How CRE in Massachusetts Navigated a Year of Pandemic and Social Unrest

Industry Responded with Kindness, Creativity and Courage

By Tamara Small | The below was originally published in Banker & Tradesman on December 20, 2020.

This time last year, no one knew what 2020 would hold. Instead, as an industry we predicted an expansion of the office as a talent recruitment tool, fast-paced industrial growth, and a continued tightening of the housing market.  

While some of these predictions were accurate, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly turned others on their head. One thing is clear; 2020 drastically changed expectations and the way the world did business.  

Instrumental in COVID-19 Response 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Massachusetts, no one knew how to respond. Frontline workers, who are still risking their lives every day, did not have enough masks to do their jobs safely. Families were thrown into chaos – with kids home from school, online learning developing on the go, and jobs thrown into uncharted territory. And no one needs to be reminded of the stampede on basic necessities.  

Commercial real estate companies across the commonwealth rose to the occasion. Within days, JLL released a new platform to increase communications and resources between tenants and landlords. Within weeks, Federal Realty Investment Trust worked with the city of Somerville to bring a mask decontamination system to the Greater Boston area – which has been instrumental in providing health care professionals the clean, safe equipment they need. Boston Urban Partners started Family Meal, a six-episode series of live–streamed cooking classes with local, award winning chefs (including Jodie Adams and Andy Husbands) to raise money for No Kid Hungry. These are just a few of the extraordinary acts of company kindness we have seen. 

But that is not all. Automatic doors, new air filtration systems, hand sanitizer stations and socially distanced work areas have been implemented in office buildings and common areas. Residential property owners have taken the Boston Housing Stability Pledge to ensure resident safety during this public health crisis. Commercial owners worked with small businesses to help provide needed relief to survive this crisis. New platforms and protocols for curbside pickup, online and in-person shopping, and dining have all quickly been implemented and continually refined as new public health information becomes available. As CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, I am proud to represent an industry that stepped up in a global health crisis to do its part.  

Economic Development Becomes Economic Relief 

On March 4, Gov. Charlie Baker released his proposal for an economic development bill. Within weeks, it became clear that an economic relief bill would instead be required for Massachusetts’ businesses and residents – just one of many necessary legislative and executive actions.  

But in the background of COVID, the housing crisis deepened. An Act to Promote Housing Choices, which was originally filed by Baker and is now in conference committee, is targeted at lowering voting thresholds in key zoning votes, allowing for increased production of critically needed housing. If it does not pass, expect the production of housing to slow.  

The conversation around transportation changed in some ways, and in other ways not at all. Suddenly, with massively decreased ridership (and little-to-no road congestion), the MBTA was faced with enormous revenue shortfalls. Proposed service changes have been met with opposition, but a modified version of the changes was approved last week. It is clear that our overburdened system will continue to face tough choices into next year.   

What quickly became clear is that the uniqueness of this crisis requires a cautionary approach to policymaking to ensure there are no unintended consequences or long-term impediments to economic growth and stability. The only path to a sustainable recovery is to create a climate for job creation and economic opportunity for all. NAIOP will continue to work with policymakers to ensure thoughtful, practical economic relief is implemented.  

DEI Efforts Come to the Forefront 

In June, society’s attention finally focused on what we have collectively ignored for far too long – hundreds of years of brutality, racism, and inequity throughout the United States of America. While COVID-19 pushed us into unusual and unprecedented times, the systemic issues being protested were with us long before the pandemic.   

NAIOP asked its members and colleagues to listen, learn, engage their leadership and support MWBE businesses. We have seen member-companies like VHB quickly take action to communicate with their employees and the public about its commitment to continuing to be active participants in advancing racial justice and social equity – and it did not stop there.  

Industry conversations on successful diversity initiatives saw over 300 live virtual participants and over 200 after-event watches. More and more companies started reviewing their internal practices and the industry is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The time for real change is now.  

While 2020 was in many ways unexpected, CRE rose to the challenges faced by our communities, our colleagues, and our friends and family. While it is hard to know what 2021 has in store for us, we here at NAIOP know that CRE will continue to evolve and endure.  

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