re dealing with a global health emergency and have an aging population, it makes sense that there’s a greater need for laboratory space. The life sciences industry is exploding, with properties re-selling for as much as 22-times their previous values. 

Strong tenant demand is driving this trend. And it could continue because of the need for facilities adhering to the Good Manufacturing Practice regulations for human pharmaceuticals. Labs that can meet these requirements have immense value, and many remain open 24 hours per day to keep up with demand throughout the pandemic.

Somewhere in between

Multifamily properties are going through the ups and downs of the current economy. Despite the harsh economic downturn in Q2, there wasn’t quite the expected rise in vacancies in apartment buildings and condos. The assumed reason: stimulus packages provided people with unemployment benefits aimed at keeping a roof over their heads. 

An average month’s rent has dropped by 1.4% since Q1, and vacancy rates increased slightly. But it could have been much worse, given the high unemployment rates. 

Urban areas and states with particularly high unemployment rates are being hit much harder than others, and there is a great demand for affordable housing all over the country.

A vaccine and the return to normalcy

Of course, the challenges caused by COVID-19 are driving many changes to the commercial real estate industry. People can’t interact at the same levels as this time last year, so there’s far less immediate need for spaces that encourage gathering or travel.

But there is some light at the end of the tunnel that could see us return to normalcy sooner rather than later. With the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines rolling out to the public and others potentially soon to follow, we might largely put this pandemic behind us by Q3 2021. 

At that time, hotels and retailers could see their numbers start to rebound, and demand for all office space could return, as well. For CRE investors, the coming months are incredibly important because a potential recovery could drastically change the economic landscape again.

For more commercial real estate insights, property management services, or CRE investment guidance, reach out to Morris Southeast Group at 954.474.1776. Ken Morris is also available directly at 954.240.4400 or via email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com.

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