Early June Rent Collections Show Real Estate Isn’t Falling Off A Cliff Just Yet
As May turned to June, news of the coronavirus pandemic and the pummeling it was delivering to the U.S. economy faded under the sounds of protest in the streets of cities across the country.
The economy is showing possible beginnings of an upswing. Restrictions on businesses are beginning to lift, white-collar workers are getting accustomed to remote working and benefits from the federal stimulus package have kept the vast majority of households treading financial water.
But the recovery is limited, and signs are showing that broader pain to the real estate sector, often a lagging indicator of the economic realities on the ground, could be coming in the next few months.
In dozens of interviews last week, owners of retail, office, multifamily and industrial properties across the country told Bisnow that early June rent collections were largely keeping pace with April and May, despite fears that this month would be when the country’s unprecedented economic decline started showing fully in rent collections.
Retail remains the source of most landlord pain. Some owners expressed optimism that people were venturing back to their properties and the rent deferrals or payment plans they had given some of their tenants would result in happy endings. But all of them said they expect a long road ahead, and expressed frustration that the large companies in their portfolio were the most consistent non-payers.
National chains like Church’s Chicken, Cheesecake Factory and Ruby Tuesday were once sure-thing investments for landlords. Then the pandemic taught them otherwise, said David Andes, the chief investment officer for Atlanta-based Newburger-Andes, which has a 1M SF portfolio of net-leased retail properties.
“With retail, we're getting punished,” Andes said. “Restaurants are not paying.”
Ten of Andes’ tenants have given up on their businesses and turned in their keys, he said. NewMark Merrill Cos. President Sandy Sigal said of the 1,600 tenants in his company’s portfolio, 11 have closed permanently.
Sigal had collected 16% of his tenants’ rent as of June 1. That is expected to pick up in the coming days, he said, but was still 9% lower compared to the same day last month. NewMark collected 66.8% of tenants' rent in May. In April it was 74%.
“Our tenants are still hurting. They need time to build back clientele,” Sigal said. “It really doesn’t matter. So even if my rent collection is 100%, we still have a long way to go.”
Nearly half of all retail businesses didn’t pay rent in April or May, according to Datex Property Solutions. One landlord who owns office and retail properties in more than a dozen cities, including New York, Boston and Atlanta, said they have had more success making deals with smaller businesses than the ones with large corporate balance sheets.
“For restaurants, we are just working with them, and we want them to survive, but the bigger retailers we are saying, ‘You have to pay, guys. What are you doing? We are not your bank,’” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It makes me angry. They have better means than we do to make these payments, and it’s not right.”
In some cases, the company has reached arrangements with retailers to pay half of the rent for the time being and make up the rest in September. For well-capitalized retailers, the company is issuing them default notices if they haven’t paid.
“We will evict if we have to,” said the landlord, who collected 60% of retail rents in May. “Some said, ‘It’s our corporate policy not to pay rent.’ Well, it’s our corporate policy to collect rent.’”
Apartment owners are faring far better, reporting collections anywhere from just below 90% to nearly 100%. But most of them acknowledge it is not because the economy is healthy, but because of the expanded unemployment benefits from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March. Those benefits expire in July.
“That stimulus is going to die down in the next four to eight weeks, so hopefully those jobs that are coming back are going to replace that spending in the economy,” said Sean Burton, the CEO at CityView, which owns more than 6,000 apartments, mostly in California. “We still think we’re in for a slog here, in the trenches fighting every day. That’s our attitude. But we are hopeful that we are in an upward trend.”
While May’s employment numbers showed surprising gains from April, unemployment is still north of 16%. And while the stimulus has helped millions of people make ends meet, one-third of those eligible haven’t received benefits, Bloomberg reported last week.
As of the first few days of June, multifamily landlords said rent collections have mostly held steady, but some are reporting small declines. Nearly all said they have had to come up with creative solutions to collect some rent, such as a stretched security deposit or deferred or delayed rent.
Acumen Cos. Chairman Abiud Zerubabel, whose company owns over 1,000 apartments in the D.C. and Los Angeles markets, said the firm’s rental income is down about 11%. He said this figure, while still below the 25% he had initially forecast, has worsened over the last month.
“In April, nobody asked [for help], they may have been unable to pay but were not vocal about it,” he said. “Now, everybody is vocal about where they stand and the challenges they have.”
The renters asking for help now, Zerubabel said, are a combination of service industry workers who have lost their jobs, and young professionals who are looking to terminate their lease and move back with their parents. He said more renters have sought to terminate leases in expensive D.C. neighborhoods like Shaw or Columbia Heights, as they now look to find a more affordable option.
“We’re hearing people saying, ‘I’m going to have to move back to my parents’ house or into a more affordable neighborhood,’” Zerubabel said. “We’ve seen a number of people raise their hands and ask for deferment or an early termination of their lease if they want to move out.”
The same is true in high-cost markets like New York and the Bay Area, where long commute times to downtown offices no longer feel like a fact of life as more companies tell workers they can work from home as long as they want.
As a prolific multifamily owner in the thick of the Bay Area, Anton DevCo is seeing firsthand some of the changes possibly coming to the region. A handful of residents at the company's 394-unit Menlo Park community left, starting the day after one of the city's largest employers made that an option, Anton DevCo Managing Partner and Chief Investment Officer Trisha Malone said.
“Right now, something we’re seeing in the Bay Area is the effects of Facebook’s work-from-home policy," she said. "We’re seeing an uptick in tenants who are paying the breakage to get out of leases and relocate. There's a lot of them moving out of state."
Malone said it is much too early to tell whether that should be a concern for developers like Anton DevCo, which owns about 4,000 units, the majority of which are located throughout Northern California. Residents of the developer's nearby communities, like one in Sunnyvale, have stayed put, she said.
But a potential flight is something to watch, as is the performance of corporate tenants like those Anton DevCo has seen struggle amid the ongoing blow to the travel industry, according to Malone.
“On a couple of our projects we were kind of heavy into corporate tenants, and those are a different story," she said. "Those folks suffered quite a bit with the shelter-in-place [orders] and not having people coming in and out of town.”
In April and May, residents in CityView’s core portfolio of Class-A buildings in coastal areas turned in 97% and 98% of their rent, respectively. As of June 2, 59% turned in their rent, Burton said. But rent collections for Cityview’s Class-B and rent-controlled properties have been trending in the high 80% the past couple of months, Burton said. They had collected 49% from those residents as of June 2.
Burton said his company has been proactive in reaching out to residents and dedicated a full-time staff lawyer to work with residents impacted by the coronavirus and come up with a highly tailored individual payment plan.
“It’s hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach,” Burton said. “Some people lost their jobs totally, others may be supplementing their income driving for Uber, or some are taking care of an aging parent. Every situation is unique. We listen to our residents and craft something unique to their situation.”
For major market-rate owners, like Houston-based Camden Property Trust, the numbers paint a more optimistic picture. Camden CEO Ric Campo said it is still early to know exactly how June collections will go, but 95% of rents are typically collected in the first five days of the month.
“If you look at the progression from April to May, collections increased really nicely in May relative to April, and we expect June to be a decent month as well,” Campo said.
Historically, delinquencies in Camden rent collections average about 1.5% each month. In April, that number jumped to 3.2%, before coming down to 1.6% in May. Campo attributed the drop in delinquencies to the CARES Act’s beefed-up unemployment insurance. Camden deferred 2.5% of April rents and 1.8% in May. Campo said that hopefully the need for deferrals in June will continue to fall as state economies reopen and people start going back to work.
Office and industrial properties have been the most insulated from the short-term effects of the coronavirus with their long-term leases, and owners of those properties have felt less distress than their retail and lodging counterparts.
"They are down a tiny amount," Segal said about rent collections. "I mean literally 1 or 2% lower than we would normally expect, and it's been consistent in March, April and May. It would be hard to tell if you looked at our numbers that there was a pandemic.”
But some cracks are starting to show.
Chicago-based Dayton Street Partners is a niche player in the logistics world, with about 30 tenants occupying about 1.5M SF, and throughout this spring, the company has had to help keep tenants afloat, founder and principal Howard Wedren said.
Although many product distributors have fared much better than those in the retail, multifamily or office sectors, the crisis hit some logistics firms hard — even ones that provide essential goods — and sometimes they need a break, he said. One of Dayton’s tenants is a janitorial supply company, and shortages of toilet paper, disinfectant and personal protective equipment began plaguing its operations.
“They try pleading with their customers, but some don’t understand they can’t get the products they need,” he said.
For such tenants, Dayton Street has agreed to provide rent abatements. But the money they save has to be made up in other ways, whether by adding several months to the original lease term or spreading the payments out over time.
“We want to work with our tenants to make sure they stay in business and are there for the long-term, but we still have mortgage payments and real estate taxes to pay,” Wedren said.
“None of our tenants have defaulted, and we want to keep it that way,” he added. “It’s much easier to work with tenants than to fight them. It costs money to fight.”
Even three months into the pandemic, the desire to work with tenants still prevails over broader economic concerns, even for most retail landlords. Boca Raton, Florida-based PEBB Enterprises, which owns suburban shopping centers and office buildings, said it collected 60% of rents in May and hopes for better in June, but the relationships it has are considered more valuable than a month’s rent.
“We realize that these tenants are the lifeblood of our business, and our M.O. during the pandemic has been that this is an opportunity for PEBB Enterprises to build relationships instead of burn bridges,” PEBB Senior Vice President of Leasing Chris Stewart said. “The relationships we are creating and maintaining during the pandemic will be lasting relationships.”
Alan Hammer, an independent apartment owner in New Jersey who is also the chair of law firm Brach Eichler's real estate practice, collected 93% of his rents in May. Some of his tenants have applied their security deposits toward rent, and Hammer hasn’t gotten many requests for rental relief, although he is trying to help out long-term tenants who have hit a rough patch, such as a restaurant owner unable to pay his bills.
“I learned yesterday that a golf pro somehow or other got trapped in Botswana,” he said. “She has told us that she can pay the rent, but can’t do it in Botswana. That particular woman has been with us for a long time, so we have no question that she’s telling the truth.”
The feeling of optimism is still thick in the commercial real estate industry, but with the stimulus due to dry up next month, a feared second wave of the virus in the fall and the potential looming loss of more white-collar jobs over the next few months, no one is ready to call it a recovery.
“The facts are the pandemic is really hurting,” said Andes, the Atlanta-based net-leased retail owner. “We haven't determined what the new norm is going to be yet. A lot of people say we're through this, but we're not. This is going to be through the end of the year.”
Joseph Pimentel, Christie Moffat, Jarred Schenke, Miriam Hall, Dean Boerner, Deirdra Funcheon, Jon Banister, Kerri Panchuk, Brian Rogal, Jonathan Berr, Dees Stribling, Kelsey Neubauer and Ethan Rothstein contributed to this article.