Virus pummels commercial real estate, could end long boom

New York, Jun 24 (AP):
Americans are likely to see more for rent signs in the coming months as many businesses devastated by the coronavirus pandemic abandon offices and storefronts and potentially end a long boom in the nation’s commercial real estate market.
Hotels, restaurants and stores that closed in March have seen only a partial return of customers, and many may fail. Commercial landlords have already reported an increase in missed rent payments. They expect vacancies to rise through the end of the year.
Two trends compound the problem: Office tenants are considering renting less space as more employees work from home, and the trend toward online shopping is accelerating, which could cut already weak demand for retail space in downtown areas and malls.
The swift emptying of commercial space marks a sharp departure from the real estate market that boomed in New York, Chicago and other cities in recent years. The virus outbreak has encouraged businesses of all types to choose simplicity and convenience over the prestige of a big-city address.
The effect on landlords and local economies could be disastrous. A weak commercial real estate market can mean layoffs among its estimated 3.6 million workers and at companies providing goods and services to real estate firms. Moreover, a weak market attracts fewer investors, limiting construction activity.
The outlook isn’t good. There are going to be defaults and losses, said Matt Anderson, managing director of Trepp, a data and research firm.
One out of 5 loans tied to hotels is now delinquent, as are 1 in every 10 loans for retail properties, according to Trepp. Moody’s Analytics forecasts a record office vacancy rate of 19.4% by the end of the year, up from 16.8% last year.
In the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, several tenants in Bruce Ailion’s office buildings want to downsize because their business has contracted due to the virus.
He’s trying to keep as many tenants as possible by reducing their monthly payments and allowing them to pay over longer periods of time. But even that may not be enough.
If their business does not recover, we will look at termination provisions or downsizing, Ailion said.
Still, some real estate experts and landlords see this as just another boom-and-bust cycle, although the bust is happening at lightning speed. The next question is: How soon does the pandemic fade?
When employees return to offices, they will presumably go to restaurants, make quick shopping trips and rent hotel rooms while traveling for business. That will determine how rapidly the real estate market recovers.
For now, landlords will see their income decline sharply. Average office rents are expected to fall 10.5% nationally this year, according to Moody’s Analytics. Average retail rents are expected to fall 2.7% nationwide in 2020, and another 1.2% next year, surpassing declines seen during the Great Recession. (AP)

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