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Democratic Control Could Help Battle Pandemic And Inequality, And Help CRE In The Bargain

The twin crises of an ongoing pandemic and growing economic inequality threaten the long-term stability of the commercial real estate industry, according to industry leaders at Bisnow’s Chicago 2021 Economic & Political Forecast Digital Summit. But after President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer takes over as Senate majority leader, the Democrats will have a chance to address these concerns head-on.

“The first order of business for the country is to get through the pandemic,” Waterton CEO David Schwartz said. “We do need more stimulus, because people have bills to pay and we still have eviction moratoriums, but we need to get shots in people’s arms. Once that happens, we can recover.”

Sen.-elect Raphael Warnock

Whatever stimulus the Democrats can get through the House of Representatives and the Senate, it will have to be more thoughtful than the dollars allocated in 2020, according to Blue Vista CEO Peter Stelian.

“The stimulus that already occurred was a shotgun blast, and was not put together well,” he said.

At the same time the pandemic was vaporizing millions of low-paying jobs in the restaurant, retail and hospitality industries, much of the roughly $3 trillion in stimulus went toward propping up capital markets, he said.

“I’m a money manager, so I’m not trying to cut off my nose to spite my face, but it went to bailing out highly leveraged hedge funds.”

Other portions of last year’s stimulus were spread out in payments to the whole population, including millions of relatively affluent office workers who continued working through Zoom or other technologies.

“This was helicopter money; a lot of people got that money who were still employed, so it got packed away into savings,” Schwartz said. “This pandemic allowed the wealthy, and even middle-class people, to save even more.”

Stelian said he would prefer the new government injects funds into the sectors, and toward the people, who need it most in 2021.

Clockwise from top left: Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate's Collete English Dixon, Waterton's David Schwartz and Blue Vista's Peter Stelian

Doing so will narrow the widening income gap and help real estate sectors such as multifamily, according to Collete English Dixon, executive director of Roosevelt University’s Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate. The millions of unemployed are a significant share of apartment renters, and landlords hamstrung by the nation’s many eviction moratoriums will struggle to pay off their loans and property taxes without more help for the unemployed.

“We’re going to have to rely on government to get us through this,” Schwartz said.

Unified Democratic control worries some in the commercial real estate industry. Higher taxes, both for corporations and wealthy individuals, are possibilities, but the unemployment crisis and the need to tackle the pandemic probably means a delay on any such plans, Dixon said.

“I think it’s in the middle to the bottom of what their priorities are in the next two years,” she said.

“We’re still in emergency mode, so I don’t think deficit spending is a worry for policymakers,” ” Schwartz added.

But all those trillions in debt will have to be addressed someday, Dixon said. 

“Our debt ratio to gross domestic product is already grossly out of whack.”

Stelian said one way the incoming Biden administration could address the imbalance is to encourage more immigration, a surefire way to boost GDP.

“Our birth rate is declining, but the U.S. desperately needs more people to pay for the liabilities we've been racking up.”