Commercial real estate flounders as housing market booms
Posted September 22, 2020 2:28 p.m. EDT
CNN — The housing market is red hot thanks to record-low mortgage rates and consumers looking to flee cities for the suburbs. But offices, shopping malls and other commercial real estate properties have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
The rise of Zoom, Slack and other productivity tools has made it easier for people to set up home offices and still get their jobs done. Meanwhile, Amazon and other digital retailers are flourishing amid the Covid-19 pandemic as the shift from bricks to clicks has accelerated.
"There will likely be less demand for commercial real estate due to the rising popularity of online shopping and working from home," said Ivy Investments global economist Derek Hamilton in an e-mail.
That's why giant corporate real estate firm Brookfield Property Partners said it will lay off 20% of the 2,000 employees in its retail arm, which owns malls and other shopping centers that include Tysons Galleria in Virginia and the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian Resort Las Vegas.
According to an internal e-mail obtained by CNN Business Tuesday, Brookfield said "our business has been frustrated, interrupted and constrained" due to Covid-19 and that "after thoughtful consideration, we have reached the heavy decision to reduce the size of our workforce."
Still, some experts are hopeful that some pockets of the commercial real estate market will stage a comeback once the broader economy slowly rebounds.
Parts of the commercial real estate market holding up well
"There are lot of subsectors in commercial real estate," notes Fernando De Leon, managing partner at Leon Capital Group, a real estates investment firm.
De Leon told CNN Business that properties that own warehouses catering to e-commerce companies are well insulated from the economic pain. So are self-storage companies, he added, as storage rents remain stable as people look to rework their living spaces.
Some parts of retail are even holding up well, said Michael DeGiorgio, founder and CEO of CREXi, an online real estate marketplace that has partnered with Leon Capital Group.
Pharmacies, grocery stores and restaurants with thriving takeout and delivery businesses are doing particularly well, DeGiorgio said. "The lights are slowly turning back on," DeGiorgio said. "People may be anxious to go back out, go shopping and eat out again."
But it's definitely a case of haves and have nots when it comes to in commercial real estate. Many hotel, office space owners and specialty shops are struggling.
"Hospitality and retail have been decimated. The office side is still up in the air," said Ivan Kaufman, CEO of Arbor Realty Trust, a real estate firm that invests in mortgages tied to commercial real estate and multifamily apartments.
Kaufman said that many big tech companies, which have done well during the pandemic, are still committed to having people come to physical offices occasionally instead of doing all work remotely.
"The complete elimination of offices is not happening. Many companies realize they still need them even though demand may be softer," he said. "It's not all doom and gloom. It's an adjustment."
Kaufman added that the start of school across the country will be key to the return to normal for Corporate America. He thinks more working parents will be able to head back to the office on occasion if their kids can attend school more consistently.
More aid from Washington needed
Still, Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell acknowledged the continued softness in commercial real estate during a press conference last week.
Powell noted that many commercial real estate firms are unable to take advantage of low interest rates to borrow more money due to legal obligations in their debt covenant agreements. That means that some businesses are unable to fully take advantage of low interest rates, as homeowners can by refinancing.
There is some hope that Washington will do more to help commercial real estate.
Congressman Van Taylor, a Republican from Texas, wrote a bipartisan letter this summer urging Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to boost financial aid for the industry in order to "bridge the temporary liquidity deficiencies facing commercial real estate borrowers."
"These industries don't need a bailout, but they do need flexibility and support to keep their doors open," Taylor wrote.