Market analysis: NYC counts the costs of Covid

New York City (NYC) is virtually synonymous with commercial real estate. It’s a mega sector there, with legendary dealmakers and eye-watering costs. With an incredibly dense population and as a home to a huge number of global headquarters, the city was not only hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, but also responded with some of the strongest mitigation tactics seen stateside and in the world. A report from the New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli (published late 2021) now shows the true costs of Covid on NYC’s iconic commercial real estate (CRE).

Setting the scene

In 2019, reads the report, the office sector in NYC employed 1.6 million people, or a third of all city jobs. In the preceding decade, office market property values and billable values (on which property taxes are levied) had “more than doubled”. Off this incredibly strong base, employment in the office sector shrunk by 5.7% in 2020 – certainly a blow, but less than the 11.1% drop in total employment.

The gap here lies in remote work as a mitigation strategy, but that resulted in reduced office space demand. “Asking rents are down 4.2% in the second quarter of 2021, while vacancy rates are at 18.3%, a level not seen in over 30 years in New York City,” according to the report.

Market values down

The result is a steep drop in the full market value of office buildings (463 million square feet of inventory), which fell $28.6 billion citywide – based on the 2022 financial year (FY) final assessment roll. This is the first decline in total office property market values since FY 2000.

In turn, Market Watch’s analysis says, the declines “cost more than $850 million in property taxes in the city’s fiscal 2022 budget.

Charting the return

What the ledger numbers don’t indicate, though, is “what next?”. Partnership for New York says that while the labor market recovery “remains sluggish”, NYC saw “strong income and sales tax revenues and pandemic-era highs in hotel occupancy and transit ridership” during Q3 2021.

The New York City Recovery Index – a joint project of Investopedia and NY1 – puts the state of the city’s recovery at a score of 85 out of 100, or “over four-fifths of the way back to early March 2020 levels”.

The CRE shakeup has also led to some much needed strategic thought and speculation about the future for NYC, including suggestions that empty office space be converted to residential to address the city’s need for affordable housing.

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Work smarter not harder: The impact of blockchain on CRE

So far in this blog series, we’ve looked at some of the most cutting-edge emerging technologies: The Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and virtual reality. We’ve discussed the potential these developments have to revolutionize the way we do business and work in the real estate space. 

While each of those has its applications, none hold quite the same promise for changing the fundamental aspects of how we make, and document, commercial real estate (CRE) deals as blockchain. In this fourth entry in the emerging tech series, we have a look at the implications of this pivotal technology.

Blockchain basics

Nowadays, blockchain is a term everyone’s hearing with increasing regularity. To start, it’s worth having a brief recap of exactly what the tech is. At its simplest, a blockchain is a ledger – a record of information. Not all that different from the databases you’re already using to record details of properties, clients, or transactions. 

The feature that makes blockchain unique is the way that information is recorded. Each “block” can hold a certain amount of data. Once a block is full, a new block is started and the previous block forms part of an immutable chain – essentially a timeline extending outwards from the first block to the current one. 

Information on the blockchain is public and distributed across a network of computer systems – meaning that it’s very, very difficult for one person to hack or alter the information stored in the chain. 

Streamlined data

The opportunity blockchain presents for the CRE space, is the ability to streamline a lot of time-consuming tasks. Imagine having all of the paperwork for a given property digitized, accessible to everyone involved in the deal, and confirmed as accurate by multiple parties. 

Steve Weikal, MIT’s Head of Industry Relations at the Center for Real Estate, describes it like this:

“There are two areas where I think the blockchain is. There’s going to be the intersection with legal tech, so that’s land registry and recording and ownership, and all of that paperwork that exists in the system… the other is the intersection with fintech.”

Of course, an issue that comes up here is how this system can be used with potentially sensitive information – client details that shouldn’t be a matter of public record. For business networks, private blockchains can be set up to only allow access to specified parties. In this case, the identity of participants is verified in the network as well, unlike public blockchain where users can remain anonymous. Private blockchains function more like a traditional database in this sense, trading off some of the immutability of their data for privileged access. 

Sealing the smart deal

Maybe the most promising application of blockchain for CRE deals is being able to deploy “Smart Contracts” for things like tenancy agreements. Smart contracts hard code the details of an agreement on the blockchain, and are uniquely suited to real estate deals, because they can handle conditional clauses. 

As an example, startups like UK-based Midasium are already providing a prototype platform that replaces traditional landlord-tenant agreements. Using smart tenancy contracts, clauses of the agreement are automatically enforced when certain conditions are met. This can include paying rent, returning a security deposit, and directly deducting maintenance costs from the rental amount paid across to the landlord. 

It’s a system designed for transparency and rapid settlement, and the concept is gaining traction in other parts of the world. An added bonus of using smart contracts for tenancy is the possibility of building up a database of real-time data for rental prices and trends in the rental market.

A growing sector

Overall, enterprise reliance on blockchain is set for rapid acceleration. Forbes, quoting an International Data Corporation (IDC) report notes that:

“Investment in blockchain technology by businesses is forecast to reach almost $16 billion by 2023. By comparison, spending was said to be around $2.7 billion in 2019, and we will see this acceleration ramping up over the coming year.”

Blockchain adoption in CRE, however, is still in the early stages. The tech still needs to overcome a few growing pains – in terms of privacy concerns, operational complexity, and a lack of standardized processes – before we’ll necessarily see it forming the backbone of CRE transactions.

That said, it’s a space well worth keeping an eye on. There’s been growing interest, for example, in CRE tokenization –  splitting the value of a given asset into separately buyable blockchain-based tokens. What this means in practice is that instead of looking for one buyer for an expensive asset the value gets subdivided and opened to a much broader market. Which in turn may actually boost the value of the underlying asset.

There’s a lot of potential and little doubt that blockchain will make its way into CRE one way or another. But, like many things in the cryptocurrency and blockchain space, the real challenge will be separating the wheat from the chaff, the fact from the hype, and identifying functional applications of the tech rather than purely fanciful ones. 

Record rents point to UK CRE recovery

Reporting in the Evening Standard, based on data from Remit Consulting, indicates improvements in the UK’s commercial property sector. The firm’s data shows that rent collection in the last quarter reached its highest level in the pandemic period, which is partially due to the easing of lockdown regulations in the country.

Data from their REMark Report shows that “…an average of 72.1% of rents due in the UK had been collected with seven days of the September quarter rent day, which covers payments for the three months ahead”. This includes rent for retail and dining establishments, bars, and warehouses. Comparatively, in the previous quarter, 66.5% of rentals due were collected by the same point. Retail rents were sitting at 68.8% (up from 62.3%) and leisure at 57.2% (up from 40.1%).

Good news…

This is in keeping with a general upward trend, the firm told the newspaper, “which is good news for investors and landlords such as pension funds and other institutions, particularly as the upward trajectory of payments from tenants is similar to the previous quarters of the pandemic.”

…but not all good

Despite the strength of this news, it’s not a unilaterally positive picture, as the data also indicates that this ‘record high’ is still considerably lower than pre-Covid levels. Altogether, since the start of the pandemic, there is a shortfall in rent from commercial occupiers amounting to nearly £7 billion – a considerable chunk for property owners and investors, including institutional investors such as pension funds.

Managing the fallout

The matter of the “missing rents” is something the industry and public service are keeping a close eye on. This report from the International law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP gives an excellent rundown of the public consultation that the UK government has done around trying to establish a way forward for both struggling commercial tenants and landlords.

The policy paper published in August 2021 can be found here, and outlines the government intentions to “legislate to ringfence rent debt accrued during the pandemic by businesses affected by enforced closures” and their intent to formalize a “process of binding arbitration to be undertaken between landlords and tenants”.

Meanwhile, a number of the large and influential property industry associations have called on the government to end the moratorium on evictions that came into effect during the height of the pandemic and lockdown measures.

Health check: the state of hospitality and hotel CRE

An economy reconfigured

It’s been a rollercoaster 18 months for everyone including market analysts who have had to provide insight and predictions on an unprecedented event, as the world bounded through recession, recovery, and reconfiguration. As it stands now, the US recovery has been swift, if uneven.

GlobeSt’s latest piece on this makes the argument for understanding this recession in different terms from so-called traditional ones, writing: “The COVID-19 recession was not caused by monetary factors, rather it has been a disruption akin to an unanticipated natural disaster which typically temporarily interrupts economic activity while leaving intact the underlying demand and supply of goods and services.”

Outlook

The above forms part of their outlook reporting for hotel sales, and as has been well-established hotels, tourism, and hospitality were dramatically affected during the peak of the pandemic travel-bans and “shelter at home” orders.

GlobeSt points to some encouraging signs, including the volume of startup businesses launching, low levels of household debt-service burdens (in relation to net income), rising house prices, increases in personal savings, and the Dow Jones Industrial Averaging gaining some 18% compared to Feb 2020 (a pre-pandemic peak for the index). Altogether, these are positive signs that the American consumer may well have additional discretionary spending in the coming months, and the tourism space could be on the receiving end.

Corporate travel is expected to increase in the second half of the year, on top of the increases already evidenced in daytrippers and weekend travel. As schools reopen, they are anticipating patterns to shift from leisure to work trips.

Early 2021 winners

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that real estate investment trusts (REITs) and companies with holdings in retail and hotels “mounted a first-quarter comeback”.

“Real-estate investment trusts overall rose 9% during the three months, beating the S&P 500’s 6% gain,” according to data-analytics firm Green Street. Fueling the REIT rally was an 18% rise in the shares of lodging owners and a 32% gain by mall owners.

Creative strategies
Additionally, according to CNBC, distressed hotels were in demand from buyers looking for possible redevelopment and conversion projects, and other creative solutions to the low supply of affordable housing. “So-called Class C housing stock is now 96% occupied nationally and 99% occupied in the Midwest, according to RealPage, a property management software company,” CNBC writes.

And for hotels with no intentions of conversion – the vast majority – the pandemic also provided a kind of reset that allows for model innovation. “Similar to the airline’s ala carte approach, the hotel industry is attempting to move guests toward an opt-in choice for various services, such as daily room cleaning,” reports GlobeSt.

Counting the deals
This article provides a deep dive into specific deals and statistics from hotel sales and performance in 2021 so far and is a recommended read for those CRE professionals servicing the submarket.

It will also make for interesting reading from a capital markets perspective as it details funding activity: “As the U.S. hotel industry continues to emerge from the carnage induced by the global pandemic, an abundance of capital is beginning to fuel increasing activity with lodging sector mergers, acquisitions, and spinoffs,” they wrote.

CRE outlook stronger despite supply chain challenges

Since April 2020, the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) has been keeping track of the pandemic’s impact on CRE with their regular COVID Impact surveys. NAIOP’s June 2021 survey collected data from 239 US-based members, including brokers, building managers and owners, and real estate developers. A recurring theme in this latest survey was the increasing challenges commercial real estate (CRE) is navigating associated with supply chain disruptions and materials costs.

Supply and delay
With more than 86% of developers reporting delays or materials shortages, it seems the impact of COVID on supply chains is set to become one of the longest-lasting effects of the pandemic. Adding to difficulties, 66% of those surveyed reported delays in permitting and entitlements, a figure that hasn’t changed since June 2020.

Fixtures and equipment for stores are also in short supply, with order backlogs stretching into months for some retail sectors. While this isn’t necessarily surprising, given setbacks in manufacturing in key suppliers such as China, the CRE market shows promising signs of being on-track for continued recovery nonetheless.

Development despite setbacks
Despite the issues highlighted in the report, the survey still showed an increase in retail prospects. New acquisition of existing retail buildings was indicated by 39.1% of respondents, while 31.3% mentioned new development going ahead. Both of these figures represent a strong improvement from a previous survey in January. Deal activity was also noted to be on the up, with figures doubling for office and retail properties over the course of a year, and industrial deal activity increasing over 20% since June 2020.

“Bricks and clicks”
International industry players have also noted that, though larger spaces are still facing delayed rental uptake, 20,000-30,000 square-foot sites are garnering increasing interest. The potential for these spaces is as part of a multichannel retail/warehouse approach – the “bricks and clicks” strategy. As the demand for online retail increases, logistic assets, and storage spaces become more valuable, contributing to an overall uptick in both virtual and brick-and-mortar marketplaces. 

A promising prognosis
Even with the supply chain challenges facing the industry, the Federal Reserve agrees with the trend data gathered from NAIOP participants. In their June 2021 Beige Book, the Fed noted upward movement in industrial output and consumer demand. Though economic gains were noted to be slow, the outlook remains steady and positive.

President and CEO of NAIOP, Thomas J. Bisacquino, puts it like this: “The materials and supply chain issues are lagging effects of the pandemic, and they are affecting every industry. While the pandemic’s impact was deep, there’s a sense of optimism among NAIOP members, with deal activity rising and an increase in people returning to offices, restaurants and retailers.”