Commercial real estate brokers working in Houston’s already struggling office market were hit by yet another challenge when the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the city.
But some are viewing it as an opportunity to reconnect with clients.
Like many business professionals in this time of coronavirus, real estate brokers have become well versed in making video calls from their homes.
“Right now, many clients just want to hear a friendly voice or see a friendly face while they’re stuck at home,” said Taylor Wright, a vice president on the occupier advisory team in Colliers International’s Houston office.
Wright said the number of leases being signed has fallen sharply in recent weeks as both tenants and landlords struggle to determine the degree of COVID-19’s impact on their businesses. But deals are still getting done.
One of Wright’s clients recently signed a lease for a significant amount of space, and he has been hired to handle another lease for a client looking to move into a new space. However, most of the deals that are closing are renewals, he said.
With in-person tours of office space off the table thanks to social distancing mandates, Wright said most clients are holding off on making moves. Add to that the financial uncertainty created by the combination of COVID-19, plummeting capital markets and dismal oil prices, and many businesses are focusing on keeping cash in reserve, rather than paying for costly office build-outs.
That said, Wright views the current state of affairs as a chance to check in on clients on a personal level, without having business get in the way.
“Most of the time, we’ll talk about what they’re watching on Netflix and whether they’ve seen something we haven’t,” Wright said. “No one knows what the impact of all of this uncertainty will be. Sometimes, it’s just nice to see how people are doing.”
The blow to Houston’s office market caused by COVID-19 couldn’t have come at a worse time.
With office vacancies hovering around 20 percent, the market had already shifted heavily in favor of tenants. That has left landlords and property owners scrambling to launch costly remodel projects in order to compete with new, high-end buildings coming online. Many of those projects were already underway when COVID-19 hit.
The largest office project underway downtown is Houston-based Hines’ Texas Tower, which is slated to open at 845 Texas Ave. in late 2021. The 47-story, 1.1 million-square-foot tower is already 38 percent preleased. Law firm Vinson & Elkins has agreed to lease 214,000 square feet, Hines will occupy 155,000 square feet, and law firm DLA Piper is taking a 31,000-square-foot floor.
But even with the challenges facing the market, brokers still have a role to play, Wright said.
“The biggest thing a real estate professional can be right now is a resource for clients who just need information in an uncertain business climate,” he said “Being able to provide knowledge of what the terms of a lease are or where the opportunities are can be a huge benefit for clients right now.”
The $3bn share tender was agreed last year as part of a multibillion-dollar rescue package that SoftBank put in place as WeWork was on the brink of insolvency. The tender offer was set to provide a lucrative payout to early backers of the company including Benchmark Capital and Adam Neumann, WeWork’s former chief executive.
Benchmark, Mr. Neumann and other investors were expected to sue over the collapse of the deal, according to people briefed on the matter.
SoftBank said in a statement on Thursday that it had decided to pull out after WeWork failed to meet a set of conditions behind the deal.
“Given our fiduciary duty to our shareholders, it would be irresponsible of SoftBank to ignore the fact that the conditions were not satisfied and to nevertheless consummate the tender offer,” said Rob Townsend, SoftBank’s chief legal officer.
SoftBank added that it remained “fully committed” to the US group’s success and that its decision would not have any impact on WeWork’s operations.
Lawyers for Mr. Neumann, who had the option to sell nearly $1bn of stock in the deal, were informed of the decision on Wednesday, one of the people said. SoftBank is expected to notify other investors who had planned on selling their shares that it has withdrawn from the deal after the tender offer lapsed at about midnight.
SoftBank’s withdrawal marks the latest reversal for WeWork, which at one point was the most highly valued privately held group in the US. WeWork burnt through billions of dollars of cash as it expanded around the world under Mr. Neumann, opening locations in more than 100 cities. Its attempt to go public last year failed, as investors balked at its huge losses and a series of deals that benefited Mr. Neumann personally.
The decision to walk away from the $3bn share purchases will also take away a much needed source of cash from WeWork. SoftBank had agreed to provide $1.1bn of debt to the company as part of the transaction, but only if it completed the tender offer.
James Beard Award-semifinalist Jonny Rhodes may be best known for his smash hit restaurant Indigo, but it’s his new grocery store, Broham Fine Soul Food & Groceries, that he wanted to open first.
The 2,000-square-foot store opens April 1 at 2019 Bennington St., near the Hardy Toll Road and the 610 Loop. It will sell food targeted for individuals of African descent, almost all handmade by Rhodes and his team — and they’ll teach customers how to use the more unfamiliar goods, he said. The intent is eventually for the entire stock to be either handmade or grown by Rhodes. But because the store is opening early to help people amid the coronavirus pandemic, the garden Rhodes is creating for the store’s produce isn’t ready yet.
Products at the store will include sodas, sauces, condiments, pastries, jellies and butter, ice creams and popsicles, deli meat, sausages and dried items like jerky, all handmade. Typical items like dill pickles and hot sauce are sold alongside more unusual fare, like okra seed coffee ice cream and fermented strawberry and grapefruit soda.
Rhodes has never been interested in selling others’ goods. Over time, the store will be 100 percent self-sustainable.
“That way, we’re not buying produce from local farmers; we are the local farmers for our own grocery store,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes and his wife, Chana, are making the grocery store’s savory goods, while pastry chef Meredith Larke is handling all sweets and baked goods.
Meanwhile, Indigo is currently closed until September, which is not unusual for the acclaimed restaurant. Rhodes actually closed the restaurant at 517 Berry Road even before Harris County ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms. He brought over his entire staff — five people — from Indigo to Broham.
“I couldn’t take care of them,” he said.
Rhodes isn’t concerned with expansive growth, at least not right away. With the “grow its own supply” model, Rhodes says Broham is unlike any other grocery store in the country. It’ll take time to get its systems in place.
“We’re not a finished product, and I don’t think we’re looking to be a finished product any time soon,” Rhodes said. “One of the favorite things about Indigo that I’ve loved, and I think that people loved, was that we were open about not being a finished product, but the evolution.”
Rhodes hopes his store, located in the Trinity Groves neighborhood along with Indigo, sets an example for others to grow their own food. He also hopes that it cuts into the force of “food apartheid” — a term he uses instead of the food desert. He learned it from celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, according to a recent Texas Monthly article. It means a food shortage created by design, harking back to neighborhoods designed to disenfranchise African Americans. Growing your own food, Rhodes said, would be especially impactful now.
Houston-based Stage Stores Inc. (NYSE: SSI) had its own set of struggles even before the coronavirus pandemic brought much of the retail sector to a halt.
Now, the department store owner is taking steps to significantly scale back operations to reduce costs and preserve liquidity, according to a press release.
The stage has temporarily closed all of its 738 stores as of Friday, March 27. Previously, about 393 stores were closed in compliance with state and local regulations, while the others primarily were located in smaller markets and were operating under reduced hours.
The company operates specialty department stores under the Bealls, Goody’s, Palais Royal, Peebles, and Stage brands as well as the Gordmans off-price brand.
Virtually all employees in stores, field support roles, and distribution centers have been furloughed until further notice. Effective March 29, 87 percent of employees at Stage’s Houston Support Center also will be furloughed. There are 80 key employees who are not subject to the furlough because they perform essential functions, though the release did not specify what or where those roles are. Furloughed employees will not be paid, but they will keep their health and welfare benefits.
Members of the executive leadership team will temporarily have their pay reduced by at least 25 percent effective March 29, and the board of directors members will not be compensated during this period. The end of the pay-cut period has yet to be determined.
In 2018, President and CEO Michael Glazer’s base salary was more than $1.04 million, and his total compensation including stock awards was over $3 million, according to the most recent proxy statement Stage filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The only other named officers in the proxy were Thorsten Weber, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer, and Steven Hunter, formerly executive vice president and COO of Gordmans, who left the company in July 2019, according to a separate filing. Webster received a 2018 base salary of $522,692 and total compensation of more than $1.25 million, and Hunter received a 2018 base salary of $478,461 and total compensation of $872,867. The stage has not yet filed its proxy statement with 2019 compensation.
“With the health and safety of our associates and guests as our top priority, we are taking difficult but necessary actions in a challenging market and in the face of the unprecedented COVID-19 situation,” Glazer said in the March 27 press release. “We are grateful to all of our associates for their dedication and commitment to serving our guests.”
The Houston Association of Realtors has been making changes to help keep the residential real estate market going amid the coronavirus outbreak while also keeping people safe.
HAR President and CEO Bob Hale spoke at a Tuesday, March 24, Harris County Commissioners Court meeting about the need to include residential and commercial real estate among the list of “essential” services exempt from Harris County’s new “stay home, work smart” order. Currently, $2.4 billion of residential real estate is pending sale, with $800 million scheduled to close in the next 10 days, HAR said in a statement.
When Harris County’s written order was released Tuesday afternoon, it classified real estate services among professional services that are essential “when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities or to further essential businesses, essential government functions, or critical infrastructure.” Even before the order was released, HAR already was developing a platform for virtual open houses and virtual showings, per the statement. The platform would allow customers to watch the tours and open houses on HAR.com at scheduled times, and HAR members would then be able to share the recordings on their agencies’ websites and social media.
“The safety of our members, their clients and families is the most important thing to us during this difficult time,” HAR said.
Even before Harris County’s March 24 order, HAR has been taking steps to adapt amid the pandemic. On March 20, HAR announced that information about open houses would not be displayed on HAR.com for most Texas markets, including Houston and Austin, effective immediately.
“Most of the national real estate franchises and many large brokers have either canceled all in-person open houses or are strongly encouraging their agents not to hold them,” HAR said in a March 20 press release. “Realtors are urged to utilize virtual open houses and video tours to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.”
Many Realtors told the Houston Business Journal last week that they were canceling open houses and opting to show their listings via apps like FaceTime and Skype. Others have begun to post video tours of properties online.