COVID-19 Puts Stress on Commercial Real Estate

Earlier this month, New York Times writers Conor Dougherty and Peter Eavis reported that, “Faced with plunging sales that have already led to tens of millions of layoffs, companies are trying to renegotiate their office and retail leases — and in some cases refusing to pay — in hopes of lowering their overhead and surviving the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. This has given rise to fierce negotiations with building owners, who are trying to hold the line on rents for fear that rising vacancies and falling revenues could threaten their own survival.

“Simon Property Group, the biggest mall operator in the United States, this week sued Gap, the owner of retail chains that include Old Navy and Banana Republic, for nearly $66 million in unpaid rent for April, May and June.”

The Times article noted that, “In many cases, the strongest tenants — those most able to pay — are driving the hardest for a discount. They include brand-name companies like LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate that owns Sephora and other outlets, and Starbucks, which had $2.6 billion of cash on hand at the end of March and would have little problem selling stock or bonds to raise more money.”

More broadly, the article pointed out that, “Beyond the immediate impact of business closings on tenants’ revenue are larger questions, including the already-dire trends for malls and shopping centers, how office and consumer behavior might change after the pandemic, and the effects of recent looting and vandalism on retail corridors. Will companies need more space so that employees can spread out, or will they need less because they need fewer offices at all?

“Commercial real estate — any building that isn’t a home — might be called dull but important. There are no HGTV shows dedicated to the armies of mostly male brokers who rent out office buildings and shopping malls, but these properties are the bedrock of commercial life and are of paramount importance to the financial system,” the Times article said.

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