Two Years After The Pandemic, Much Has Changed. CRE Is Just Fine With That

The coronavirus pandemic took commercial real estate into uncharted waters, with the industry dreading a replay of the global financial panic — or worse.

That downturn never came to pass, and two years later, many in the commercial real estate industry are thriving.

“If a brokerage isn’t doing better today than before Covid, I really don’t know what to say,” Thad Wong, co-founder of residential brokerage firm @properties, told Bisnow. “If you’re not in better shape today than before the pandemic, you shouldn’t be in business.”

Empty streets and empty commercial buildings are wreaking havoc on real estate companies.

Many investors and operators flourished throughout the pandemic, breathing sighs of relief that the health crisis did not have the impact many feared.

“Commercial real estate has proven strong overall, with investors and users all very active, and the challenge has been finding real estate to sell,” Vantage Commercial President and CEO Leor Hemo said.

Still, the pandemic was not equal in its CRE impact, with the harder-hit sectors of retail, office and hospitality serving as the exception to the cheery mood being felt by the bulk of the industry.

“Uncertainty is still prevalent in the commercial real estate market,” Valcre Vice President of Client Experience Grant Norling said. “That said, real estate is a cyclical asset that typically bounces back from its lows. Retail has shown a large rebound already. The question now is when will office and hospitality do the same?”

Even for these challenged industries, the sentiment on the ground is one of optimism.

“The whole hotel industry was of course very damaged by the pandemic,” Reveille Hospitality CEO Marco Roca Sr. said. “But now we’re in a really interesting place where parts of the industry, such as long-term properties, are actually doing better than ever before.”

Roca also said, “believe it or not,” that some of the big conference hotels “are going to come back, because people like being together.”

Those in the industrial industry are taking a victory loop.

“Two years after the shutdown, it’s safe to say that, for the industrial sector, the pandemic was a positive change compared to most other sectors,” Faropoint Head of Acquisitions Vadim Greenberg said.

As a specialist in last-mile logistics assets, acquiring about 20M SF of such properties so far, Faropoint has been a beneficiary of the pivot to last-mile logistics over the last two years, Greenberg said.

“For the industrial sector, the underlying fundamentals are arguably the best in history because of the pandemic,” Greenberg said, crediting e-commerce demand as the primary driver for this historic growth.

The industrial sector is indeed the strongest it has ever been, Wharton Industrial Chairman Peter Lewis said. He doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

“Higher customer expectations for quick delivery times, and the demand for these warehouses to hold more inventory, will continue in the coming years,” Lewis said.

This demand will send industrial developers and space users into previously untapped industrial markets, such as central Florida and greater Phoenix, Lewis said.

“That is where we can transform underutilized warehouse space into industrial hubs outside of major urban centers,” he said. Wharton has developed about 11M SF of industrial since its founding in 2017.

Though rising construction costs pose an ongoing headwind, putting “further pressure on rents, [it] will continue to be tolerated by tenants who desperately need these spaces,” Lewis said.

The earliest days of the pandemic were marked by shelter-in-place directives, putting a new premium on one’s living place. Since then, demand for rental and for-sale properties has spiked, along with rents and residential prices.

People started appreciating the idea of “home” much more, which led to a greater willingness to invest in those properties, Wong said.

“The pandemic and high inflation have led to one of the strongest housing markets in recent history,” said RET Ventures partner Christopher Yip, whose company specializes in apartment tech.

The pandemic has meant more change for the residential industry than just higher prices.

“Two years ago, many of us believed that property automation and smart home technology were the wave of the future, but there were still some naysayers,” Yip said. “The naysayers have all gone away. To say this caught on would be an understatement. Some of the largest multifamily companies are installing smart locks in countless thousands of units.”

CitiHousing Real Estate Services broker Carmen Hill said the strength of the multifamily market has also spurred redevelopment in many places, such as in her home market of South Central LA, and will continue to do so.

“Many of the outdated commercial buildings are being demolished for multifamily apartment projects due to the high demand for rentals because of high single-family housing prices,” she said.

In the affordable housing sector, which has had its own slew of specific challenges over the past two years, the pandemic has changed the way managers provide services for residents, according to Julianna Stuart, the vice president of community impact for Preservation of Affordable Housing, which oversees a portfolio of 12,000 units.

Those managers have adopted strategies not unlike those used by healthcare operators during the pandemic. In healthcare, “trauma-informed care” engages with patients more fully in their healthcare, ideally to develop a trusting relationship with their providers, Stuart said.

“Many housing organizations are starting to adopt a version of trauma-informed care for residential housing, which we call trauma-resilient housing,” Stuart said. “It recognizes that adverse experiences have a direct impact on our staff and our residents, and develops policies to deal with them.”

Office operators have been at the mercy of ever-changing work-from-home trends, with many playing a guessing game of when workers would come back.

Though landlords have been striking a positive tone when it comes to office trends, workers were going into the office at just 33% of their pre-pandemic levels in the first week of February.

“The office sector will face some headwinds and possibly for many years to come,” Hemo said, with many companies “re-evaluating their office needs and footprint and opting to adopt a hybrid model that owes its popularity to the pandemic.”

That represents one of the biggest permanent changes wrought by the last two years, he adds.

The office market uncertainty may carry well into 2022, according to Repvblik principal Richard Rubin, whose company specializes in redevelopment projects.

“I still believe people are going to want to work from home much of the time,” Rubin said. “Office workers don’t want to come back, and corporations are going to need to re-examine their real estate overhead in the long run.”

After being beaten up by the pandemic, Rubin predicts coworking companies will have their moment in the sun because of their ability to cater to flexible work schedules.

For the retail sector, hard times remain, but not for everyone.

“It’s a lumpy situation in retail these days because some retailer categories are doing really well,” Springboard Marketing and Insights Director Diane Wehrle said.

That’s largely a continuation of pre-pandemic changes, with products like books and music, for example, faring much better online than in physical stores, Wehrle said.

“But we are seeing signs that people do want to shop in store for fashion, and food and beverage is definitely something people now want to go out for,” she said.

Grocery-anchored retail centers are a retail hot spot in the wake of the pandemic, ​​NAI Partners Director of Research Leta Wauson said, while “the age of major malls is fading.”

Wauson has seen investors target high-population growth regions with popular central business districts, like Austin.

Other CBD markets with the strongest post-pandemic potential — and those that have seen the strongest recovery from the pandemic years, with lower vacancies and higher rents — include Boston, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Miami and Phoenix, said Daniel Taub, national director of Marcus & Millichap’s Retail Division.

Community markets and retail centers have tremendous potential to come back, especially if they have medical anchors, Greenbridge Investment Partners principal Fareed Kanani said.

Some industry experts even argue that malls will recover further this year.

“As we continue into 2022, regional malls have proved to be more resilient than expected,” Newmark Vice Chairman of Capital Markets Thomas Dobrowski said.

A significant recovery in foot traffic and tenant sales in the latter half of 2021 ultimately led to renewed interest in the sector from latent investors and a corresponding increase in value, Dobrowski said.

“The market can expect continued interest in these assets as the benefits and the risks associated with regional malls further decouple,” he noted. The focus for this year and beyond will be centered on the sustainability of this recovery.”