CRE Opportunities and Pitfalls in a K-Shaped COVID Recovery
September 23, 2020
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.