What Does 2020 Hold for CRE in Massachusetts? Companies Incorporate Real Estate as Recruitment Tool

By: Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts

The following first appeared in Banker & Tradesman on December 29, 2019.

The end of 2019 marks more than 10 years in the current real estate cycle. As we enter a new decade, now is a good time to take stock of current market conditions and make predictions for 2020. 

Experts are predicting continued, moderate, growth for 2020. Nationally, investor appetite for real estate remains strong and active in all sectors – retail, industrial, lab, office and housing. National vacancy rates are not showing signs of oversupply, and banks are remaining disciplined and conservative in their lending practices.  

While slow and steady job growth is expected, trade wars, political uncertainty and a labor shortage pose the biggest threats to continued economic growth. Market fundamentals remain strong, but such threats should be monitored closely given their potential to dramatically impact the market. 

Access to Talent Drives Market  

The Greater Boston market had an exceptionally strong year in 2019 with record rent growth and tenant demand. Boston remains one of the top markets for foreign investment. However, while continued growth in 2020 is expected, threats exist.   

Construction and land costs continue to soar, weakening returns and potentially threatening the feasibility of new projects. In the third quarter of 2019, Massachusetts real gross domestic product declined 0.2 percent according to MassBenchmarks, while U.S. real gross domestic product grew by 1.9 percent. A labor shortage, which is only expected to continue, is viewed as the single largest threat to the Massachusetts economy.  

At the recent NAIOP/SIOR Annual Market Forecast, which featured leading real estate experts who provided an analysis of the 2019 statistics and predictions for 2020, the need for access to a talented workforce – and what this means for real estate – was a major theme.   

Historically, tenant space was viewed as a cost center by employers, but it is now being used to attract and retain talent. While WeWork’s business model may have been flawed, it did have a dramatic impact on tenant expectations. Whether it’s beer on tap, game rooms or state-of-the-art fitness centers, employers are now using their space to gain a competitive edge when it comes to getting the best talent. This can be seen in the suburbs as well as Cambridge, Boston and surrounding markets, and it will continue in 2020. This all translates into a rising need for new or renovated space and an average tenant improvement allowance average of $5 per square foot. 

Looking Ahead to 2020  

As we enter a new decade, the Boston market remains strong with opportunities opening up beyond the urban core. Limited supply and high demand for lab space are fueling growth. With East Cambridge lab vacancy rates now at 0.8 percent, life science projects are moving forward in Watertown, Alewife, Allston/Brighton and Somerville, as well as Dorchester, the Seaport and South Boston. Cambridge’s success will also create opportunities for well-located suburban assets, particularly transit oriented development projects with the right amenity base.   

Unprecedented growth is expected to continue in the industrial sector. According to Rick Schuhwerk, executive managing director at Newmark Knight Frank, every $1 billion in online sales translates to 1.25 million square feet of new warehouse demand. The demand for “last-mile” facilities near high-density urban centers is driving up values. In the last five years, rents in core urban industrial space have more than doubled. In 2020, with online sales only expected to increase, vacancies will drop and rents will continue to rise. Spec developments are expected as well as a western migration of industrial space.  

On the housing front, according to Kelly Whitman, vice president of investment research at PGIM Real Estate, opportunities exist to upgrade and develop larger suburban apartments. Suburban apartment annual rent growth continues to outperform the urban, and, given changing demographics, a shift away from small units in the suburbs is expected. As the housing crunch continues, these areas outside of Boston’s core are vital to easing the pressure and providing middle income housing.  

On Tap on Beacon Hill 

Finally, while national economic and market indicators tell us that continued growth is expected next year, legislative and regulatory proposals at the state and local levels have the potential to significantly impact the market and should be watched closely. 

Housing: More housing production is needed to keep up with increased population growth. H.3507, An Act to Promote Housing Choices, is targeted at lowering voting thresholds in key zoning votes, allowing for increased production of housing. If it is not passed before the end of the legislative session, anticipate a continued tightening of the housing market, statewide. 

Transportation: NAIOP believes that a functional, accessible transportation system is key to continued development and investment. As area residents and business owners know, congestion has gotten worse in Greater Boston. The Baker-Polito Administration recently filed the Transportation Bond Bill, (H.4002), outlining a capital plan for addressing gaps in transportation infrastructure statewide. Other legislative proposals to address transportation are expected in 2020.  

Fossil Fuel Bans: A number of communities are considering bans on natural gas connections in all new construction, which will likely halt development entirely. While addressing climate change must be a priority, it is critical that policymakers employ achievable measures that are grounded in the reality of today’s technologies, without blocking housing production.  

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