COVID-19 aftereffects continue to drag on Chicago commercial real estate

“People are trying to be rational about what they’re doing, because the alternative is to be a hard-ass and take a loss,” Fink says.

Still, the long-term outlook for retail is anything but bright. For many housebound consumers, the pandemic merely reinforced the convenience of online shopping, which had been taking big bites out of the brick-and-mortar retail sector for years. Though shoppers are returning to stores, e-commerce will remain a growing threat to shopping malls and other properties, one reason to expect more distress in the future.

The future is uncertain for the office market, too. The CMBS delinquency rate for local office properties has edged up but is still relatively low, just 3.8 percent in May. The question is what happens in the coming years: Will demand for office space decline as more professionals work from home in the post-pandemic era? No one knows right now, but Fink is bracing for higher delinquencies.

“Office is going to be a slow burn,” he says.

Just one big downtown property, a 487,000-square-foot office building at 401 S. State St., fell into foreclosure last year, and its owner handed the building over to its lender. Rialto Capital, the loan servicer overseeing the Civic Opera Building, has not ruled out a foreclosure suit against the 915,000-square-foot tower at 20 N. Wacker Drive, according to public filings.

Though Berkley, the owner of the Civic Opera Building, stopped making mortgage payments, the property’s problems are mostly temporary, says Brian Whiting, president of Chicago-based Telos Group, the building’s leasing agent. Two co-working tenants, Bond Collective and TechNexus, had a hard time making rent payments as people stopped coming into the office, but their business is coming back, Whiting says. He’s confident Berkley will be able to work out an agreement with Rialto.

“There are amicable discussions going on between the lender and the landlord,” he says.

Investors that seek out distressed properties could find some compelling opportunities in the future. The volume of distressed deals has been pretty low so far, but it’s still early, says Jim Costello, senior vice president at Real Capital Analytics, a New York-based research and consulting firm.

But the deals will require different skills than those employed after the recession of 2008-09, he says. Many properties that ran into trouble then suffered from financial distress: They were simply carrying too much debt that financial pros restructured.

This time around, more properties are suffering from operational distress—not enough cash flow. It takes a different person to solve those problems, Costello says.

“It’s not the financial sharpshooter,” he says. “It’s the people who understand the cost of rebar.”

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