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In D.C., more evidence that commercial real estate headed for foreclosure crisis

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

A mortgage crisis like the one that has devastated homeowners is enveloping the nation's office and retail buildings, and few places are likely to be hit as hard as Washington.

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The foreclosure wave is likely to swamp many smaller community banks across the country, and many well-known properties, including Washington's Mayflower Hotel and the Boulevard at the Capital Centre in Largo, are at risk, industry analysts say.

The new round of financial pain, which some had anticipated but hoped to avoid, now seems all but certain. "There's been an enormous bubble in commercial real estate, and it has to come down," said Elizabeth Warren, chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel, the watchdog created by Congress to monitor the financial bailout. "There will be significant bankruptcies among developers and significant failures among community banks."

Unlike the largest banks, such as Citigroup and Wachovia, that got into so much trouble early on, the community banks in general fared better in the residential mortgage crisis. But their turn is coming: Not only did community banks issue a higher proportion of commercial loans, but they also have held on to them rather than sell them to other investors.

Nearly 3,000 community banks -- 40 percent of the banking system -- have a high proportion of commercial real estate loans relative to their capital, said Warren, whose committee issued a report on commercial real estate last week. "Every dollar they lose in commercial real estate is a dollar they can't use for small businesses," she said. Individuals -- who saw their home values drop in the residential mortgage crisis -- would not feel that kind of loss, but, Warren said, a large-scale failure would "throw sand into the gears of economic recovery."

In Washington, the number of troubled properties has multiplied at a phenomenal rate, with the value growing from only $13 million in 2007 to $40 billion now, according to CoStar Group, a Bethesda real estate research company. The region trails only South Florida and metropolitan New York in the per capita value of commercial real estate assets in foreclosure, default or delinquency, according to the research group Real Capital Analytics.

The threat is especially acute in the District, the firm said, where the catalogue of troubled commercial real estate properties has grown tenfold since April. Moreover, the region has $7.3 billion in commercial properties that are underwater -- worth less than the mortgages on them -- according to CoStar.

Whether the commercial real estate bubble bursts in a catastrophic event or subsides slowly and less dangerously will be determined during the next year. An immediate crisis was postponed when domestic and foreign investors began snatching up troubled properties at bargain prices. And banks more and more are renegotiating loans, extending the terms by a year or two in the hope that conditions will improve rather than calling in mortgages that cannot be paid.

In Washington, the office vacancy rate stopped ballooning in the fourth quarter of last year for the first time since the first quarter of 2006, according to CoStar, although largely for an unfortunate reason: The space was being filled mainly by office workers hired to handle the plethora of bankruptcy filings and "workouts" of borrowers who need to renegotiate bad debt.

And last quarter, for the first time since the second quarter of 2008, the Washington area office market saw a strong net gain -- 925,000 square feet of space that had been "absorbed" or leased by new tenants, according to CoStar.

"There's light at the end of the tunnel," said Andrew Florance, chief executive of CoStar. "But in commercial real estate it's a very, very long tunnel and many people will not come out of it."

'Do the math'

Nationwide, at least $1.4 trillion in commercial real estate debt is expected to roll over during the next three years. Warren said that half of commercial real estate mortgages will be underwater by the beginning of 2011. A fifth of residential mortgages are underwater now, she said.


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