Slow Season: NYC’s Investment Sales Brokers Are Optimistic Despite a Challenging 2017

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Two thousand seventeen “was still good—it just wasn’t great.”

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Those are the comforting words that Aaron Jungreis, the co-founder and president of brokerage Rosewood Realty Group, offered to Commercial Observer last week when asked about the state of the New York City investment sales market.

Yet one could be forgiven for considering that a rather optimistic assessment, given how the numbers depict a commercial property market that has experienced a significant downturn since the halcyon days of 2015.

Two years after eclipsing an all-time high of $80 billion, total commercial real estate investment sales in the city fell just shy of $35 billion in 2017, according to a recent Cushman & Wakefield report on the state of the New York City real estate market. Transaction volume (the total number of property sales across the city) fell more than 30 percent in that time, and perhaps most damningly—after nearly a decade of unrepentant property value appreciation in the wake of the Great Recession—the average price per square foot for Manhattan commercial real estate sales (excluding the blighted retail market) fell for the first time since 2010, to the tune of 5 percent.

Even the outer boroughs—which have emerged to an unprecedented extent as viable markets in their own right—saw a 17 percent decline in the number of properties sold and a 27 percent dip in dollar volume (albeit from a record high of $18.2 billion in 2016) to $13.3 billion, per the C&W report. And while property values in the boroughs continued to climb last year, Robert Knakal, C&W’s chairman of New York investment sales, warned of “contagion” from the slipping Manhattan market leaking into the property markets of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

Numbers aside, talk to the commercial real estate brokers who are taking the calls and making the deals, and they’ll virtually all agree that the market for New York City real estate simply isn’t anywhere near the frothy peak of a few years ago, when one could procure buyers galore for virtually any parcel or property that hit the market. But despite this slowdown, most investment sales brokers are trying to paint a more positive picture of a market in a state of correction—with property values and transactions still at relatively high levels historically and signs of strengthening conditions heading into, and during the early part of, 2018.

“It’s still a good market,” Jungreis said. “The fundamentals are still strong, and people still want to come to New York. I just think we’re so spoiled with the market having gone up and up. I’m really not that concerned.”

Jungreis and other brokers who are active in the multifamily investment sales market attributed lower deal and dollar volumes to headwinds that have hindered investor appetite for both rent-regulated and market-rate residential buildings, as well as development sites that would have proven attractive for ground-up residential projects in years past.

Rent-stabilized properties have long been considered among the safest investments in New York City real estate due to their high occupancy rates and embedded upside once units become deregulated and landlords are able to charge higher, market-rate rents. But thanks to the de Blasio administration, multiple sources said, a more stringent regulatory environment has made it increasingly difficult for landlords to realize that upside and has consequently dampened investor enthusiasm for the asset class.

“De Blasio has won; the perceived upside is locked, and [property] taxes are going up every year,” Marcus & Millichap’s Shaun Riney, one of the brokerage’s leading Brooklyn-focused investment sales brokers, said of the market for rent-stabilized multifamily properties. “To keep up with the Joneses, you have to vacate units. That’s the dilemma [investors] have—you have to believe people are going to leave [their units] unless you’re a long-term investor, and long-term investors aren’t the ones paying 20 times the rent roll [for buildings].”

Chad Sinsheimer, a senior director at Eastern Consolidated, echoed the sentiment—noting that prospective buyers have become “a lot more passive and cautious in buying stabilized properties” due to regulations that have made it harder for landlords to approach tenants about buyouts and “unlock that upside” at rent-stabilized properties. “With all these tenant harassment lawsuits and headlines, there’s a little bit of fear on behalf of these landlords now,” he said. “They don’t know how long they’re going to be stuck with these tenants.”

While describing rent-stabilized assets as “still the darling of the market,” Bestreich Realty Group Founder and President Derek Bestreich cited the “administrative burden” of landlords having to deal with “layers and layers of government bureaucracy overseeing everything you do.”

“For owners, it’s like you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent—it’s evolved into a ‘gotcha’ type of environment where owners are on the defense, even if they’re operating their buildings admirably. It puts a bad taste in investors’ mouths,” the investment sales broker said. “People want to be able to grow the value and make a return, and I think there’s less confidence in their ability to do that nowadays.”

Beyond heightened regulatory scrutiny, Bestreich pointed to shifting fundamentals that have meant “cap rates have gone up, prices have dropped and there’s less demand [from buyers] than there was in the past” for multifamily assets. “Five or six years ago, I’d have 100 buyers wanting to buy a rent-stabilized building, while today I’d have 20,” he said. “There’s far less demand, but still enough that prices haven’t come down a whole lot.”

But like other brokers, Bestreich stressed that the market is still performing well overall despite having lost some steam. “We’re coming off a period where rents grew for so many years and interest rates dropped, and that combination led to really high property values,” he said. “Today, property values are still high; rents have dipped in a lot of areas from their peak, but there’s been such tremendous rent growth over the last seven years that, for rents to pull back 10 percent, I don’t find that to be an earth-shattering thing.”

Flat to falling rents are arguably the biggest issue facing the city’s market-rate rental properties—a condition exacerbated by the sheer number of free-market units that have arrived across the city in recent years, through developments like the swaths of luxury high-rise buildings that have cropped up in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn, in Brooklyn, and Long Island City, Queens.

As Jeffrey Levine, the founder and chairman of Douglaston Development, told CO, the city is now experiencing a market-rate rental supply glut that was partially exacerbated by developers rushing to take advantage of the 421a tax abatement prior to its expiry in 2016.

“You had an abundance of product going into the ground, primarily in Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City, and that product is now being delivered to the market and creating a real distortion in the marketplace,” Levine said. That dynamic, coupled with high construction costs and land prices that “have not yet fallen sufficiently,” has made it “very hard to pencil new [rental] development in the five boroughs,” he added—even with the new Affordable New York housing plan designed to replace 421a.

Landlords are now resorting to handing out tenant concessions, such as months’ worth of free rent periods, to attract renters to their buildings, further affecting investor appetite for market-rate properties as well as development sites that would house ground-up rental projects.

“There are a lot of amenitized buildings [on the market], and there are only so many young people who can pay $6,000 a month to split up a three-bedroom [apartment]. That’s why you’re seeing these concessions spike,” Sinsheimer said of the luxury rental space, noting that it’s not uncommon to see landlords dole out two to four months of free rent at some buildings, depending on the length of lease.

As such, developers are now targeting certain asset classes that are perhaps underserved in certain areas of the city. While the ultra-luxury residential condominium market’s recent travails have been well documented, brokers are finding strong demand for condo projects in outer-borough neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Long Island City—traditionally rental market strongholds with relatively low for-sale inventories, and areas where condos would sell at a price point more reasonable than that of, say, Billionaires’ Row in Midtown Manhattan.

Marcus & Millichap’s Jakub Nowak, a first vice president at the brokerage, said that his investment sales team has seen an increase in land deals in Queens driven by “a surprising uptick in activity” from condo developers. “Any residential development site that my team is selling in Long Island City at the top level, the bidders are all condo developers,” Nowak added.

Bestreich, meanwhile, cited a similar trend in areas of Brooklyn: “Well-located development sites in Williamsburg, we can’t keep that stuff off the market,” he said, pointing to “seven to nine” parcels sold by his firm in the north Brooklyn neighborhood in the last several months that he said will virtually all become condo projects. “There’s so much concern over the L train shutting down, but condo developers are saying, ‘Let me buy something now, and when I’ve built it in two years, the L train won’t be an issue anymore.’ ”

Across other asset classes, the retail apocalypse has been highlighted ad nauseam, while the market for trophy office properties has also taken a hit in the wake of the record-breaking deals for Class A Manhattan properties seen in 2015 and 2016. On a recent conference call discussing Cushman & Wakefield’s 2017 real estate market statistics, Knakal noted that declining retail property values have made it difficult to find buyers for mixed-use properties with a retail component. His colleague Douglas Harmon—co-chair of C&W’s capital markets division and one of the city’s top brokers in the market for major trophy properties—pointed to a lack of such major deals in 2017 as a key contributing factor to the investment sales market’s declining dollar volumes.

But other asset classes, such as industrial properties, are booming to an unprecedented extent. Industrial assets are in enormous demand given the rise of the increasingly influential e-commerce sector and the relative scarcity of warehouse and manufacturing properties remaining in the five boroughs (particularly in more central, well-located areas with access to bridges and highways).

“Industrial has probably been the most exciting asset class in the past year and a half,” Eastern Consolidated Senior Director Andrew Sasson said. “There’s not a ton of industrial buildings in the city that have 25-foot-high ceilings and that are being kept for that use, or can be repositioned as distribution centers.”

Likewise, Marcus & Millichap’s Nowak noted that as “so much of the legacy industrial space in New York City has been repurposed in recent years”—usually either redeveloped as loft-like office and light manufacturing buildings targeting creatively minded tenants or razed to make way for new residential projects—the supply-constrained industrial market has “benefited tremendously.”

All things considered, investment sales market participants are now dealing with an altogether spottier market than they have in recent years. But overall sentiment is the market remains in a position of strength, with many noting a pickup in activity toward the end of 2017 and macroeconomic developments—particularly the passage of the Trump administration’s business-friendly tax reform bill—as reasons for optimism.

“In December of 2016, I was not enthusiastic about 2017,” said David Schechtman, a senior executive managing director at Meridian Investment Sales. “In December of 2017, I felt excited to get back to my desk on the 2nd or 3rd of January, and I haven’t been proven wrong.”

As Schechtman pointed out, the market may very well be getting its legs back as property owners come to terms with the correction that has taken place, and as the discrepancy between the prices that sellers seek and prospective buyers are willing to pay—commonly cited as another reason for the drop-off in investment sales—is reconciled.

“It’s a very difficult environment when, each day for several years, you’re reading as an owner that your property is worth more,” he said. “It takes time for an owner to recognize that they may be selling below the zenith. Not every deal is going to set a new benchmark—for many assets, the high-water mark has been hit—and as long as the seller is willing to receive below that, there will be a buyer.”