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What’s a Landlord to do?

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Marc Fischer

Marc Fischer started his commercial real estate consulting business, InspiRE, five years ago. As we work together to stop the spread of COVID-19, Fischer has been advising landlords and tenants and analyzing the ways businesspeople can survive economically while still helping to solve the biggest public health crisis of our time. He spoke with Susan Kim, staff writer for The Business Monthly.

Q: How can we begin to interpret COVID-19 as a disaster?

Fischer: Emergency preparedness models focus on three distinct stages: planning, response and recovery. We started working with clients in January to plan their response to the pandemic – although we weren’t sure how bad it would be. Over the past few weeks, companies have been responding to the emergency. During that time, some companies have developed remote working capacity and to ramped up operations into this “new normal.” But, we’re also in planning mode again now – planning for the “great reoccupancy” in the future.

Q: You really started preparing in January?

Fischer: Yes. We didn’t know how bad this would be, but we learned from watching the outbreak in China that contact precautions were key. So, we worked with clients to get more hand sanitizer stations in every elevator lobby. We also encouraged more frequent disinfection of “high touch” surfaces – door knobs, elevator buttons, etc. There are so many companies that didn’t do that – or at least didn’t do it early enough. By the time many companies realized this was serious, it was difficult – or impossible – to find the supplies they needed.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty typical for companies to have decent emergency plans, but they languish on a shelf. In this case, one of the reasons this pandemic “snuck up” on us is that some people did not take the threat very seriously. And, even those clients who were ahead of the game in the early days of the pandemic could not have fathomed how quickly the situation evolved.

Q: What’s the next big decision for your clients?

Fischer: “What am I going to do about the rent?” My suggestion for landlords is take a deep breath. Decisions about rent will not be made globally – they’ll be individualized. Most landlords are willing to meet the mom-and-pop companies where they are. They’re less likely to offer concessions to the national and international companies. That’s where many will make the dividing line.

Q: What’s your ‘blue ocean’ strategy?

Fischer: The key for real estate managers is to take advantage of this down time. Since there are very few people in your building now, what about spruce-up projects and capital improvements?

What about things you have trouble getting done when the building is fully occupied? If that is in your budget for 2020, why not do it now? Many vendors are looking for work right now, so maybe you’ll get a better price. You will also be helping the economy.

Q: What’s an example?

Fischer: When water in a building remains immobile, as is the case during our social distancing/work remotely reality, biofilms begin to develop. The chlorine in the water breaks down, and the chance that microorganisms will grow in the water supply increases. Throughout the shutdown, building managers should make sure the water is being flushed through the system. Somebody has to have that on the radar screen. And, before bringing tenants back into the building, if you need to get a microbiology testing company lined up, do it now.

Q: But should the buildings stay empty?

Fischer: Right now, social distancing and strategic closings are really important. You have to balance maintaining the buildings with keeping people out of them. Stopping the building systems completely is a bad thing. For example, when building systems don’t run, motors and pumps might seize up. As part of the solution to keep COVID-19 from spreading, landlords should run the ventilation system more than normally. At the same time, this is a deadly disease, and we don’t want to put employees in harm’s way. According to the CDC estimates, there will be hundreds of thousands people who die from this disease. We need to understand it’s not just about throwing your entire engineering staff in the building and putting them at risk.

Q: When do you think we can we get “back to business?”

Fischer: This is the largest health crisis that we will ever see in our lives. It is something that might kill a couple a hundred thousand people in the U.S. alone. The business piece is really important but at the end of the day, it’s a public health crisis. If we get back to business too fast, it will be to the detriment of public health – and more people will die. During this crisis, I have enjoyed seeing who businesspeople really are. There are some CEOs giving up their salaries to make sure everybody gets paid. This is a great time to ask your team members how your company can help solve the problem – or at least make things a little bit easier for those who are suffering. What can you do to benefit society?

Q: How’s business for you personally?

Fischer: I’ve always worked from home so my environment didn’t change. A number of my clients have ramped up their COVID-related questions, so that part of my business has increased. But I also do a lot of teaching and speaking, and those engagements are all in limbo.

Q: How do you stay sane right now?

Fischer: I attend a virtual global happy hour. We gather remotely on Friday night with a group of real estate professionals around the world – former colleagues – to check in on one another. And, believe it or not, I have been a firefighter/paramedic in Howard County for more than 26 years. It sounds crazy, but working to help respond to this public health crisis is a stress release. I feel like I am doing “something” to make things better in our community.

By Susan Kim | Staff Writer | The Business Monthly

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